Here it is the last day in January and I realized that I haven’t written a thing yet about ice fishing. Ice fishing is one of my favorite winter time activities, especially here in Colorado where a sunny day can be quite pleasant on a frozen lake. In fact the first winter I moved here I got the worst sunburn of my life ice fishing on a mountain lake. I was naïve then and didn’t realize the effects of the sun and snow at 8,000 feet above sea level, even though it was the middle of February. On that note, be sure to use sunscreen when you are ice fishing.
Ice fishing is just like any other outdoor sport; you can be successful with the basics as well as with the most luxurious gear available. To a lot of people, ice fishing is as serious as deer or elk hunting, and the market for gear is incredible. In some places in the northern states whole colonies of elaborate ice fishing huts are set up on lakes all winter long, and these are not just little shelters, they can be like little cabins on the ice.
Since this is my first post on ice fishing, I will start with some basics for those who may be new to the sport. Getting into ice fishing is actually very easy and inexpensive, especially if you are a hunter and already have the clothing you need. As with all winter activities, it is best to dress in layers. Remember the three W’s of layering: Wicking inside layer, Warmth middle layer(s) and Wind/Water outer layer. The Wicking layer should be a polypropylene material for long underwear and sock liners. The Warmth layer(s) should be fleece or wool. The Wind/Water layer should be Gore-Tex or at least 60/40 nylon.
For your hands, I prefer wool mittens, which are warmer than gloves. Your fingers will keep each other warmer than being separated by glove fingers. I like the wool mittens where you can expose your fingers easily without taking off the whole glove. On days when it is not too cold, I wear wool half-gloves which leave your fingers exposed from the middle knuckle up. You need to have your bare fingers quickly available when ice fishing; you can’t put on a lure or release a fish with gloves on.
A good hat that covers your ears, neck, and throat is essential, and preferably one with a visor to help with sun glare off of the snow or ice. Sunglasses are also a must.
The boots you wear are critical to your comfort. Your upland bird hunting boots won’t do well for ice fishing, it is best to get a pair of Sorel Pack boots, or a pair of what elk hunters refer to as “muck” boots, which are surprisingly warm and comfortable without the huge bulk of some winter boots. You will also want boots with good tread on the sole, and I always use a pair strap-on metal traction chains.
Once you have the clothing, the gear can be very basic. You will need an auger to drill through the ice. I have used a hatchet and a long ice chisel, but an auger works best. Even a hand-powered auger can drill through three feet of ice pretty easily. If you get really serious about it, you can buy a gas-powered auger, but I have never used one. For a sled you can buy a cheap plastic sled six feet long, with at least a six inch wall around the whole sled, this will carry all of your gear. Tie a rope to it and pull everything behind you on your way to fish.
Some other essentials are an ice scoop, which is basically a huge ladle with holes in it to scoop out ice chunks from the hole you have drilled in the ice. You will also want something to sit on, which a lot of people use an empty 5 gallon bucket turned upside down. The bucket is good for carrying your rods on the sled too.
For rods, there are many options available from tip-ups to specialized jigging rods. I would suggest that if you are just starting out, take the upper half of an old spinning rod, drill a hole in a two inch dowel rod about eight inches long, glue the rod into the dowel, and duct tape a small spinning reel onto the dowel. This makes a very simple, inexpensive ice fishing rod with materials that you probably have in your garage right now.
You can either use bait, like wax worms, shad sides, or trout bait, or you can use jigs or other lures that are especially made for ice fishing. The list of ice fishing lures these days is extensive, you have many choices. I stick with the basics though as I would not consider myself a hard core ice fisherman who goes out every weekend. Maybe I would if I were married, but getting out ten times a year is good enough for me.
The last thing I will talk about today is safety, which has to be the most important consideration for ice fishing. Clear black ice is the strongest ice, and it should be at least four inches thick to support a person. In places like where I live, the edges of a large lake can thaw and re-freeze many times a season, while the ice ten feet from the shore will remain solid all winter long. I point this out so that you don’t get discouraged if you go to the lake and find broken up ice and water to wade through to actually get on the ice shelf. I would not recommend driving your vehicle on ice until you have become a very experienced ice-fisherman, which is a whole other topic.
You should have some basic survival gear, like a whistle, some ice picks (I will write another article about how to make a basic pair of ice picks), a cell phone, rope, food and lots of water. As with any outdoor activity, be sure to tell someone where you are going and when you expect to be home. I always bring a radio too and listen to whatever sport happens to be going on at the time.
Ice fishing can be a very exciting winter adventure, and after writing this I am anxious to get out for my first time this year, maybe on Monday.