When the leaves begin to fall, most anglers store their rods for winter. Some may wait until the fall bite expires, but once the water hardens, the closest they come to fishing is probably the Saturday morning fishing shows. But instead of sitting through a long, cold winter waiting anxiously for spring, why not try some ice fishing? Winter anglers can consistently catch a variety of panfish as well as trout, northern pike, muskie, walleye and the occasional bass or catfish. Fish don’t stop feeding under the ice; they just eat a little more slowly.
Ice fishing equipment is simpler and less costly than its warmwater counterparts, beginning with rods and reels. There are just two basic types of ice fishing rods: the traditional tip-up or a 3-foot long, ultralight or light-action pole. The latter resembles a regular fishing rod only the eyes are bigger to prevent freeze-up. The tip-up acts much like a fishing mousetrap that sits on the ice with a spring-loaded line and hook. A flag pops up when a fish hits the baited tip-up.
Some anglers prefer the hand-held rod because it provides a little more action. A fisherman can feel the strike, adding to the excitement. Hand-held rods also offer the choice of using bait or artificial lures. Since almost all ice fishing is vertical, anglers using the short pole can work the lure or bait by jigging it under the water to entice the fish. The baited hooks used with the tip-ups usually just sit near the bottom. One advantage of the tip-up is you can set up more than one, but always check your local fishing regulations as to the number allowed.
Think light when it comes to ice fishing gear, except when it comes to clothing.
Reels are also downsized to match the smaller rods. Small closed-faced spinning reels are usually the preferred reel type, though “micro” sized open-face models work well, too. Some levelwind models also exist, designed especially for ice fishing.
Light line—2- to 6-pound test—is the norm for the smaller panfish. If the drag is working properly, that test line also should hold if you hook something bigger, such as a pike, muskie, lake trout or walleye. But if those toothy species are targeted, try heavier line or at least attach a leader of heavy monofilament or light wire.
Lures and bait, much like rods and reels, are also smaller when used for ice fishing. Most fall into the spoon or jig category and weigh between 1/64 and oz. These include small silver teardrop spoons, leadhead jigs of various shapes dressed with bucktail, hair or soft plastics, and a handful of wooden or plastic plug-like jigs that resemble baitfish. Grubs and mealworms are frequently added to panfish lures, but larger jigs and spoons are usually tipped with minnows to attract the bigger fish. Regardless of species, fish usually aren't as aggressive in winter, so a slower jigging motion is necessary.
Chopping a hole through the ice can be done using a hand-held chisel or power auger. The power auger works best if the ice is very thick, say 15-inches or more. Most long handled, metal chisels work fine but will take a little longer. Be sure to tie a line to the end of the chisel and hook it around your arm so it doesn't slip out of your gloved hands and down into the hole—lost forever. A slotted ladle also helps remove the ice chips from the hole after drilling, as well as those that form while fishing. Some tackle shops rent augers or other fishermen will drill holes for a fee. Or you could fish a "used hole." Get up early and find a used hole with only a thin layer of ice to poke through.
Before chopping, make sure the ice is safe and always proceed with caution. Six inches or more usually provides safe footing. Common sense, though works, best. Many fishermen fall through the ice because they are too eager to start the season, not willing to see it end, or don't pay attention to warming trends. Bring along a buddy. That way you have someone to keep you company, voice complaints when the fishing is slow, and provide help just in case something does happen.
Keeping warm shouldn't be a problem. Most clothing used for regular winter activities serves well while ice fishing. The key is to keep your head, hands and feet warm. A wool cap and jacket hood should provide enough head warmth. If stocking caps make you itchy, the newer insulated baseball caps with ear flaps work great. Neck warmers also keep the wind out. Ski shops, outdoor clothing stores and some catalogs carry everything you'll need.
You can keep hands toasty by just leaving them in your pockets if you're using a tip-up. A good pair of insulated mittens or gloves usually fit the bill for fishing with rod and reel, and a lot of ice anglers remove the glove’s last inch on the index finger for increased dexterity when fishing. Neoprene gloves also work, and many models have a hooded tip section over the index finger. Remember to dry your hands thoroughly after reeling in to prevent frostbite, and hand warmers really come in handy in extreme cold.
Insulated rubber boots and wool socks are fine for your feet. If you have the tendency for cold toes, electric socks (powered by battery) can keep your feet warm even in the coldest of climes. Boots that are too tight hinder circulation, so make sure you can wiggle your toes. Insulated underwear adds a layer of comfort.
Bring something to stand on, such as a piece of wood or cardboard, so you feet aren't in direct contact with the ice. And a 5-gallon bucket makes a great seat in addition to carrying your equipment.
A simple three-walled shelter can take the sting out of freezing wind.
Sheds, ice shanties or modified tents on ice runners are other ways to keep warm. Some are lightweight and compact enough to fold. Those little units can really keep out the cold, especially if equipped with a small stove or lantern.
Where To Fish, How To Catch Them
A good rule of thumb for locating fish under the ice is to try any area that produced fish in warmer weather. Fish travel more slowly in winter so your "hotspot" could last for days. Study maps of the pond or lake (found at many bait shops or state agencies). The mouth of feeder streams can be a key area because of the influx of food.
Catching a variety of fish means using different tactics. Panfish roam near weedbeds located by channels, drop-offs and deep-water points. Try small jigs tipped with waxworms, mealworms, red worms and grubs.
Cheese, ice spoons and larval baits can be deadly on trout. Fishing the deeper water where weeds are present can produce the bigger species. Walleye and northern pike feed on baitfish (shiners/minnows), but they also attack artificial look-alikes. Walleye like gravel-bottoms with bars and humps as well as deep grass and brush. Fish the deep edges of weed beds for pike. Depth finders can help you locate these areas.
Largemouth and smallmouth bass also are a possibility. However, they're more difficult to catch and are extremely sluggish in winter. The bass only seem to bite if the bait hits them on the head. Most are caught by accident.
When the action is a little slow, chumming (using bits of fish, worms or other baits) sometimes brings the fish. Grind or cut tiny pieces of bait then mix with dry oatmeal or crushed egg shells and place them in a weighted container called a "chum pot." Drop the pot into a hole near your line and it will attract smaller fish, which in turn, attracts the bigger ones.
If you're not sure where to start fishing, ask around. Local tackle shops near fishable waters can supply helpful hints. Or just take a quick survey of your favorite waterway. If there are plenty of other hardy souls like you out there, then it's a safe bet the action is good—or has potential anyway. After choosing a likely location, pull up a sled or bucket to sit on, light your camping lantern for extra warmth, pour a cup of hot coffee—and enjoy.