Are you ready to go ice fishing?
By Bill Graves
While minimal snow cover is a detriment to skiing, snowshoeing and snowmobiling, at least some days and most nights offer frigid ice-forming temperatures so local lakes and ponds are freezing to support ice fishing. The big question is, if you get a spur-of-the-moment invitation, do you know where all your gear is located? And is it all in working order?
For decades I’ve used a full-sized wicker pack basket to store and carry my ice fishing traps, handlines, jigging rods, ice scoops, hooks, sinkers, depth sounders, extra line and pretty much everything but the gas-powered ice auger. Pre-season each year, usually in mid-December, I unburden the tote basket, spreading everything out on my den floor for inspection and upgrading.
I very much enjoy handlining for smelt and perch and find 6- or 8-pound monofilament works best. To prevent tangling and afford ease of transport, I use homemade wooden carriers. It took me little time at all to cut 8-inch lengths of ¼-by-2-inch lathes and saw V-notches into each end and drill a small hole through the center point to attach the line’s terminal end. I wind 50-, 75- and 100-foot lengths of monofilament lengthwise around the notches and use a permanent marker to note the length on the wooden edge of each line holder. Attach a red or gold — my favorite color is red — size 8 or 10 hook and place the point into the wood to keep each outfit tight and untangled during transit. Also, when cold fingers fumble and the entire rig drops into the fishing hole, it floats, and no gear is lost.
It’s important to unwind and check each landline for knots or worn spots, and replace if necessary. Occasionally a larger game fish may strike the cut bait or jigging line and a weak spot in the mono can end the fight in a hurry. A new hook or at least applying a file to the old one also assures better results. A small, round clamp-on weight helps get lines down quickly and holds them straight so nibbles can be felt and seen easier. Don’t forget that lead sinkers are now illegal so head to your nearest sporting goods store and purchase a new stock of the non-toxic variety.
If you use short, limber jigging rods, go over them next. Check and change lines where necessary and determine that all line guides and the lightweight reels are solidly attached. Apply either a dry graphite lubricant or spray and wipe dry the gears and mobile mechanism of the reel and drag system. A couple of file swipes along the hook point edges of your jigging lures proves good maintenance as well.
Servicing a dozen or so tip-ups takes a bit more time and attention. Ice, snow and freezing temperatures are hard on equipment. The reel drag system and flag release mechanisms tend to need some adjustment each season, but are fairly simple to locate and fix. If a flag is lost, torn or badly faded, I replace them. Most manufacturers use red or orange flags, but against a snowy background at long distance, black or even dark green catch the eye far easier.
Since some of my tip-ups are specialized with larger hooks, heavier line and even wire leaders for toothy musky and large togue, I make sure all components are still in top condition. Leaders should be replaced before each season. These changes and repairs are easy and quick in the warm confines of your den or TV room, but uncomfortable and often frustrating on a frigid, windy lake surface when it’s time to fish.
If you’re still using a muscle-powered auger, be sure to sharpen the blade to ease drilling. Gas-powered augers should be sharpened as well, and spark plugs changed, throttle adjusted and moving parts greased and oiled. If it still refuses to run smoothly, seek expert help from the nearest small engine repair shop. Wrestling a finicky, dull power auger through heavy slush and dense ice is no joy on a frigid day. There’s a whole new line of rechargeable battery powered ice drills that are changing the sport and eliminating a lot of mechanical issues as well as the need to transport gas, serious “hard water” anglers should investigate.
If you carry an ice chisel, put an edge on it now, while you’re inside and warm. I carry a lightweight shovel to move snow and clear a spot on the ice before drilling, It can several other uses on an outing as well. Check your ice scoops to be sure they are intact and functional. More than once I’ve seen cold fingers lose a scoop down a hole, so I carry two on every outing.
Locate your bait bucket and minnow net. If you don’t have a net or plastic scoop, pick one up at the local sporting goods store. On subzero days, dipping your hands into the bait bucket dozens of times and then exposing them to freezing air isn’t being tough, it’s being foolhardy. While at the fishing shop look over the plastic sleds, too. A high-sided plastic toboggan will pull gear easier across snow than a sportsman can backpack and lug it.
I also recommend a small plastic bucket for transporting half a dozen bait fish across the ice when there’s a flag. It’s far simpler than hauling the entire large bait bucket and not a catastrophe if it’s tipped over or dropped. Also in my ice fishing backpack is a set of quick-attach ice creepers to go over my boots, just for that rare glare ice and no-snow situation. I don’t bounce back from tumbles like I used to. How about you?
Ice fishing is just getting into full swing, so best dig out your equipment and check it over soon. Don’t forget that a New Year means a new fishing license is required, on a weekend or for an unexpected spur-of-the-moment outing, it’s possible to get the needed paperwork right online in case it slipped your mind and the local town office isn’t open. Whenever and wherever you decide to visit, check the ice depth carefully for safety’s sake and here’s hoping your flags keep flying.