Walleyes are popular catch among ice anglers.
Walleyes are popular catch among ice anglers.

Mother Nature has jumped the gun across much of the nation, offering winter conditions before the official onset of the season and giving ice fishermen their earliest chance in years to get out on the ice and enjoy their favorite winter sport.

If you wish to join the frigid-digit fraternity of anglers who enjoy winter fishing most of all, there are a few things to know before setting out on the ice and expecting success. If you are a first-time ice angler, there is plenty of information available on the Internet, at libraries and bookstores, sporting goods stores, and local bait shops. The best advice I can offer is to contact a fishing friend who ice fishes and pick his or her brain, and invite yourself along on their next trip in exchange for buying lunch or the bait for the day.

Tackle basics

Ice fishing tackle is relatively inexpensive when compared to other fishing gear, and you can use your regular open-water rods and reels and smaller lures for ice fishing. If you purchase special, short ice fishing rods and simple reels, use light, flexible jigging rods for panfish, and small #10 or #12 hooks knotted to equally light mono or fluorocarbon line in four- to 10-pound test, and small bobbers. Ice jigs, flies, and teardrop lures tipped with live larval baits or small minnows are popular preferred for panfish, while larger minnows, minnow-imitating jigs, and traditional jugs tipped with live minnows are good for larger gamefish such as walleyes, bass, and pike—which may require heavier-duty ice-rods and reels.

An ice auger will be needed for drilling fishing holes in the ice, and come in manual, gas-powered, and electric-powered models. Manual-powered hand augers cost under $50 and are fine for drilling holes through ice less than a foot or so thick.

A common five-gallon plastic bucket is a popular multi-use accessory among ice anglers. It serves as a tackle tote, a seat during fishing, and later becomes a container for transporting the catch of the day. Skimmers are also an important tool; a long-handled ladle with a shallow, sieved bowl, it is used to scoop out slush or chips which may obstruct a fishing hole.

Augers are needed to get through the ice and to the fish; power augers make the job easier when the ice is thick.
Augers are needed to get through the ice and to the fish; power augers make the job easier when the ice is thick.

First ice action

Ice fishing action for bluegills and other panfish can be fast and furious during what is called “first ice,” the first ice of the season to form thick enough to support fishermen. Pursuing relatively easy-to-catch panfish offers a great way for beginners to get their feet (and hopefully little else) wet learning the winter techniques, safety concerns, and cold weather attire required to enjoy the sport.

Any time of the season panfish make up the majority of the fish caught through the ice, including bluegill and other sunfish, crappies, trout, and yellow perch. Gamefish such as walleye, bass, and northern pike are also popular catches through the ice. Regardless of the species, fish caught from frigid water are the best-tasting of the season because the meat is firm and flaky—and because all it takes to store them correctly is tossing the catch out onto the ice, they are likely to stay that way until the fish are ready to take home for the frying pan.

Safety on ice

Safety is paramount when ice fishing. Never go ice fishing alone, make sure family and friends know your destination in case an emergency occurs, and keep your cell phone charged and handy. At least three inches of clear ice is the minimum considered by most veteran ice anglers when setting out on foot, but authorities will caution that there is no such thing as “safe” ice, due to changing conditions above and below the ice.

New, clear ice is usually stronger than old ice. As ice ages, the bond between the crystals decays, making it more dangerous and weaker even if melting has not occurred. Ice fishermen refer to this as “rotten” ice. River ice had been found to be as much as 15 percent weaker than pond or lake ice, and wind is one of the most destructive elements of ice and related conditions, especially on large bodies of water. There, the wind can cause expanses of ice to break away, often stranding ice anglers on free-floating floes.

While snow can insulate ice and keep it strong, it can also insulate it to keep it from freezing solid. When ice is covered by snow, extra precautions need to be taken to determine ice thickness before starting any activity. Snow can also hide cracked, weak, and open water areas.

Jigging spoons tipped with bait are a popular combo for fooling gamefish through the ice. Sometimes just the head of a minnow works better than the whole enchilada.
Jigging spoons tipped with bait are a popular combo for fooling gamefish through the ice. Sometimes just the head of a minnow works better than the whole enchilada.

One method for checking ice involves using metal “spud” bar, which can be carried and used to test the thickness and soundness of the ice ahead as you proceed. In addition to the spud bar, anglers should take a 20-foot or longer length of rope to toss to anglers who have fallen through the ice.

Ice picks are also recommended to help you gain traction to pull yourself out of the hole should your break through. Ice picks can be purchased, made from screw drivers, or constructed using broom handles or inch-diameter dowel rods, cut six to eight inches long, with a large spike or nail driven into in one end. Some anglers attach two picks with a six-foot cord that they run through their coat sleeves to keep the picks dangling at hand, like school-kids’ mittens, for emergency use.

Near-shore fishermen who are unsure about the ability of the ice to support them will tie a rope around a strong tree on the shore and tie the other end of the rope around their chest just under the armpits—just in case.

Heat concerns

Hypothermia, the severe loss of body heat due to exposure to cold, is of special concern to ice anglers. Warm, preferably wool, clothing should be worn, as wool continues to insulate even when wet. Layering clothing to maintain a balanced body temperature is best using a thermal layer close to the skin to absorb body moisture, an insulating material for warmth, and a protective water-resistant layer on top. Always take an extra set of clothing and keep it handy in case you do get wet. And keep your head covered, where a good amount of body heat is lost. Consider wearing a life jacket or float coat. Not only will they provide flotation, but both will insulate the torso and slow the effects of hypothermia.

Going by its frigid early start, this could be one of the longest ice fishing seasons in recent memory, so gear-up, get out there, and enjoy the action!

Images by Dan Armitage

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