Ice Fishing 101

by Bob Gwizdz

On the face of it, ice fishing seems like a pretty simple affair: You punch a hole in the ice, clear out the slush and start fishing.

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But ice fishing is every bit as complicated as fishing in open water, though there is one major difference: There’s no casting or trolling. Ice fishing is all about vertical presentations. But many of the calculations that go into open-water fishing -- size of line, lure or bait selection, action of the rods – come into play on the ice, too.

Basically, ice anglers need just three things to get started –something to make a hole in the ice, something to clear out the hole, and something to fish with. 

Most anglers use augers – tools with helical bits – to drill holes. Most common are hand augers, tools that require anglers to manually crank the device to cut the hole, though power augers – available in both gasoline and electric models – are easier to use, practically required in places or during periods of time where the ice is especially thick, and a lot more expensive than hand augers. They’re also heavier, though electrics tend to be significantly lighter than gas augers and battery-powered drills adapted to fit  an auger are all the rage. This can be an issue if you walk on to the ice and have any sort of physical challenges, but, for the most part, if you’re travelling by snowmobile or ORV or even hauling your gear behind you on a sled, the weight is not an issue.

The alternative to an auger is a spud, a chisel-like tool (on the end of a pole) with which anglers chip holes in the ice. Spuds are perfectly fine for fishing relatively thin ice and that’s where they shine especially brightly as they also serve as a safety devise. Simply put, it’s recommended that all ice fishermen carry a spud with them and use it as they move across the ice to test the thickness of the ice in front of them. This is significantly less important in the dead of winter – when you know there’s a foot of ice or more on the surface -- but de rigueur during first and last ice. 

A third tool – an ice saw or chain saw – can be used in conjunction with an auger or spud to cut a large opening in the ice. A large hole is necessary for those who prefer spearing from a shanty, though they are often popular with perch anglers, too, who can see down into the water and target any fish they see by dropping the bait right on them.

Clearing the ice shavings and slush from the hole is simple enough with a skimmer (or slush scoop) which resembles a ladle with holes in it. Simple plastic skimmers cost only a couple of bucks and work well for most applications, though you can pay $25 for bigger, fancier metal contraptions.

When it comes to actual fishing gear, most anglers prefer short rods (no more than a couple of feet long) that allow them to sit close to their holes. Short rods are required for those who fish from small shanties, though there’s a school of ice fishermen who eschew shelters and prefer to fish on open ice and actually prefers longer rods, which offer a number of advantages, not the least of which is the ability to make a long, sweeping hook set. For the most part, the long-rod set is made up of well-experienced anglers who have adapted to a particular style of fishing that suits them.

Ice fishing rods range from simple fiberglass blanks fitted into a dowel for a handle to high-dollar, ultrasensitive graphite models. Choosing an appropriate rod is just like selecting a weapon for open-water angling; you wouldn’t use the same rod for salmon and bluegills now would you? But there are a myriad of choices even among bluegill anglers. A simple fiberglass pole – often with just a couple of bent wires protruding from the handle to wrap line around – in the right hands can be just as effective as a graphite rod and high-dollar reel. One of the best panfish anglers I’ve ever known -- Bluegill Bob Miskowski, who is no longer with us – often used low-cost rods with simple spring-tension spools to hold line. It was a rare day that Miskowski didn’t have a pile of fish on the ice.

And there are those who do not like rods at all but prefer to fish tip-ups, devices that suspend a bait under the ice and feature a spring-loaded flag that “tips up” to signal a strike. Most commonly associated with pike fishing, tip-ups can be used for any game fish and, truth be known, I know some guys who prefer to use tip-ups for perch simply because they allow them to fish three lines effectively. And they can always be used in conjunction with hand-held rods, too.

Although Department of Natural Resources’ data is scant, there’s no doubt that panfish – mostly bluegills, but crappie and perch, too – make up the vast majority of ice angling outings.  (I’d guess it at about 90 percent.)  There’s a simple reason why – panfish, especially bluegills, are almost ubiquitous. You can find them in most lakes across the state; it’s less likely that a lake won’t have ‘gills than it will, and often those that don’t have perch. And they all make fine table fare.

For the most part, bluegills can be found in relatively shallow water, often associated with weed beds, early in the season. As winter progresses, the fish tend to move deeper. Bluegills tend to relate to the bottom at first ice, but will suspend as winter lengthens. Most bluegill anglers begin with simple baits, either teardrops or flies, sweetened with spikes (fly larvae) or wax worms and begin fishing just off bottom, slowly moving up in the water column until they start catching fish, then offering their baits at that same depth as long as it continues to produce. This is one advantage the long-rod anglers have; they can cover a much bigger swatch of the water column without gathering line. If they start on the bottom and hit fish four or five feet up, they can return to the same depth by noticing where their rods are in relation to the ice. Some of the best I know never touch their reels; when they stick a fish, they just walk backwards until they pull it from the hole, then drop the bait back down to the appropriate depth.

In contrast, crappie can be found anywhere in the water column at any time, from smack on bottom to right under the ice. They are more difficult to home in on than gills and, in my experience, less likely to stay at the same depth over time.  A sonar depth finder is a crappie angler’s best friend.

In any case, light line is standard for panfish angling. Four-pound test line is probably as heavy as you’ll ever want, two-pound is better, and some specialists use mono-filament sewing thread that tests out at around 3/4th of a pound.  Since most panfish anglers use whippy rods, the rods absorb the shock of setting the hook or fighting a fish. 

The single most important trick to catching panfish is being able to detect the bite. The fish can suck in and reject a bait faster than many can notice it. Either an extremely limber rod – the kind that shimmies when you as much as breathe on it – or a spring bobber, which is a thin wire with a loop through which you thread your line and extends beyond the last eye of the rod, can make that a lot easier. But line-watching works, too; if you see that line as much as twitch, set the hook. (High-visibility line helps here.)

Anglers who prefer to chase bigger fish – from walleye to lake trout – typically need more sophisticated rods and reels with good drags. Walleye and trout fishermen tend to jig aggressively, usually with spoons, jigs or swimming baits (like a Jigging Rapala), often tipped with a minnow  or minnow head. The drill is simple: drop the bait to the bottom, reel in the slack, and jig. For the most part, the fish, which relate to the bottom, will hit the bait on the fall. But when the fish are being finicky, you sometimes have to bring them up in the water column to get them to bite. A good fish finder is indispensable when it gets that way and you can often watch fish on the depth finder following the bait up in the water column. There are times you’ll have to bring the fish halfway to the surface to get them to go. 

Many walleye anglers fish two rods – and sometimes put out a tip-up as well. In recent years, I’ve noticed more walleye fishermen using a dead rod with a live minnow suspended near bottom. The thought is, the jigging actions gets their attention, draws them in, then they nail the seemingly more vulnerable minnow. I’ve had days when the dead rod out-produced the jigging rod and I’m hearing more of that from more anglers all the time.

There are as many opportunities to fish through the ice as in open water. Maybe more; ever hear of anyone hook-and-lining smelt except through the ice? The possibilities are endless.

No discussion of ice fishing is sufficient without a word about safety. Every year, we lose anglers through the ice, a tragedy that can often have been avoided. Make sure to test the ice – especially early and late in the season – and avoid any areas where there is current or discoloration or where something (a dead tree, for instance) protrudes through. Carry safety gear –a rope to toss to someone who breaks through and ice picks to help you get back on the ice should you break through. And go with a partner; no fish is worth taking unnecessary risks.

When it comes to ice fishing, remember your ABCs:  Always Be Careful.

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