There are a few things you should know before you hit the ice.
By Trent Jonas
In northern latitudes, where rivers and lakes freeze hard, anglers must change up their tactics if they want to keep fishing during winter months. But it's not as simple as making a hole in the ice and dropping a line. There are a few things you need to consider before loading up your key and heading out onto the ice. From understanding local regulations to staying warm, here's how to get started in ice fishing.
Just like regular-season fishing, ice fishing is typically regulated at the state level. This means that, in many states, there are designated seasons, limits, and bodies of water that are open to ice fishing. Check your state’s fishing regulations before you head out so you know when and where to fish, as well as how many and what species of fish you can take.
The gear and tackle that you’ll need to hit a hole in the hard water tend to be specialized for ice fishing. First, you’ll need to clear any snow away from the place where you plan to cut your hole. So, if there’s a good amount of snow cover, a shovel is a good idea. Then, you’ll need a way to punch a hole in the ice. Some folks simply use a chainsaw to cut an ice fishing hole, but anglers more commonly use an ice auger. You can pick up a manual auger relatively inexpensively, but power augers, like the Strikemaster Lithium 40V Ice Auger, will do the job much more quickly and efficiently. Finally, bring along an ice skimmer to keep your hole open and free of floating ice chunks.
Because there is no casting involved, ice fishing rods are shorter and more lightweight than those you would normally use for angling. In fact, a longer rod would be a disadvantage because you’d have to stand a distance back from the hole. So, a proper ice fishing rig is necessary for successful hard-water fishing. Ice changes the way light that diffuses through water, so consider using fluorocarbon line to make yourself more invisible to the fish below. Finally, you’ll want a sled to haul all you’re gear out onto the ice.
Ice fishing doesn’t afford a whole lot of lateral movement, so the basic techniques consist of either jigging or baiting and waiting. The latter technique requires you to hold the rod and wait for a fish to bite—which can be rather numbing out on a cold lake. This is why many anglers opt to use tip ups, like those sold by Bass Pro Shops, to alert them when a fish bites. Tip ups are also critical if you’re fishing multiple holes.
Unless you know the fishery and its contours intimately, you’re basically fishing blind when you head out on the ice. There are no currents or other signs to help you identify where the fish may be holding. In colder weather, fish tend to be in deeper water. So, you’ll want a map or GPS with lake and river contours to help you find a good spot. Many anglers use a portable fish locator, like the Garmin Striker Plus 4 to help them know at what depth the fish are located—or whether they’re fishing a dead spot and need to relocate.
When you’re ice fishing, you’re heading out onto a sheet of ice that’s (hopefully!) several inches thick, often covered with snow, and exposed to unbroken wind—you’ll definitely want to dress for the occasion. Wear multiple layers with a wind and water-resistant outer layer. You’ll want waterproof gloves and boots—on sunny days, several inches of slush or water can form on top of the ice—as well as something to protect your face from the wind, like a balaclava.
Better yet, use an ice fishing shelter. A lot of folks use a semi-permanent ice fishing house (often with amenities like heat and satellite TV) that they leave in a single place. Fortunately, for those who are just starting out or prefer to be more mobile, there are plenty of lightweight, easy-to-set-up portable shelters out there, like the Eskimo Quickfish 2i. Toss it on your sled, and you’ll be out of the wind in minutes.