If you love summer fishing but haven’t tried its winter counterpart, get schooled!
By Craig J. Heimbuch
I’ve always hated the end of fishing season—the last cast that feels like a desperate stab at the perfect ending. But while most anglers hang their rods in the rafters for the cold season, a different breed of fisherman is just getting warmed up. The past-time of ice fishing may sound crazy—the idea of sitting in a tiny shed, hunched over a hole in the ice, waiting for the rod to dip or tip-up trap to jerk—but ice fisherman know something many of us don’t: Just because the water freezes doesn’t mean there aren’t fish to be had.
My brother-in-law tried to get me to go with him once in Michigan, and after watching the ice fishing scenes in the 1993 movie Grumpy Old Men, I have to admit I almost went. But something about sitting on ice was off-putting, maybe because I envisioned myself falling through and struggling hopelessly to get back to the surface. Either that or I thought it would be boring.
But maybe it’s time to pack up the Silverado with winter fishing gear, since Chris Henson, an avid ice fisherman and outdoor product developer from Maine, assures me that boredom is seldom an issue.
“Ice fishing is a fantastic way for sportsmen to spend the winter,” says Henson. “There’s just a few things you have to keep in mind before you head out.”
Dress for It
It all starts with your clothes. While it may be good enough for summertime fishing to throw on your favorite shirt and an old bucket hat, Henson says staying comfortable on the ice means dressing in layers. Start with a wicking base layer close to the skin, to pull moisture away from your body. Make sure you have an insulating layer of down or synthentic, something with some loft to trap the body’s heat. Of course, you also need an outer layer, ideally something wind- and waterproof to protect from the elements.
True, there are some diehards willing to sit out in the wind and cold, waiting for a bite. But for reasonable people, shelters are important. The old-timey wood shelters with corner stoves and framed pictures hanging from the interior paneling may look great, but they are neither practical nor portable.
Modern shelters are lightweight, portable and can stand up to the demands of winter wind and cold. Expect to pay between $100 and $1,000, depending on how sturdy, portable and fancy you want it, and trust that every penny will be worth it.
Break the Ice
Unless you want to spend all day chipping away at the ice with a sharp stick, you’re going to need an auger. Hand augers are relatively affordable, but motorized augers make the job easier, though they come with a price. The most important thing to remember when it comes to the ice is safety.
Every ice fisherman needs to perform an ice test every time he or she goes out. Minnesota's Department of Natural Resources has helpful online guidelines for understanding ice safety. A lot factors go into determining ice safety, including temperature, precipitation, the age of the ice, water depth and water quality—all of which affect thickness and strength.
Now that you’re warm, sheltered and have some holes in the ice, it’s time to get fishing. There are two basic rigs: a short jigging rod and a tip-up. Jigging rods are essentially tiny fishing rods, the kind you learned to fish with. They work just about the same way your go-to rod works on the farm pond. Same lures, same idea.
If you’re new to the tip-up, here’s the basic idea: Your line is suspended from a rig that allows you to leave it unattended in the water. When a fish strikes, a spring-loaded flag is released, alerting you to the presence of a strike. What do you do while waiting? Well, you whittle or read a book. Or, if you’re fishing in relatively private water, you can sit in your shelter and watch flags launch from multiple holes.
While jigging rods require a more hands-on approach, tip-ups allow you to fish several holes at once. Henson says the preference belongs entirely to the fisherman, but he notes that there seem to be regional preferences. Ice fishermen in the Midwest tend to use the jigging rod, while the tip-up is more popular in the Northeast.
Don’t Overthink It
Really, you can fish for the same freshwater species you might fish for in warm weather. Henson recommends starting with species you’re already familiar with. While you may imagine that being under ice will change fish behavior, don’t over-think it.
“The approach is pretty much the same,” he says. “Use lures that grab their attention, and be patient.”
Ice fishing can be a great way to fill your winter months, after that last fateful cast of the regular fishing season. Who knows? Maybe it will become something to look forward to during those long, hot days of summer.
Here are some top ice fishing destinations around the country to (not) get your feet wet.
Craig J. Heimbuch is an award-winning journalist, author and best-selling ghostwriter. His first book, Chasing Oliver Hazard Perry (about exploring his childhood backyard of Lake Erie), was named best nonfiction of 2010 by the Great Lakes Booksellers Association. His latest, And Now We Shall Do Manly Things (HarperCollins), is a humorous memoir that follows the year he spent learning to hunt. Read more of his writing or contact him at www.andnowweshalldomanlythings.com.