By Joel Nelson
Water temperatures are falling closer to the magic number that ice anglers know all too well, but for many, hunting seasons loom large. While it’s a welcome time of year for many of us, fall is too short, and deer season can bump right up against the beginning of ice fishing. I’ll soak up as much as fall will offer, but before I can sink new auger blades into fresh ice, there needs to be a method to the madness of pre-ice preparation.
When fall open-water fishing, a portion of what I do is dedicated to winter scouting. It starts with simply cruising across the lake with one eye constantly on the graph, looking for tell-tale signs of differing bottom hardness, contour changes, or un-marked structure.
But scanning structure is only part of the equation, because fish should be near or already in their first-ice locations. Some of the best spots for ice fishing I’ve found while in a boat, so I don’t hesitate to drop a GPS waypoint on anything I see that looks promising, then I circle back for further exploration. It’s far easier to scan multiple locations and depths over open water than it is from the ice, with auger in hand.
In prepping for ice season, one of the first things that gets attention is my shelter. I do this early, which gives me time to figure out what survived summer storage and to plan on replacement if mice or other critters have gotten into it.
It’s similar for my ice auger. Again, I’ll need time to react should there be an issue. It’s a lot easier to upgrade to the premier electric units early in the season, and everything from blades to batteries are much easier to find sooner than later.
It’s also not a bad time to make sure your on-ice transportation is up to snuff. Be it an ATV, snowmobile, or other, first ice is a bad time to be down your major mode of transportation.
Rods, reels, and line
From there, I open up my rod boxes and dump out their contents. Everything in there gets my attention, because these items can have replacement lead times, too.
I’m big on pairing rod and reel setups to specific techniques, and over the years I’ve found them to match presentations and fishing styles that fit me best.
In today’s environment, it can take some time to get your hands on rods, so it pays to take inventory long before you need them. Reels typically need little attention if you’ve invested in some quality ones, but it’s never a bad idea to swap out or add to the fleet.
Line is something that I religiously change on at least a yearly basis. Small spools on some reels are notorious for bringing out the worst in memory from your favorite line, and the longer it sits on those tiny spools, tightly coiled and ready to spring, the harder time you’re going to have feathering it down an ice hole or detecting a strike.
Whatever your line of choice, do yourself a favor and spool up fresh each year. The only caveat to that would be braid, if you use it, because the advanced fibers in today’s woven lines tend to last a bit longer.
Lures and such
Finally, gather all of your ice tackle in a single location, spread it out on the floor, and admire how large the pile has become.
Go through old baits, replace hooks as needed, and more than anything, take good inventory of what needs re-stocking. Be honest with yourself. This is a difficult task.
Work new baits and lures into the rotation, but do so sparingly, and then, only in a few select colors and sizes. Focus on your staples, and make sure you have plenty multiples of them. The worst thing you can do when shopping for lures is to buy a smattering of one each in various lure types. Instead, do your research and know your fishing style, then make educated and targeted purchases in multiples of the colors and sizes of baits you know you’ll make use of this winter.
Organize what you have into whatever system works well for you, but put some thought into it. If you’re a hard-house-only angler, you probably won’t need a bunch of tiny tackle boxes, but if you’re an incessant hole-hopper, you might want to select some boxes that fit easily into a jacket pocket.
By now, you should be more prepared than the vast majority of your ice-fishing brethren. And that’s good for you, because first ice can bring with it the best fishing of the year.
So fill your deer tags, charge the batteries on your auger and ice electronics, and wait until Mother Nature gives us the icy layer we need to walk on water.