The Fundamentals of Ice Fishing

Dating back to Neanderthals of the Pleistocene Age, ice fishing is the oldest winter pastime that still exists today (unless you count walking in the snow). While spears and jagged rocks have been replaced by fishing poles and augers over the years, the sport has subsisted over time because it is simple, rewarding and conducive to male bonding (OK, we assumed the last one). If you haven’t partaken in this enduring recreational activity, here’s the information you need to know in order to enjoy your time on the ice (as opposed to going home empty-handed or freezing to death).

First Thing’s First
Purchase a fishing license if you live in a state or province that requires it for ice fishing endeavors (most do). If you’re unsure, contact local officials with the U.S. Forest Service, Department of Fish & Wildlife, or any other federal agency with jurisdiction on public recreational lands. Licenses are fairly inexpensive, while fines for not having a valid one can cost you hundreds of dollars.

Pole Results
Most standard fishing rods are too long to use for ice fishing, so you’ll need to pick up a customized pole. According to Tim Allard of Bass Pro Shops, a 28-inch, medium-action jiggling rod is “a standard piece of gear for all ice anglers.” But ultimately, the ice rod should be chosen based on the species you hope to encounter. For instance, fishing for lake trout will require a heavier rod, while perch or walleye can be caught with lighter models. Bait, lures and rigs will also vary depending on the desired fish; live bait or flashy jiggling lures are most commonly used. Allard recommends a “multi ice-rod approach” in order to increase your odds of catching multiple fish.

An alternative to the jiggling rod is the tip-up rod, a stick outfitted with a spring-loaded reel. When a fish nibbles on the line, the spring activates and reels it in. Some tip-up rods feature a flag or bell to signal the catch.

Equipment Checklist
In addition to your rod, bait/lures and fishing license, be sure to pack the following items for your ice fishing excursion:

  • Auger: Essentially an ice drill that’s available as a manual (crank) or electric device; most experts recommend the latter, since effective ice fishing often requires multiple holes and manual drilling can be physically strenuous.
  • Spud Bar: A metal hand tool used to chisel the ice and establish the initial hole; usually 3 to 5 feet in length.
  • Skimmer: A metal ladle used to scoop ice and slush out of the hole.
  • Gaff: A pole (generally 2 to 3 feet in length) outfitted with a hook on one end that is used to pull wriggling fish out of the hole.
  • Electric Heater: Used to keep the hole from freezing over.
  • Flasher (optional): Purists may argue against using this SONAR-based device (similar to a Fishfinder), but it effectively gauges water depth and tracks how many (or few) fish are swimming beneath you.

To Shanty or Not to Shanty?
Some folks prefer to ice fish alfresco, while others would rather wait for nibbles within the cozy confines of a fishing shanty. You can go the rudimentary route by throwing a plastic tarp over a plywood frame, or invest in something more expensive like a wooden or aluminum model. To each their own – but please note that some agencies require shanty owners to register their structure, leave it open for surprise inspections from local officials and vacate the lake when the ice begins to soften.

What to Wear
Your ice-fishing trip will probably take place in the dead of winter (at least it should, experts say), and lake surfaces are essentially wind tunnels – so bundle up with multiple layers, including a jacket with a hood and thick gloves to keep the frostbite fairies away. To avoid any slippage on the ice, strap a pair of spikes or metal cleats (known in the ice fishing world as ‘creepers’) onto your waterproof boots.

Ice fishing is fun, but it can also be potentially hazardous. To avoid literally treading on thin ice, use your auger to determine the depth of the ice before you set foot on it. Generally speaking, the ice should measure between 3 and 6 inches for foot traffic, and 7 to 10 inches for vehicles. As you proceed across the lake, drill periodic holes to ensure that the ice is uniformly thick; this is especially important during the latter months of winter, when Mother Nature goes into gradual defrost mode.

Finally, after covering trivial topics like necessary equipment and personal safety, we reach the most important ice-fishing topic: alcoholic beverages. While you’re on the ice, should you drink a can of macrobrew or some obscure craft concoction? Tim and Doug from the video blog, Here for the Beer, argue that a coffee-infused microbrew is the way to go.

However, according to a recent article in Slate by Mark Garrison, there is actually scientific proof that light, relatively flavorless beers (you know which ones we mean) are the best choice for frigid surroundings. Thick, flavorful microbrews are best served at roughly 50 degrees Fahrenheit – otherwise the cold kills their aromatic qualities. Macrobrews, on the other hand, taste better cold because the low temperature “masks the flaws”.

Enjoy your time on the ice this winter!

By Brad Nehring