By Joe Shead
For ice anglers, first ice is truly the most wonderful time of the year. Fish are active because plants are still photosynthesizing and producing oxygen. Finding fish is usually easy. Just look for them in shallow weeds. You don’t have to search expansive mud flats to find lethargic fish as you do later in winter when oxygen levels drop. Plus, thin ice makes popping holes much easier.
The early season is a great time to take kids, spouses, or other fishing newbies onto the ice. Fish are cooperative and usually it’s not yet bitterly cold.
If I’m taking inexperienced anglers, I have three goals – to keep it fun, to keep everyone warm, and to catch fish. Probably the easiest way to accomplish these goals is to just set out tip-ups over shallow weeds for northern pike.
In December, you’ll find pike shallow, often in as little as 5 feet of water. Putting out a spread of tip-ups over a weed flat is an easy way to catch pike. If the ice is clear, you may be able to see underwater weed edges, points, and inside turns. If not, just spreading lines over a weedy flat is usually productive.
I try to involve everyone. I’ll let someone punch holes (if they’re capable). And even young kids can scoop out slushy holes.
Then I show everyone how a tip-up works. It’s fun to demonstrate by having a helper pull on the line, tripping the flag. It just seems to kind of click with everyone when they see how simple yet functional a tip-up is.
I usually bait the hook, but I’ll let a kid grab the minnow for me. And I like to be the one to set the tip-up in the water (or at least I supervise the placing of the tip-up). I want to make sure there isn’t too much line out so the minnow gets buried in the weeds. I want the minnow above the weeds so it’s easy for pike to see and so it doesn’t get fouled by weeds.
Once a spread of tip-ups is out, it’s time to have some fun. When I was a kid, we’d toss around a football or play hockey while we waited for a flag to pop. That’s still a fun way to spend some time. There are a couple of considerations, however.
First, legally, you need to stay within 200 feet of your tip-ups, and second, running around and making noise on the ice – especially over shallow water – is a sure way to spook fish. Setting tip-ups just off a park is nice because then you can play football or go sledding on shore where you’re less apt to spook fish. If there’s a picnic area, you could even start a warming fire in the grill.
Sitting in a warm truck at the park or at a boat landing is another fun way to fish. Turn the heater on as needed and keep things entertaining. Sometimes we play cards, read the comics, or just listen to the radio. And there are always plenty of snacks. When a flag pops, it’s a mad scramble to get to the tip-up.
Pike are easy to catch, which makes them a great beginner fish, but also, they are of decent size. A 20-inch pike might not be an impressive fish to a seasoned angler, but that’s a good-sized fish if you’re a kid. Remember to see the fish through a child’s eyes.
When you’re fishing with inexperienced anglers, remember, it’s all about them. Don’t worry about trying to fish for yourself. Besides, you’ll probably be busy re-baiting tip-ups, keeping holes free of ice, and entertaining your fishing partners. Monitor everyone to make sure they’re having fun, and, more importantly, staying warm. Nothing kills a fishing trip faster than getting cold.
Some of my favorite fishing memories from when I was a kid were just simple fishing trips where we ran around and played with our friends and caught some fish to boot. Keep it fun, keep it simple, and you’ll make some great memories.