As the temperatures drop and the snow comes falling from the sky, ice anglers across North America begin to wait with anticipation for their first go at some frozen water fish. Although the season may be a couple of months away, now is the best time to take an inventory of your tackle and equipment, ensuring that you will be good and ready once the ice reaches that perfect thickness.
The right equipment will help you get into more and bigger fish this year.
Come and take stock on the essentials of ice fishing - I promise you that the right items will help you get into more and bigger fish this year.
Rods and Reels
Owning a quality ice rod and reel is paramount for finding fishing success. Many people try to scrimp and save when buying an ice rod, but in my eyes, the quality should be no different from the equipment you would use during the open water season.
Ice rods come in many different lengths and actions, often times causing confusion for the novice angler among us. For simplicity sake, I like to narrow it down to three choices. For panfish, look for an ultralight or light-action rod that is between 20 and 30-inches in length -- this will cover all of the bases.
Walleye require a medium or medium-light stick that is between 24 and 36-inches long. Lastly, for those that like to chase trout or pike, a medium-heavy or heavy ice rod between 36 and 42-inches will do the trick nicely.
Make sure you buy a premium quality rod, preferably one that is graphite. Not only will it be lighter in weight, it will also be much more sensitive.
When it comes to outfitting your rods, the reel you choose can make or break the package. For panfish and light walleye fishing, stick with light line and an ultralight reel. Once you get into eight-pound test and above, a regular-sized reel will be your best bet. Ordinary open water reels all work well, but removing the fine grade oil and replacing it with thicker grease will keep them from freezing up in the frigid temperatures.
For those that spend a great deal of time on the ice, or fish lakes that are prone to thick ice, a gas-powered auger makes the most sense.
Let's face it - without an auger, ice fishing would be pretty challenging. In order to drill holes, an auger is a necessity, but which is the best to choose?
Ice augers can be broken down into two categories - hand and gas operated. Hand augers are the least expensive, and do a great job at cutting through the ice. For occasional anglers that don't log a lot of days on the hard stuff, this is the choice for you. If perch or small walleye are your intended target, a six-inch diameter will suffice. If larger walleye or trout are on the menu, a switch to an eight-incher will be best. The larger the diameter of the blade, the tougher a task it is to drill. Keep this in mind if the ice gets fairly thick in your neck of the woods, as an eight-inch auger can become quite difficult to use when fishing solo over 30-inches of ice.
For those that spend a great deal of time on the ice, or fish lakes that are prone to thick ice, a gas-powered auger makes the most sense. These machines can cut through the hard surface in seconds, allowing you more time to fish, and less time to rest your weary body. They may be pricey, but the expenditure is well worth it.
I'm still amazed at the number of folks that routinely trudge onto the ice each year without a portable hut in tow. Content to sit on the frozen water, at the mercy of the wind, snow and frigid air, makes no real sense to me.
A portable hut offers a sanctuary out on the ice. When you don't have to face the elements head on, working baits, anticipating strikes and staying alert are all greatly improved. Throw in some heat for good measure, and you've got everything you could want at your fingertips.
More and more manufacturers are producing portables, with prices coming down each season. Much like a bass fisherman needs an electric trolling motor, the same can be said for an ice angler and their portable hut.
When in the market for a hut, make sure you take the following advice into consideration:
1. Huts come in all shapes and sizes. Figure out how much room you need, including whether or not you'll be always fishing solo, and choose accordingly.
2. Look for high-quality construction, including thick, rip-resistant material.
3. Dark-colored huts will attract more heat from the sun.
4. Windows are necessary for monitoring tip ups and weather conditions. Ensure that they are at the correct height, and that flaps or tiebacks can be utilized.
5. Sleds must be built tough and easy to pull through the snow.
6. Seating is mandatory, but sometimes optional depending on the manufacturer. If a built-in seat is not included, ensure that a portable version will work.
