Ice fishing. Just the mere words can strike fear into the heart of even the most seasoned open-water angler. And it’s really no surprise, actually. A short stroll through any ice fishing-specific catalog will reveal a plethora of strange and unusual devices with curious names like Vexilar, EZ-Jigger and my personal favorite, the Swedish Pimple.
But fear no longer, Oh Yea who might wish to try his hand at ice fishing. In truth, angling on hard water isn’t all that much different from, say, dunking crickets under slip bobbers for bull bluegills, with the exceptions that the gear is a tad bit stubbier than most of us are accustomed to, and it’s cold, very cold.
Rods and Reels
During my formative ice fishing years, I used the same rods and reels, i.e. lightweight spinning rods and matched reels in January as I used in the spring and they worked fine. However, today’s short and extremely sensitive ice-specific rods are much better suited to this cold-weather task, one where feeling the bite is paramount to success. Fortunately, mated ice fishing combos such as Northland Tackle’s Trick-Stick rod ‘n reel outfit ($25/cabelas.com) or the Dave Genz Ice-Buster Combo ($19/cabelas.com) are readily available.
Lines and Lures
Like rods and reels, the same monofilament line you use during the spring and summer can be used through the ice. But most ice fishing-specific monos spotlight two common denominators. One, they’re tremendously flexible, not “hardening” under extremely cold conditions. And two, ice lines are ridiculously light in terms of tensile strength, with 1- and 2-pound test ratings being the norm, especially when the target is light-biting bluegills and crappies.
Lures, too, share two commonalities-tiny, and tipped. Often, ice lures are referred to as flies, and as such weigh about as much as an ordinary housefly. Flies in the 1/64-ounce category tied on a No. 14 hook, or even smaller, are par for the course. I wear my reading glasses when I ice fish. Understandably, as the target species gets larger like walleyes, for instance, the lures, now known as jigs, likewise get heavier. Still, cold-water game fish, with their slowed metabolisms and regardless of their size, will often respond to a tiny presentation more positively than they will a larger one.
For panfish such as crappies, bluegills and yellow perch, these tiny ice flies are usually tipped with some sort of live bait. Traditionally, these baits have been small insect larvae – mealworms or mealworm beetles, mousees or droneflies and waxworms, all of which are inexpensive and very easy to keep, transport and use. In the past, I have used small slivers of white bacon fat with good success, especially when targeting yellow perch. Today, several companies make artificial “live” baits designed for the ice fishing tribe, with Berkley’s GULP! brand of faux waxworms, maggots, and, interestingly enough, minnow heads leading the pack.
Necessities and Accessories
Now that you’re outfitted with rod, reel, line and lures, there are a handful of other gear items which you, the aspiring ice angler, should consider. The first is a way of gaining access to the open water below the ice. Enter the ice auger. True, motorized augers are out there and make the task of drilling multiple holes much easier, not to mention less strenuous; however, these conveniences don’t come cheap, with many costing from $300 to $500. Conversely, a sharp, well-made hand-auger can be had for $40 to $70, and should, with proper use and maintenance, last for years.
In addition to an auger, a skimmer such as the Chipper Dipper ($14) comes in handy to scoop ice chunks out of the hole. Being cheap, I use an old long-handled strainer as a scoop; price at a garage sale of $1. A 5-gallon bucket, with a handle, serves not only as a carry-all for getting everything out onto the ice, but inverted and, if you’re thinking outfitted with a padded cushion, becomes a comfortable seat while you’re waiting for those schools of fine-eating ‘gills to cruise underneath your position.
Tutorial – Hardwater Panfish
There’s a good chance you’ll find me on the same farm ponds in January here in Iowa as you did in June. During the summer months, I take the time to study these small waters; details such as submerged structure like Christmas trees, pallets, rock piles, drop-offs and the like. Come safe ice, you can bet I’ll be perched, no pun intended, overtop this same structure, slowly (and I do mean s-l-o-w-l-y) jigging an ice fly tipped with a waxworm, hopefully in front of a 9-inch boss bluegill’s face. You can do the same should you have access to such small private ponds. It’s often productive to contact a fisheries biologist with your state’s wildlife agency and ask them for information like where to go locally. Don’t be shy since these wildlife professionals are usually more than happy to help their constituency get started in the right direction, regardless of whether it’s 90 degrees, or, in this case, a sweltering nine. And that’s below zero!
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