By: Ben Patschull
For anglers living above the ice belt, the earliest breath of winter air persuades many fishermen to exhume their ice fishing gear from its summer storage and begin preparing for the first inches of safe ice. Although the excitement for the upcoming winter season keeps many of us on the edge of our ice buckets, the journey from the last outing on open water to the first steps on ice is an integral part of any ice fisherman’s success.
Once I’ve brought my ice gear out of storage, I begin by taking stock of what I will need to get through the season. I find it essential to purchase as much gear as possible as soon as sporting goods stores begin receiving their shipments. Almost all retailers will restock their ice fishing gear only two times throughout the season. With the added material shortages due to the current pandemic, stocking up early is necessary. I buy some items such as fishing line every year, whereas auger blades and flasher batteries I may be able to get through several seasons without replacing.
I find it essential to re-spool my ice reels with fresh line every year (perhaps even twice during the season). Otherwise, the old, coiled line can lead to major frustrations while on the ice, especially when using lightweight lures. I prefer to use the lightest line I can for maximum lure action.
For panfish, I tie on three-pound monofilament for jigs and four-pound for spoons and minnow style baits, such as the Rapala jigging rap or rippin’ rap. I choose six-pound Suffix ice braid for walleye with a six-pound fluorocarbon leader. Braided line tends to freeze much easier than mono, so using braided line made for cold weather is a must. For larger quarries like Great Lakes trout and Mississippi River northern pike, I string on 15-pound braided line with a strong fluorocarbon leader. Fluorocarbon line makes a perfect leader line due to its invisibility in the water, low memory, and low stretch.
Essential Ice Fishing Lures
There are a few baits that I always stock up on to ensure I will not run into a mid-winter emergency shopping trip. I always keep a solid supply of small solid-colored tungsten jigs and light spoons for panfish. My go-to panfish bait is Custom Jigs and Spins’ slender spoon. The light, curved design creates the slowest fluttering fall of any spoon I have come across. One new panfish bait I discovered last year was the Kenders T-rip. This small tungsten-filled minnow-style bait was one of my top producers on the ice last winter and one I will certainly have tied on every time I hit the ice this year. I like to keep a wider stock of baits for walleye, as winter walleye are among the pickiest species I target through the ice. On any day, the fish could prefer a specific color or style bait, but when preparing for the season, I follow a few general rules for picking out walleye baits that will work nearly every time I walk out on the ice. Walleyes tend to chase more aggressive, fast-falling spoons, so I like to use heavier, slimmer profile spoons like a Kastmaster spoon or a Northland buckshot spoon. The Rapala rippin’ rap and similar minnow style baits are another must-have for any walleye fisherman’s tackle box.
Plan In Advance
The winter season can be a great time to explore new waters, but planning well in advance is necessary in today’s fishing world. Resorts and hotels are filling faster than ever due to the ever-increasing number of anglers, and busy guide services are booked out far into the future. Setting up trips with guides is a great way to ensure that your trip will be safe and successful. However, some anglers choose to go through this process alone, so I would like to share a few tips on how to find success on a new body of water without the help of a guide. One of the greatest tools for any angler is social media. Facebook groups in particular, can provide fishermen with up-to-date information on specific areas and bodies of water when it comes to ice safety and hot bites. Lake-Link is another great angling blog that can help ice fishermen find reports on specific lakes and rivers from all across the ice belt. Once I’ve chosen a spot to target, the next tool that I implement is a mapping device to get a closer look at what kind of structure is present underneath the surface. For ice fishing, I prefer the Navionics smartphone app, which offers detailed depth and structure maps for the entire United States, all in the palm of my hand for a small yearly fee. Finally, when the winter temperatures eventually creep low enough, and it’s time to venture onto the ice, it is always important to keep safety first.
How To Make Ice Fishing Less Dangerous
Whether it is a brand-new spot or a hometown honey-hole, it is crucial to remember that the ice is never truly safe. There is always risk involved in ice fishing, but by keeping safety at the head of any outing, the risk can be minimized significantly. When it comes to first ice, a good spud bar is the angler’s lifeline. In general, two forceful jabs without breaking through indicates ice safe enough to walk on. Most ice safety charts found on the internet suggest that four inches of ice is stable enough for foot traffic. However, this can be misleading. Ice is often uneven and can be weaker due to freezing patterns and current, so it is important to use a spud at all times. A new product that has invaded the market in the last several years are floating ice fishing suits. Although these are not legally PFD’s, a float suit could help save your life. Falling into ice-cold water can easily lead to shock, affecting thinking and collapsing the chest cavity.
This, combined with the heavyweight of conventional ice fishing suits, can quickly lead to a serious situation. In these scenarios, the extra floatation provided by float suits can be the difference between life or death. It is also helpful to carry along a good pair of ice picks to grab the slick ice if a breakthrough does occur. The dangers of early ice can be found above the water surface as well. In most areas, the water freezes over before the snow falls, and without the added grip of heavy snow, the frozen lake can quite literally become an ice-skating rink. A pair of pull-over crampons (or ice cleats) can be picked up for a small price and can prevent serious falls. I have had a number of memorable spills on the ice, occasionally in remote fishing spots.
Although I was able to jump back up and walk off these embarrassing slips, these falls could have resulted in tragedy if I were a few years older. I was also lucky to be fishing with a friend in all of these instances, the most valuable safety tool of all. In the event of any accident, a friend should call emergency services immediately. If a fishing partner has fallen through, it is essential to remember that you are putting yourself at great risk of breaking through the already weakened ice by approaching the hole to pull out a friend. Carrying along a compact safety throw rope can allow you to throw a line to your friend from a safe distance. Always remember, there is no such thing as truly safe ice, and all of these safety measures should be followed throughout the entire ice fishing season.
Stay Dry & Tight Lines!
Although safe ice may be weeks away for some readers, the ice fishing season starts sometime in advance. The preparation for a successful ice fishing season is just as important as anything after the first line is dropped through the hole. By following these simple steps to prepare, research, and keep safety at the forefront of any ice outing, this winter can be your best season yet.