Ice has a mind of its own, and there’s nothing like hearing it “talk” when you’re ice fishing. A long pong followed by a crack screaming across the ice, sometimes making the water jump up out of your hole, will get your heart racing faster than anything. While this is typically a good sign of the ice expanding, it’s still a shock. More menacing features are the pressure ridges formed during more radical expansion and contraction of the ice. ANd you never know what the current is doing below the hardened surface, which why it’s imperative to always be vigilant.
Where the winters are long and cold, the lure of hard water beckons anglers to try their skills through the ice. Although steeped in the stereotypical image of the movie “Grumpy Old Men,” ice fishing is a terrific away to spend time outside. There’s also the added bonus of bringing home a delicious dinner.
We usually venture onto the ice when it’s at least 8 inches thick after an extended period of cold weather. However, we never take it for granted. Every year there are reports of people or equipment going through the ice; this is usually due to bad judgment. But it’s important to remember it’s never 100-percent safe. According to the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources, new ice is safe for one person to walk on when it’s 4 inches thick, ATVs or snowmobiles at 5 inches, a car or small pickup truck at 8 to 12 inches, and a medium truck at 12 to 15 inches thick. When we have freezing and thawing episodes later in the winter, the ice becomes sketchy. Last year we had a brutally long winter, and there were still frozen lakes in April, but that doesn’t mean they were safe.
With these considerations in mind, when we go out on the ice, we still make the most of a day hauling out what we need to stay comfortable regardless of the conditions and hopefully bringing home fish for dinner or the freezer.
Like a lot of outdoor activities, you can keep it simple or gear up to the hilt. On the minimal end, all you really need to ice-fish is an auger to drill the hole, a strainer to scoop out the ice, a fishing rod with bait and tackle, and a bucket to sit on so you don’t freeze your tush off. From there, you can step up to improve your comfort level and oftentimes your success.
For our family, a shelter is a must. The wind makes life miserable if you can’t step out of it. We use a pop-up ice house. It goes up in minutes with very little effort and folds back into a neat and easily transportable bundle. It’s remarkable how comfortable temperatures well below freezing (and even below zero) can be when you’re out of the wind.
If it’s going to be particularly cold, we also bring a portable propane heater, such as the Mr. Heater Little Buddy that has a low-oxygen detector since we are using it within an enclosed space. My goal in life is never to be a headline; with that in mind, asphyxiating in our ice house is something I wish to avoid.
As far as augers go, we still use a hand auger. Besides being less expensive than a power auger, it’s lighter and easier to carry. It can typically cut through the foot-thick ice without a problem. In regions where the ice is thicker, you might want to invest in a gas- or battery-powered auger since it’s a considerable amount of work to drill multiple holes. Once you drill the hole , use the strainer to draw out the ice hunks, draining out the water as much as possible before setting the ice aside.
The rods we use for fishing through the ice are much shorter than regular fishing rods, only up to 3 feet long versus twice that length. So they’re easy to handle and have a lively action. They also tend to have a light touch so you can feel the most tentative kokanee salmon nibble on your bait. A holder for the rod is also handy if you’re not going to sit there the entire time. It’s no fun to lose your rod down the hole if a trout grabs it when you’re not there.
Another tool that is popular with ice fishing is what is called a tip-up. Basically, it is a triggering device used to catch pike and sometimes trout. We set the platform over the hole and we lower the line, typically baited with smelt, to the desired depth in the water. Then the flag is secured in the “ready” position. When the fish grabs the bait, the movement releases the trigger. Then the flag flies up, letting you know that you have a fish on the line. Although this is a passive way to fish, there’s a particular adrenaline rush when you look outside the ice house and see a flag waving back—you can’t help but run over to check it.
A lot of the tackle is the same as that used during warm-season angling. Kastmaster spoons are excellent with trout, and tube jigs in bright colors are used for all sorts of panfish. But Swedish pimples, jigging minnows and spoons are the go-to tackle for everything from sunfish to walleye. And as for bait, maggots and pieces of worms have been our tasty natural tidbits of choice. You can also opt for Gulp leeches or minnows. For larger fish like pike, an entire smelt might be dangled on the end of the multi-pronged hook to tempt the voracious predator.
And, like open-water angling, presentation is everything. Fishing through the ice requires you to know what level the fish are swimming at. When sharing the day’s successes (or failures), one of the most common questions is, “How deep were you fishing?” Knowing whether the fish are cruising 6 feet below the ice or all the way at the bottom is critical.
This is why many anglers use a fish finder — or at least a camera — to help them gain a better perspective of what’s happening below the hardened surface. We’ve used sonic fish finders to help identify where the fish are congregating. This gives us a better idea of where to drill holes, especially when there’s a lot of lake to cover. Many of these finders are highly accurate and can sort out fish from heavy weeds.
Fish cameras are a big hit with kids. It is really neat to be able to watch the perch or some other fish eye your bait, although it can be enormously frustrating to watch them simply swim in front of it and just look at it. We’ve brought the camera along on many occasions, if for no other reason than simple entertainment value.
On the big sled that we’ve purchased specifically to haul everything out onto the ice, we stack the ice house, auger, bucket with the fishing rods, scoop and the ever-important cooler filled with snacks. Sometimes we also bring out the runner sled to be able to help carry some of the gear. Plus, it’s fun to have Luna, our lab, pull the boys around when the fishing is slow.
Once we’re in an area that we think is a good prospect for a perch, my husband, Grant, starts drilling holes. He also might put down the sounder to see if there is anything in the area. Oftentimes, we’ll fish in this area for a few minutes without setting up the ice house; this is just to see if there are any hits. If there aren’t, we usually move on to another area and try again.
After we find a good spot, Grant drills a couple holes. He then sets up the ice house over them to give us the option of fishing inside. We put a tarp on most of the floor so we’re not sitting directly on the ice. Then we pull out the rods. It’s really neat fishing from inside the ice house because when you’re in that dark enclosure, the ice literally glows from the bottom up. Depending on the clarity of the water and the depth at which we’re fishing, we can often watch our lures without the assistance of a fish camera. This makes for an entertaining experience.
We also drill holes outside the ice house. Why? Because we want to soak up every moment on the nice sunny days. Grant often sets up tip-ups for trout when we’re on Holter Lake or on Lake Frances if we’ve traveled a little farther to catch pike.
Jigging can take a bit of finesse since you need to give your lure movement that mimics live bait. However, you don’t want so much movement that you’ll scare the fish. Think like a fish with your presentation, and adjust it depending on your intended species. For instance, kokanee salmon respond well to a fluttering motion deep in the water. Meanwhile, perch sometimes hit at a faster jigging motion.
Even when the fish aren’t biting, we try to make the most of our fishing days by playing on the ice with Luna, reading or just relaxing and enjoying the beautiful views around us. But when the fish are lively, it can be a busy time attending to our lines and taking advantage of the school passing by our area.
If you’ve never been ice fishing before, the best way to start is to talk to your local sporting goods store. They’ll likely be able to outfit you with the minimum gear you need. They’ll also connect you with someone who is more than happy to take you out fishing. The sport not only helps the winter to go by faster, but its rewards make for a delicious end to the day.