Ice Fishing

All Things Outdoors with Jim Zumbo

 

Mention the subject of ice fishing to someone who has never participated in the sport, and you’ll likely get a negative response. The sport is perceived to be one of serious discomfort caused by winter weather and enjoyed by lunatics who are tolerant of bitterly cold temperatures.

That’s an unfortunate perception because fishing through the ice can be not only enjoyable and comfortable but highly productive as well. Technology has enormously improved the gear we use for ice fishing, from portable shelters to fishing tackle, electronic equipment, ice augers, clothing, and many other items. One item that should be included in your gear list is a pair of cleats for your boots. They easily attach to your boot. If the ice is smooth, you’re apt to have difficulty in walking without slipping and sliding if you have smooth soles. Be certain to remove the cleats when you leave the ice. They can easily dull on rocks and gravel, and absolutely do not forget and wear them on someone’s nice hardwood floor! You could be in big trouble! 

Because lakes and ponds form safe ice during periods of prolonged cold weather, the sport is possible only in the north, though rare cold spells can produce safe ice in more balmy regions for short periods of time. Notice I say safe ice. Tragically, each year people drown because the ice is too thin to support their weight or the weight of their vehicles, including snowmobiles, ATVs, cars, and pickups. Here’s a rule of thumb from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources that’s widely accepted. Minnesota is probably the top ice fishing state in the country, given its thousands of lakes and the huge number of participants. I’ve seen a number of ice safety charts, but this one is undoubtedly the most credible.

 

FOR NEW, CLEAR ICE ONLY:

UNDER 4” – STAY OFF

4” – Ice fishing or other activities on foot

5”- 7” – Snowmobile or ATV

8”-12” – Car or small pickup

12”- 15” – Medium truck

Double the above thickness guidelines when traveling on white ice.

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WHITE ICE or “snow ice” is only about half as strong as new clear ice. Again, DOUBLE the above thickness guidelines when traveling on snow ice. Many factors other than thickness can cause ice to be unsafe. 

Be aware that many conditions may affect the relative safety of ice, such as air temperature, currents, underwater springs, and others. Ice is seldom the same thickness over a single body of water. Once, a buddy and I were riding on his ATV on a western Wyoming lake that had 18 inches of ice. We were a half-mile from shore when I saw some ducks land on the ice several hundred yards away. As we slowly approached, we saw the ducks were not sitting on ice. They were on open water the size of a quarter acre. We immediately backed off and chose another route. Obviously there was a warm water spring at the bottom of the lake under that spot. Another time several of us fished the huge Fort Peck Reservoir in eastern Montana. We were several miles from shore, sitting in our shelters, oblivious to weather fast approaching. Soon we were in the middle of a white-out blizzard. We hurriedly packed our gear and drove to shore, but visibility was less than 20 yards. We knew that there was a large area of open water near the dam close to our return route, but we couldn’t see it. Using GPS, we were able to slowly navigate our way back to our vehicles parked onshore. I firmly believe prayers helped us out of that dangerous situation.

Some personal items that can save your life if you break through the ice include a pair of awls. Attach them to the ends of a two-foot string and hang them over your collar, one on each side of your chest. If you fall in, it’s exceedingly difficult to climb back out because the edge of the broken ice allows nothing to grip on. Using each awl to punch into the ice will allow you some leverage to lift yourself out. There are also specialized garments that will allow you to float if you break through. Of course, a regular lifesaver vest will work as well, but they’re bulky and used by very few anglers. 

So now that you’ve determined the ice is safe, how do you keep warm on a frozen lake when the air temps are on the chilly or frigid side? When I was a kid growing up in upstate New York, my buddies and I simply wore our warmest clothes and stuck it out as long as we could, especially if the wind was blowing. If your time on the ice is flexible, you can “pick your battles,” as they say. Go out only on balmy, calm days, but that’s not always possible with our daily schedules. Interestingly, you can be on the ice when the temp is in the 30s, the wind is calm, and the sun is shining brightly, and be absolutely comfortable wearing only a lightweight shirt. The sun reflects heat off the ice, creating ideal conditions.

But what if it’s subzero and the wind is ripping? A human can stand only so much extreme cold if clothing and boots aren’t up to the task of protecting you. Frostbite can quickly cause serious injury. In extreme cases, you can suffer from hypothermia. Nowadays, many winter anglers have portable shelters that are compact and stow easily. Most can be quickly opened and set up in minutes. With the shelter in place, you then cut holes to fish from and put in some chairs and whatever electronic fish finders and devices you care to use. A portable heater makes your shelter warm and comfortable. Portable shelters have been on the scene for the last few decades. Prior to that, there were (and still are) wooden “shanties” that are complete with a door, windows, and other interior items. Most shanties are simple, with a place for a stove and comfortable chairs. Some shanties are elegant, consisting of two or three rooms with sofas, a kitchen, plenty of lights, and even a TV, all powered by a generator outside. When the ice is safe, shanties are towed out on a lake with an ATV, pickup, or farm tractor. If laws allow it, they remain on the ice all winter. Portable shelters can offer plenty of room as well. I spent several days and nights in one that was 12 by 16 feet. Though the wind gusted at 40 miles per hour and the temps were 30 below outside, we fared very well with a couple generator-powered heaters. 

