By Mike Gnatkowski
When taking beginning ice anglers it’s important to pick the right day. Don’t expect those who have never been ice fishing to have fun when the wind is howling and the temperature is below zero. They may never want to go again.
Don’t expect them to stay on the ice from daylight to dark either. Plan your initial outings when the sun is out and temperatures are moderate. Go when the fishing is likely to be the best – early or late in the day. Introductory trips need only be a couple of hours, so go when the fish are likely to bite. Young anglers in particular can get bored easily, so try to take them when you’re likely to experience some action.
Ice fishing for the first time can result in a memorable outing or a miserable experience. There doesn’t seem to be any in between. You’re likely to proclaim yourself a full–fledged couch potato after a day of sitting on a bucket, staring down a hole with a cold wind spitting snow down the back of your neck and few fish on the ice.
Ice anglers can go after a variety of game fish, including panfish, pike, walleyes and trout. Probably the easiest for the beginning ice angler are panfish. Bluegills, sunfish, crappies and perch are abundant and common in most lakes or ponds. Most anglers are within a short drive of a decent panfish lake. Panfish are relatively easy to catch through the ice, willing biters, require a minimum of equipment and they’re great on the table.
Panfish average less than a half pound so heavy line isn’t necessary. Two- to 4-pound test is more than adequate. Modern day monofilament and fluorocarbon is surprisingly thin and strong. The super–light line allows lethargic winter panfish to suck in tiny baits without feeling any resistance and the line is nearly invisible in the ultra–clear water of winter. A special type of rod and an ultra–smooth reel are required to handle wispy monofilament. Several companies make ice rods that are ideally suited for super–light lines. Retailers and mail order stores stock light–action, open–faced spinning reels perfect for winter panfish. Slightly heavier outfits with slightly stronger lines are best for walleye and trout.
Tip-ups are an alternative when fishing for larger game fish. A tip-up consists of a spool, frame and a flag that trips once a fish grabs the bait. Tip-ups are great for suspending larger baits when targeting pike, walleye or trout and help anglers cover a larger area.
The great thing about tip-ups is that they don’t require your undivided attention to catch fish. Kids can play and frolic until the cry; “Flag’s up!” grabs everyone’s attention. Then it’s a scramble to see what tripped the flag. Suspicions grow with every passing second. Tip-ups make for great winter family fun and are a simple form of ice fishing.
Take a shelter along, too, so the on-deck anglers can keep warm, make hot chocolate, roast hot dogs and wait for their turn at battling a fish through the ice.
It’s understandable why you wouldn’t want to punch bunch of holes if you’re using a conventional spud or ice chisel. It’s too much work! At the very least, invest in a hand ice drill. It’s amazing how quickly a sharp ice auger can go through a foot of ice. And the easier it is to drill holes the more likely you’re going to drill more holes to locate active fish. The idea is to be mobile and keep moving until you find fish.
When targeting panfish, a four- or five-inch hole is more than adequate. The smaller the hole, the easier it is to drill, too. Take the time to drill a series of holes before you start fishing. That way all the commotion will be over, the fish will have a chance to calm down, and if you want to move, the holes will be ready.
Power augers can be great if the ice is thick and you plan on drilling lots of holes. Power augers are perfect for creating seven to 10 inch holes when targeting bigger fish. The bigger the hole, the easier it is to get a sizable fish through it. Bigger holes tend to freeze up less quickly, too.
Sharp augers cut best. Avoid laying the auger in the snow or on the ice without the guard on to prevent a buildup on the blades.
Shelters make ice fishing comfortable. The more comfortable you are, the more likely you are to stay on the ice. Any shelter will help keep you out of the wind. The wind is one variable that can make ice fishing downright miserable. Dark shelters also reflect sunlight, and the heat generated by the sun is often enough to warm a windbreak. You can add a small heater to make the interior down right toasty.
Shelters not only act like a windbreak, but also can be used as a sled to carry your gear. They come in one-, two-, or up to four-man versions that are very portable and self-contained. There are even models that can be hooked together to create an ice fishing condo. The shelters can hold everything from rods to heaters and electronics; and can be easily pulled or towed behind a snowmobile or four-wheeler.
High-tech fabrics make it easier than ever to stay warm and dry on the ice. They’re lightweight, warm, waterproof and a big improvement over clothing manufactured just a few short years ago.
Boring a bunch of holes can work up a sweat. Open your coat to allow body heat to escape before you get too hot. About 90 percent of the body’s heat loss is from the head. Take off your hat if you start to overheat, take your time getting to your location and allow your body to cool before bundling backup.
Your feet are the first thing that’s likely to get cold when ice fishing. Winter boots are lighter and warmer than ever. Take a piece of carpet or foam to rest your feet on to prevent direct contact with the ice. Invest in a pair of ice cleats or creepers. Taking a spill on the ice is a good way to break an arm or leg or worse.
Modern electronics can help you locate fish under the ice. Underwater cameras actually allow you to see if fish are under your hole and are great for interpreting how they are reacting to your baits. Flashers offer similar insights into fish behavior and can make all the difference when ice fishing. Fishing without them is like fishing blind.
Not everyone who is getting into ice fishing can afford flashers and cameras, but if you’re fishing near a group of other anglers chances are somebody will have this electronic equipment. Ask to see how the electronics work. Most anglers are more than willing to show beginning ice anglers how important the devices are to catching fish.