Why, you ask, would anyone want to leave the warmth and comfort of their home and navigate treacherous roads, only to sit on a five-gallon bucket on the ice in hopes of catching a half dozen crappie or bluegills? In December? In below freezing temperatures? Why ice fish? Well, it’s enjoyable, species like crappie and ‘gills taken from near-freezing waters are wonderful on the table, and it can be relatively simple from an equipment and labor standpoint. But, you say you’ve never ice fished? Not to worry—you don’t need much, though warm clothes are definitely a priority.
Ice Rods and Reels
Though traditional rod/reel combos will work just fine for ice fishing, specialty, i.e. shorter and much lighter weight, outfits are not only recommended, but widely available. Outdoor stores such as Cabela’s or Bass Pro, as well as many of the local retailers, carry a fine line of ice fishing rods and reels. How do you, then, choose between makes and models? Truthfully, any of the name brands—Shakespeare, Eagle Claw, Berkley, to name but three—will serve you well, and shouldn’t set you back more than $30, more or less.
Ice and light lines and lures go together, and this holds particularly true when the quarry are panfish. With lines, a tensile strength of two pounds is considered about the maximum, with a single pound often being better. Because of the ultralight nature of the lures used during wintertime panfishing, a topic to be discussed further momentarily, the lighter the line, the more precise the line handling and lure presentation becomes. In hard water situations, one of the best monofilaments available is Berkley’s Trilene Cold Weather, a steel blue mono that offers anglers top-notch control without the hassle of cold water induced snarls and kinks. Berkley also offers ice anglers their choice of Fireline Micro Ice and Trilene Micro Ice, both excellent hard-water monofilament options. For more information on the complete line of Berkley/Pure Fishing ice-angling products, visit the company’s website atwww.purefishing.com.
Baits and Lures As far as baits and artificials are concerned, traditional holds true and traditional means ice flies, Pin Mins, meal worms and waxworms. Despite the technological advances in the fishing industry, few can argue with year-after-year success, and the aforementioned baits and lures continue to produce fantastic catches for ice anglers the country over. When combined with thumbnail-sized floats and quill bobbers, these tiny teardrop-shaped pieces of colored lead account for more ice-water catches than the sum of all the other available panfish baits. And while the productive colors may change from day to day, few anglers can go wrong by carting a tin filled with lead flies, Rat Finkies, and Pin Mins onto the ice.
Like most outdoor pursuits, ice fishing can be as simple or as complex as the individual wishes. Elementally, little more is actually needed than a rod and reel, bait and lures, and a way of cutting a hole through the ice. Augers or ice drills, are popular among the hard water crowd, with both muscle-driven and gas-powered models being available. An ice scoop, or something to remove ice chips from the hole, is nice, though your hands can work just fine. Pleasant, too, are electronics, with the battery-powered Vexilar unit being a coast-to-coast favorite. A portable fish-finder, Vexilars not only reveal water depth, but can translate variables such as structure and fish presence to the user as well. Nice, but not inexpensive; a good sonar unit will run from $200 to $300.
Tactics and Techniques
In ice fishing, water depth is often the most vital ingredient to success, that, and a good memory. More often than not, those areas that produced good catches during the summer will continue to provide fast action throughout the winter. Breaks in water depth, creek or river channels, or submergent vegetation are prime locations, as are shallow water coves or finger bays having a deep-water drop-off nearby.
Fortunately for ice anglers, the fish themselves will frequently dictate what style of lure presentation is best suited for success. In some cases, hard water panfish seem to favor a stationary bait, while in others, a slight jigging motion. Just a quick twitch of the wrist is all it takes to trigger a strike. On the subject of to jig or not to jig, anglers should remember that hard water means slow metabolisms, and any movement should be only enough to attract attention. On the topic of attracting attention, here is an old ice fishing tactic that works well on both bluegills and crappies—crushed eggshells. When crumbled and dropped into the hole, the crushed shells act as tiny white spoons fluttering to the bottom. Panfish seeing these flashing movements draw near to investigate and then it simply becomes a matter of the right bait at the right time.
Most Importantly, Safety
Two words really apply ice and ice fishing safety, common sense. Ice fishing has become one of the nation’s foremost wintertime outdoor activities, but even a creel filled to overflowing with fish is not worth taking a chance on poor ice. As a rule, two inches of new, fresh ice is considered safe for a pair of anglers. Never go alone. Nobody likes to think the worst, but in the event of a break-through, two extra hands can mean the difference between getting home a little wet and chilly, and not getting home at all.
Safety equipment, too, such as ice cleats, a pair of ice (hand) claws and a strong length of rope should be included in the gear bucket. Some anglers even go so far as to wear a lightweight life vest when on the ice, a good safety measure, and an extra layer of insulation against the chilly winds that warm the hearts of America’s ice fishing fanatics.