Many years ago, my buddies and I rented a shanty every year on Lake Champlain shared by New York State and Vermont. It was equipped with a wood stove, benches to sit on, and a half-dozen holes already cut. The ice was 30 inches thick. We fished for yellow perch and smelt and paid $5 to rent it for a day. Of course, even though heated shanties or shelters will keep you warm when you’re inside, you may still need to bundle up if you fish outside the shanty (if the fish are biting better elsewhere), but at least you have the option of returning to the shanty to warm up. 

One big difference between ice fishing and open water fishing is the necessity of cutting a hole in the ice. It’s been interesting to watch the evolution of tools used to cut the hole. When I was a youngster, my father, uncles, and grandfather cut holes with a “spud bar,” which is basically a chisel about five feet long. It was usually a one-inch pipe filled with sand to add more weight. The cutting end was a sharp chisel, and the top end was welded closed, but it had a hole at the end of the pipe to affix the all-important rope. The rope was looped around your wrist, so if the bar punched through the ice and you lost your grip, it wouldn’t plunge to the bottom of the lake. My uncle was a welder and made spud bars for family and friends. One time I was using my grandfather’s spud bar and didn’t have the loop of the rope securely around my wrist. When the bar broke through the ice, the rope slipped off my wrist and sunk in 35 feet of water. I didn’t make that mistake again. Probably the worst tool you can use is a hatchet or axe. Once you’ve chopped through enough ice to reach the bottom, water will surge into the unfinished hole, and you’re apt to get soaked by freezing water splashing on you as you continue to chop. 

Spud bars have been replaced by other tools, though they’re still used by some folks. The bars gave way to hand augers that were used to drill the hole. Augers make short work of cutting a hole, provided it’s extremely sharp. If it’s dull, you’ll have your work cut out for you. It wasn’t long before power augers appeared on the market. At first, they were powered by gasoline, but now there are types that run on propane and even lithium batteries. You can also convert a standard power drill into an effective auger.

A big question is where to cut the holes. An easy answer is to look for the crowds. Anglers will be concentrated over the best areas. Most ice anglers are a friendly lot and are willing to share information. But if you’re on an unfamiliar lake or a farm pond and there’s no one fishing, you can cut holes in different areas and different distances from shore and experiment. By knowing your quarry, or primary target species, you can eliminate places not inhabited by the fish you hope to catch. Most serious ice anglers will not fish “blind” but will use a fish finder to locate fish. These devices use sonar to pinpoint the fish and the depth they’re swimming in. If you want to use even more technology, you can use an underwater camera that will actually show fish on a screen. Some anglers will punch a single hole and fish it. If there’s no action, they’ll cut another hole. Other fishermen will drill several holes — up to a couple dozen or more­ — and work their way around until the fish are located. 

Fishing rods used for ice fishing are highly specialized. They’re about 24 to 30 inches long with ultralight reels. This allows the angler to sit closer to the hole and work the lure up and down, which is called “jigging.” Fishermen usually cut two holes — one for the lure and one next to it for the cable that dangles under the sonar device, allowing the fisherman to watch the screen and manipulate the rod according to what the fish is doing. Lures are very small and are designed to be fished straight up and down. It’s common to hook a small grub or worm to the lure to make it more attractive to the fish. 

Another device is the “tip-up,” which has an underwater reel and sits on the ice over the hole. When a fish strikes the bait, almost always a live minnow, a small red flag is triggered and springs straight up. You don’t need to tend a tip-up. You can set out as many as the law allows. When you see a flag up, you race over, ease the tip-up away from the hole, and set the hook. Then you bring the fish up hand-over-hand. When I was a teenager, the only sport I participated in at school was speed skating. Since the first person to the hole usually caught the fish, I wanted to be the first guy there. My buddies were skaters as well, so it came down to the fastest person on the ice. Too much fun. 

Ice fishing is enjoyed by millions of anglers across America. Give it a try if you haven’t already, be safe, and don’t be surprised if you catch more fish than you ever have before in open water.

 

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Jim Zumbo has hunted all fifty states for deer, has fished in most states, has hunted elk in all the major western elk states, and has hunted on four continents. He worked for fifteen years as a forester, game warden, and wildlife biologist. Jim draws on these experiences for his monthly column “All Things Outdoors.” For more information, visit www.jimzumbo.com.

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