Nice Ice

by Louis Bignami

Ice fishing suffers from its image as a macho survival ordeal. You can ski or snowshoe into remote lakes and sweat through snow drifted high on top of thick ice. You can turn your back to frigid snow and sleet. You can shiver out the day as line freezes to rod guides and fingers freeze to your reel. You can strain cold coffee through teeth chipped on frozen sandwiches. Macho masochists can even fall through the ice or drift out into the Great Lakes on a floe. However, if you only like to sweat in saunas and like ice best to cool drinks, you can take the easy way to fun fish on nice ice.

So, unless you like to suffer, start on a sunny windless day when sun block and sun glasses replace parkas. Pick a pond or a sheltered bay on a lake out of the wind. Find a safe spot with other ice fishermen who can help you learn the basics. Ask friends and tackle shop veterans about hot spots, the best lures or baits and, most important, safe ice.

Even when you ski in, you may find shore fishing safest.

PHOTO: ANNETTE BIGNAMI

Avoid ice that looks dark or is thinner than a couple of inches. Take special care over springs or in inlets that feed warmer water into the lake. Avoid ponds if water levels drop fast and shelf ice on larger bodies of water on windy days. So fish over shallow water; fish on days without wind and cast into open inlets from shore and "when in doubt, don't!"

You don't need special tackle to catch yellow perch, trout and panfish either. Hand lines work. So does summer tackle. Limber twigs jammed into the ice suit the budget-minded where multiple store-bought tip ups are legal. Add light two to four pound test, which is less obvious than heavier line in the crystal clear water under the ice. Hide small hooks in red worms, meal worms, minnows and other bait and sink the bait with tiny shot.

Quite small holes are big enough for most fish.

PHOTO: ANNETTE LUCIDO

If you like more action, jig tiny spoons like Swedish Pinples or Kastmasters. Vertical Rappalas that swim round and round when jigged work well too. So do all sorts of "glob on" baits like Berkeley's Power Bait®. Do carry an assortment and remember to keep baits reasonably warm. It's tough enough to try to get a tiny hook in a salmon egg when the egg's thawed. Frozen worms are difficult to thread on hooks too.

Bait fishing requires a close watch on your line as it's difficult to feel gentle bites when you wear mittens. Then too, fish often nose lures, instead of striking, under the ice. In all cases don't jerk, set the hook lightly so you don't break the light line. Do keep your rod tip submerged or controlled, or your hand line situated so your line doesn't rub, chafe or snap on the rough edge of your hole. Play fish. take your time. Enjoy the struggle.

Then, when you ease the fish out onto the ice don't grab it with mittened or icy bare hands if it sheds the hook! Just flip your bucket, plywood or carpet square over your fishing hole and retrieve your catch at your leisure.

The only specialized item you may need for ice fishing is an ice auger, the most expensive, largest and least convenient ice fisherman's tool. If you ice fish with a crowd, you can probably borrow the use of an auger for your first trip too.

However, so many fishermen fill and mark holes with little mounds of ice chips or snow when they finish so other fishermen don't stick a foot through the skim ice that forms on old holes, that you can reopen these holes with a small pick or a spud -- a long-handled chisel. Then just skim off ice chips with a strainer. The wire strainers sold with woks work well.

If you spud, keep holes small -- four or six inches in diameter's plenty even for a five pound trout. If you can't find old holes, or want to open your own new location, use an ax, spud or auger. Borrow or rent to see which suits you best; then save at season-end sales if you get hooked on ice fishing.

Warm and Dry in the Cold and Wet

Don't wear too many clothes. Your usual cold weather clothing and a spare pair of dry gloves or mittens and a spare wool watch cap should do the job. Do shed layers or crack zippers when augering in or dragging gear to the water to avoid sweat.

Dry clothing keys comfort on ice. You need a lot of layers when you sit still over a single hole. Some active younger types in areas where you can fish more than one line at a time beat this problem with cross-country skis or skates. With multiple holes the rule is, of course, that the quality of the bite is in direct proportion to the distance you have to run, ski, skate or skid to the action!

Cold feet, along with cold fingers, are a major problem on the ice. Pacs or heavy rubber boots over several pairs of wool socks help. Add gaiters if you slog through snow to the ice so snow melt doesn't run into your boots. A two foot square piece of wood or indoor-outdoor carpet insulates your feet from cold ice.

Sit on a stool or an insulated cushion on a five gallon bucket that can tote gear to the ice. Lug a snow shovel if there's snow on the ice. Consider a kid's sled to haul gear if you enjoy extras such as space heaters, camp stoves, wind shields or tents and the like. You might try a soft towel to dry hands too.

One year I even rigged a dog harness to my sled. That worked very well until pup took off after a deer!

Location! Location! Location!

"Think summer" if you open your own holes. The same points, inlets and springs that attract fish in summer, hold them in winter. Water from three to twenty feet deep seems to hold most fish. Start a line of holes near shore and open several 30 to 40 yards apart. Otherwise, keep an eye out for holes other fishermen have left. It's quite easy to reopen these. Do realize that good manners require you to fill old holes and leave an ice mound on top so unwary walkers don't put a foot through into frigid water.

We use a portable battery-powered depth finder through the ice and spud or auger in only where we spot fish. Puddle salad oil on the ice for a good transducer contact and a clear image. Don't, as some "experts" suggest, use antifreeze. Antifreeze poisons dogs that drink it.

Don't waste time with random holes if you own a depth finder -- most units from boats convert to portables with add-ons from the manufacturer. Otherwise, a small battery works. Do try to keep batteries reasonably warm. We rarely, for example, set finder cases directly on the ice. A spare battery suits weekend trips, or you can recharge batteries at night.

After you open four or five holes, return to your first and try it for fifteen minutes. The noise of spudding or augering in frightens fish; it takes time for them to settle down. So don't kick tackle boxes, stomp cold feet or make other loud noises.

You can also use a moving transducer system to spot fish laterally. Simply clamp your transducer onto a wooden dowel at a 90 degree angle. Stick the transducer through the ice and watch the returns as you angle the transducer head under the ice. Tip: pencil an arrow onto the top of the dowel so you know which direction fish lurk.

If you don't take a fish just off the bottom in fifteen minutes, try your luck three feet under the ice. If you neither catch nor see fish in 30 minutes, move to another hole. If you catch a fish, stay for a bit. Fish under the ice often school and where you take one, you can take another. Fishermen know this. They school too. So check for ice shacks or fishermen that often perch over fish below the ice. After you try all your holes with one method; start over with a different bait or switch to lures. Finding fish is usually harder than getting them to bite, so keep moving!

No matter your result, leave the ice after three hours or so. If you leave when still interested, rather than staying until you get cold or bored, you should return home anxious to return when conditions insure a nice day on the ice.

Improving Bottom Cover

In some areas anglers and fish and game experts truck or drag concrete blocks, weighted Christmas trees and other items out onto the ice. These sink when the ice melts. Projects like these offer a good feeling, and good PR, for local fishing and sporting clubs.