As winter outdoor recreation goes, it’s hard to beat ice fishing. During the rest of the angling year, it might be difficult to access certain waters. During the so-called “hard water” months, you simply walk on it. To catch fish, it helps to know some fundamentals. Let’s look at gear considerations first.
ICE GEAR BASICS
For starters, you’ll need a way to cut through the ice, angling gear to fish your bait or lures, a place to seek shelter from the elements and other optional items.
Ice Cutting: Typically this is done with a “spud” (basically a long chisel; a heavy metal bar with a sharp beveled blade), or an auger, also called an “ice drill” (either hand-, electric- or gas-powered). Study the owner’s manual before, during and after your ice time for maximum efficiency and safety. Auger extensions are also available for the thickest seasonal ice.
Tip-Ups: You can opt for a tip-up—a plastic or wooden frame supporting a spring-held flag. These are dubbed “traps” in some regions such as northern New England. When a fish grabs the live or dead bait it runs, triggering the mechanism. The spool turns as the fish moves off and line pays out.
Too much line resistance? The fish might drop the bait. Apply just enough tension to feel the fish move off steadily (but without it detecting your line). Wait. Tighten up the line on the spool. Set the hook with a deliberate jerk of the hand. Pull in the line, keep it tight, fight the fish and draw it up through that hole in the ice. Don’t want to keep it? Slide your catch back in the water.
Ice Rods: For jigging lures and bait, nothing beats an ice rod. Such a jigging pole or stick provides a direct connection to the fish you’ve hooked. Some rods are simple sticks while others rival larger spin casting rods. Some anglers lower the bait and let the rod sit until the line pays out (watch the fish doesn’t pull it right in; open the reel’s bail to avoid this).
Ice Reels: Put simply, reels hold line. Drag tension affords settings to fight fish based on size and need. Close-faced spin casting, open bait casting and spinning reels all work. You can carry different reels spooled with heavier or lighter lines depending on the fish you’re after.
Lures, Hooks and Bait: Baitfish imitations rule in the form of fluttering spoons jigged on rods for trout and walleye, plus tiny ice lures (jigs and even weighted flies) for game fish such as smaller panfish. Hooks should be small enough to (mostly) hide in the minnows, worms, grubs or even manmade imitations (available at many bait shops). Store bait in minnow buckets or bait containers with small holes in the lid (to carry live mealworms, grubs, etc.).
Movement: Lures and bait can be imparted with life-like movements in a number of ways. You can add twitching, jerking, wide sweeps, lifts and drops, and even bottom-bumping to entice fish to move and take your offerings. Some fish like lake trout and cusk (the freshwater cod-like quarry used in chowders) may even take a motionless dead bait lying near the bottom.
Shelter: Ice shacks or bobhouses can be made to resemble small houses with room for a table, shelves for lamps and other gear, with doors for entry and even cots for napping. Portable shelters are the rage in some areas—they’re lightweight, roomy and allow you to move to other fishing spots when one doesn’t prove out.
Hole Hardware: You’ll need a metal skimmer to keep your holes free of ice and slush. You can even make or purchase a “hole cover” to keep open water in that hole you’re fishing through from freezing up.
Gear Resource: For hauling ice fishing gear, angling those depths below and staying comfortable while doing it, check out Clam Outdoors at clamoutdoors.com.
You can gamble, and just drop bait through the hole, and wait passively. Or you can fish for a particular species with deliberate intent. Certain ice-fishing species favor specific habitats and conditions. Knowing where they’ll be helps you catch them more effectively.
Panfish: Dubbed this since they’re fish that will fit in a pan, bluegills, perch and crappies often provide consistent winter action when others won’t. Still, this doesn’t mean they’re pushovers. Use thin 2-pound test lines, small hooks, and tiny baits (bits of worm or small shiners) to fool this tasty quarry. Such fish often take bait gently with a tap-tapping. Set the hook when you detect this.
Bass: Winter largemouth and smallmouth bass tend toward the lethargic. Loafing under the ice, they’ll respond to jigging and even well-placed bait. In my experience dropping your line’s business end on the edge of weed beds and along drop-offs provides options for these staged game fish.
TROUT: Rainbow trout seem to prefer bait lowered just several feet below the ice, even if the maximum depth is much deeper. Opportunists that they are, lake trout (or “togue” to native New Englanders) tend to take big baitfish just off the lake bottom.
Walleyes & Pike: Regional offerings for various fish such as upper Midwest walleyes in big lakes and Atlantic coast smelt in tidal waters rely on local lore, fish movements and predator/prey relationships. Northern pike and chain pickerel hang in structure beneath the ice, often in fairly shallow water, and move fast to strike prey (and your fluttering baitfish). Walleyes hang close to the bottom. Adjust your techniques and locations accordingly.
Water Depths: Depth maps detail maximum and minimum distinctions in water levels. As an angler, you can use this information to target drop-off locations where some game fish tend to stage in winter. Other species you’ll find in shallower waters.
Weather Patterns: Weather (and daylight, or lack of) can influence fish feeding binges. A mild day above freezing temperatures with solid ice can put fish on the bite, while a lingering deep freeze can put them off. Heavy snow cover piled up on the ice overhead sometimes sees winter fish feed during brighter daylight hours. Alternately, clear ice on sunny days might reveal low-light biting tendencies. Low light periods at daybreak and dusk are often productive.
LIMITS: Legal keeper limits vary between frozen waters in some cases. Only haul home what you can eat as well. A half-dozen panfish per person is a good number to go by for weekend fish fries. One five-pound lake trout will feed several people. Release the rest through the same hole from which you caught them.
The key to successful ice fishing involves: 1) Knowing the fish you’re after and how to catch them, and 2) Staying safe out there on the frozen water while you do it.Manage both and you’ll enjoy this winter recreational opportunity as much as others the rest of the calendar year.
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