After my dire prediction about ice fishing prospects, it now looks as though some ice could happen after all. Thanks to age and bitter experience, I have no plans of doing any ice fishing myself. The column will be geared toward those neophytes who are contemplating trying the sport for the first time, based on my own experience and that of several others. It should be noted that the sport involves considerable frustration, hard work and, often, cold that is nothing short of brutal. If you are still interested in giving it a try, you might find the following information useful. For starters, we’ll assume that you have made sure that the ice is of sufficient thickness to support you and your activities.
Before you can fish, you have to make a hole in the ice, and for that you’ll need an auger. They are available in hand powered and gasoline powered models. Since even the hand powered models are pretty expensive, it’s a good idea to rent an auger the first couple of times out. That way, you can decide if you like ice fishing enough to justify the expense of buying one. Nearly every ice-fishing lake has bait and tackle shops nearby which rent augers. Be sure that your auger is good and sharp, because drilling a hole in the ice with a dull auger is an unbelievably difficult task.
The two basic ice fishing techniques are setlining and jigging. In setlining, you use a device known as a tip-up, which is placed either over or beside the hole in the ice. A small spool or reel holds the line. You just lower your bait to the desired depth. When a fish hits, a spring-loaded flag pops to alert the angler, who then hauls in the fish handline style. Be sure to read your license manual carefully to insure compliance with rules regarding number of lines allowed, size of holes and other restrictions.
With jigging, you use a short rod with a cheap reel attached to it. Some rods have a reel built into them. You can jig your bait up and down, or just let it sit. Whatever works at any given time.
Almost any species of fish can be caught through the ice. It is, however, pretty rare to catch carp, catfish or suckers. Panfish are the favorites of many anglers. Since they’re plentiful, they provide more action, thereby reducing boredom, and making the angler a bit less aware of the cold. Small fathead minnows are a favorite bait for perch and crappies, while small insect larvae are used for other panfish. Tiny jigs and spoons worked up and down will sometimes produce, too. Even though panfish are willing feeders, you must work your bait more slowly, as the fish can be a little sluggish.
When fishing for larger fish, like walleyes or northerns, you will, of course, need heavier lines and larger baits. You still have to fish slowly.
Without a doubt, the nastiest problem confronting the hard water angler is cold. When you’re out on a lake, there’s little to break the wind, which is often really wicked. Dressing warmly presents a solution, but it can also lead to a problem. If you’re bundled up a lot, you tend to sweat a lot when drilling holes. Once you sit down, you start to chill. It’s best to remove a layer or two during the drilling process. Hands and feet are especially susceptible, so take the proper precautions to protect them.
When you come right down to it, the best way to experience ice fishing is with the services of a guide. Many charter guides rent nice little shanties, complete with a propane heater. They put you over the fish, drill the holes and provide all of the necessary gear. That seems like the ticket to me.