A tip up is a stationary device that allows you to fish live bait below the ice. These are used in conjunction with a jigging rod (where applicable by law), and can work wonders on panfish, walleye and pike, especially when the minnow bite is on.
When in the market for a tip up, quality should be your first consideration. Strong, durable parts that move effortlessly are a good start. Whether you choose plastic or wood is purely a personal preference, as I have had success with each in the past.
If you fish extremely cold climates, I would suggest a tip up that covers the hole, actually submersing the 'reel' under the surface of the water. This style will allow holes to remain ice-free during even the worst conditions, a definite plus that will save you time and aggravation.
For those going after big fish, make sure the scoop you buy is not larger in diameter than the auger blades you have.
Minnow Bucket and Net
A minnow bucket is a must for transporting your bait out to the hole. Keep your eyes out for an insulated container (this will help prevent freezing) that sports strong handles. The new wave of Styrofoam and plastic buckets work better than the old metal pails, mostly in terms of keeping the water free from ice, but also in preventing the dangerous practice of 'wet skin on cold metal.' A painful experience to say the least!
A rubber or nylon dipping net should accompany every bait bucket. (Have you ever attempted to scoop minnows out with your bare hands in sub zero conditions? Not for the faint of heart!) Again, a plastic handle will help in ensuring your skin remains on the same surface it came with.
After you drill a hole, what the heck do you do with all that slush? Well, this is where the hole scoop fills the niche. Buying a scoop will save you having to use your hands as one, an uncomfortable proposition to say the least.
When choosing a scoop, my recommendation would be for one made from metal. These are definitely stronger than their plastic counterpart, and won't bend or crack from the cold weather. In my eyes, the longer the handle, the better. Remember, sometimes drilling through 30-inches of ice is the reality of ice fishing, so the extra reach sure can be handy.
Ascertain that the scoop you buy is not larger in diameter than the auger blades you have. This can make things difficult if you happen to mix them up!
A last tip for scoops - spray paint the handle or scoop a bright orange or red. This will ensure that the 'scoop lost in the snow' syndrome doesn't strike you.
Heaters and Lanterns
Make sure you choose a "flameless" heater for your fishing hut.
For those fishing from a hut, a heater is a necessary requirement. Make sure you choose a 'flameless' propane model, as this is the safest variety on the market.
Through time spent on the ice, I've found that 3,000 BTU's is the minimum output I would recommend for a portable heater. Of course, the larger the hut, the greater the BTU's should be.
When it comes to lanterns, propane and rechargeable both work well. Battery operated lights will not work as long as propane in cold weather, so consider this when making your purchase.
When dealing with propane, the threat of carbon monoxide poisoning is real. Do not operate a propone device without an adequate source of fresh air, either through vents or by keeping doors partially open. At any sign of nausea or tiredness, head to the outside as fast as possible.
Propane can be safe - but it demands respect and awareness.
One of the most important pieces of equipment you can have with you on the ice is a set of picks. This device is simply a length of rope with a large nail or pick attached to each end. If you should fall through the ice, this instrument can be used to dig into the remaining sturdy ice and pull yourself out.
I prefer to wear these around my neck at all times in case a fall occurs, enabling me to get to them quickly. There are many versions available on the market, but they can be easily made at home for under $10. This is inexpensive insurance that could save your life in my books. Hopefully you will never need them, but to know they are there is certainly comforting.
The following items are also helpful, and in many cases, mandatory to enjoy the sport of ice fishing:
1. Warm clothes, including a survival suit, appropriate boots, mitts, hat and layered clothing.
2. Bring a compass or GPS unit in case of extreme weather.
3. Ice cleats will help you stay upright when the ice is snow-free.
4. A fish finder or Vexilar will help you find structure and fish.
5. A small shovel.
6. Flashlight and waterproof matches.
7. Needle nose pliers and jaw spreaders for unhooking fish.
Ice fishing is a sport that has become a passion for many. If you've never experienced it, be prepared for a wild ride. Once you drill that first hole, I'm sure you'll be hooked for life. Have a safe and happy ice season!