By: Gary Buchannan
Posted On: 2009-01-24
When winter comes to the Northern states and the lakes and rivers freeze solid, you can try the most rugged fishing sport of all—ice-fishing. Of course you must be somewhat rugged yourself because standing in freezing temperatures and snow squalls for hours at a time isn't anyone's idea of comfort. But you can catch yourself a mess offish. A surprising number of species bite in midwinter as well as midsummer. They may not have as much pep because of the cold, but neither will you. There are Perch in the deep holes of the lake, and Pickerel or Pike in the shallows where the water is only a couple of feet deep. There are also Walleyes, Lake Trout and Bluegills, and even Eels where you're permitted to fish at night. You'll catch few Black Bass, however, because they seem to hibernate. Winter fishing for them is illegal in most states, anyhow. All ice-fishing generally is illegal in waters containing Trout other than Lakers. (CAUTION: A few anglers drown every year by falling through ice that's too thin. It must be at least 3 inches thick to be safe. Be especially careful near the shores of spring-fed lakes, near outlets and inlets, and wherever there's a moving current of water. Also, ice may be dangerously thin when it first freezes in fall, or when it's about to break up in spring.)
You need an ice-ax or ice-chisel to chop your fishing hole, and an ice-skimmer to keep it free of slush and to break and remove any ice crust that might try to freeze over it. Any ax will serve the purpose, and a long-handled food strainer which you can buy in any hardware store makes a good skimmer. Rods and reels aren't necessary for ice-fishing—there's no room to use them. Instead you have a device called a "tilt" or "trap" or simply "tip-up," which stands in the ice alongside your fishing hole and holds your line. The simplest kind is a wooden frame with a small spool for the line, and a red flag tied to a spring. The spring is bent down and cocked under a latch, and the line that hangs through the fishing hole is looped over a trigger connected to the latch. When a fish tugs on the hook, the line pulls the trigger and the spring lifts the red flag to warn you. Then you take over the fishing by hand. You also have to pull in your fish by hand. Ice-anglers for Lake Trout have a unique way of landing their monster fish—they turn around, lay the fish line over one shoulder and run madly across the ice until the Trout is pulled flopping out of the hole. As for line, the nylon bait-casting kind is best, about 15-pound-test, with a transparent leader of at least 10-pound-test. However, it doesn't work for Bluegills which are voracious feeders in summer but become strangely wary in winter. With them, use a thin 3-pound-test leader. Hooks from size No. 2 to No. 6 are generally used. Warm clothing, of course, is a necessity but some ice-anglers solve the cold problem in another way — they build a small cabin on runners, with no floor, and push it out on the ice. Then they chop their fishing hole under it and rig the tip-up. With a fire going in a small stove, they can even take their coats off and play cards while they're waiting for the fish to bite!
Artificial lures won't work for ice-fishing. A good trick, however, is to dangle a luminous lure on another line near your baited hook to bring the fish around. Live minnows or shiners (large ones for big fish and small ones for little fish) are by far the best bait. Hook the minnow under the skin near its dorsal fin so it won't be badly injured. If it dies, discard it and use another. To keep minnows alive until needed, you must have a minnow bucket with a separate ventilated inside container. When you've chopped your fishing hole and rigged your tip-up, chop another hole a short distance away. Here you can hang the inside container of the minnow bucket with its minnows. Then they won't freeze because the lake water is always above freezing—if it weren't, it would be ice. Your bucket, however, standing on the open ice, can freeze solid—minnows and all!
Small dead minnows will catch some Perch and Pickerel if you keep jigging the line to give them some lifelike motion. If you run out of bait, use a fin of a Yellow Perch, or a slice of its white belly, or even one of its eyes—but you must jig continually. It's difficult to tempt winter-wary Bluegills, but there are a few baits that will do it consistently— small red manure worms, meal worms, and the grubs that you find inside goldenrod galls (bulb-like growths on the dry goldenrod stalks). Small pieces of bread strewn on the water to sink and crumbled eggshells will act as chum and attract fish.
minnows under water won't freeze
How to Ice-Fish
With dead bait that you must keep jigging, your fishing is limited to a single ice hole, but live minnows permit you to fish several holes. Chop the first over shallow water near shore, the next about 100 feet out over deeper water, the third 100 feet farther, etc. Each must have a tip-up, of course. Your bait should hang about 2 feet from the bottom, so lower a sinker through each hole to determine the depth, subtract 2 feet and measure out your fish line, tying a loop in the line to mark the length. Chop a small hole for the base of your tip-up, fill this hole with water so it freezes solid around the base; holding the tip-up upright, drop your line as far as the measured loop and hook it over the tip-up's trigger. You should tend your fishing holes constantly, skimming off any ice that might be forming over them, and jigging the minnows occasionally to keep them active. If you have loose line lying on the ice, be careful not to step on it and bury it in the icy surface where it might freeze and break when a fish pulls.
With tip-up fishing, a fish rarely hooks himself. His first tug on a worm or grub will release the warning flag, then the rest is up to you. If it was just a nibble, hold the line in your hand until he bites. If he doesn't after a moment, pull in because he probably took your bait. When a fish grabs a minnow, he'll first run with it, raising your flag. Let him go till he stops, then runs again. Remember, he always spits out the minnow at least once before swallowing it. Don't try to "play" a hooked ice-fish—haul him in as quickly as possible before he wakes up!