Ice Prep: A First Time for Hard Water - The Fisherman

Ice Prep: A First Time for Hard Water

2018 12 A First Time For Hard Water Ice Fishing

In their long-range winter weather forecast, The Old Farmer’s Almanac has called for an El Niño season to bring warmer temperatures across most of North America this winter, with the following caveat:

Snowfall will be above normal in the north and below normal in the south, with the snowiest periods in late November, late December, early and late January, mid- to late February, and early March.

No doubt, ice anglers are a strange breed; the very thought of ice fishing opportunities coming with winter storms of January has us at the ready with the right gear, should Ol’ Man Winter come knocking.

“C’mon Lido, you don’t really need all that stuff to go out and ice fish, do you?” That’s typically what I hear when I ask someone to carry something from my truck onto the lake.  But considering that the best hard water hunting lies off the beaten path, if you think you might want to try ice fishing on the slide this winter, heed my advice – carry it just in case.

The first time I ever slipped onto the ice, we used old spools of line to lower down, and chopped holes in the ice with a hatchet and bloody bare knuckles. As middle-aged-dom has me peering through my cheaters to type this text, let me explain how we have “matured” in terms of ice fishing prep and the key items a successful ice angler loads into his truck.

Apparel & Stocking Coal

If you are going to sit out on a giant margarita for hours on end, throw some cash down as insulation between you and the ice with quality footwear. Cold feet kill outings, and those Timberlands are just not going to be comfortable. You get what you pay for here. Almost as important as solid boots, long thermal underwear is a necessity.

After years of putting holes in the weirdest places of all the best long johns I have concluded that without naming brands, the form fitting neoprene base layers surpass even silk (Yes, I had a pair.) for comfort and warmth. Look at the gift section of this fine periodical, and perhaps add some Korkers and grips on the bottom of those boots so that you don’t take a spill and grab something from my truck.

A snow jacket and bibs suitable for snowboarding, skiing, winter hikes or making snow angels should suffice as an outer layer. A solid navy watch hat and gloves round out the winter armor. What really zaps your body heat while ice fishing is the wind hitting exposed skin, which is why I like balaclavas for total cranial comfort. No, not a layered, nutty pastry, but a fleece hood, facemask and neck gaiter all in one.

Throw a tube of Chap Stick in your pocket for lips and face as well as a few charcoal packs in your socks and grab the auger from over there for me.

Auguring the Truth

Bare knuckles be damned, our dull hatchets and spud bars are no longer used to bludgeon the frozen sheet. A well sharpened auger; manual or gas-powered is the single largest investment for ice anglers. These mechanized drill bits vary from small 4-inch varieties all the way up to 10-inch cutters with engine sizes ranging from 20 to 40 ccs. Some augers use propane, and some are battery powered. There are also kits that can turn an electric drill into an auger. Gasoline has been the most reliable for me if you use ethanol free fuel. Let me repeat, you must use ethanol free fuel wherever and however possible; fuel hoses and freezing weather carburetors will thank you by starting on the first pull.

Electric augers have been increasing in popularity and the lithium powerpacks advertise over 100 holes on a single charge. In the past cold caused batteries to drain in about 30 seconds; that includes smart phones, cameras, video equipment, portable sonar and battery powered socks. There are those who would disagree, but I have always had bad luck with batteries around ghosts, and when the single-digit temps prevail, these new lithium ion batteries seem to be holding up to winter use.

Hank “King” of the Hill of Arlen, TX swears by propane and propane accessories. Augers powered by this clean fuel do not contaminate the environment like gas or run on empty like electricity. Propane augers are gaining in popularity with one small caveat – propane leaking from a tank can freeze your skin faster than carbonite encased Han Solo. On more than one occasion I have had my hand stick to the cylinders after cooking with propane. The wintry weather freezes the ball valves at the necks of the bottles and as the gas pours out it freezes. I once had to pull over on the way home after getting woozy. The bottle had filled the truck with propane, no laughing (gas) matter.

Propane can and does have a purpose out on the ice, but we prefer the charcoal for cooking, and the gas for drilling.

Tipping the Odds & Rods

This may freeze you in your tracks but there is a significant investment in gear when it comes to the terminal used to catch fish through the ice. A stick and string or line wrapped around a water bottle may catch a few fish but purchasing some quality tip-ups and a jigging rod or two will skyrocket your chances to put fish on the high side of the solid stratum.

2018 12 A First Time For Hard Water MARK
“Big Game” Mark Modoski with a pickerel that was eager to play. Photo by Chris Lido

Tip-ups are used to store line and have a flag built into the device that “tips up” signaling a bite. The fish is then brought in hand over fish until it flops through the hole. I have used quite a few unique styles from standard X- shaped tip-ups to trap-style models that use wind energy to jig the bait up and down. States vary in the amount of tip-ups to be used at once (In New Jersey, that number is five.).

My favorite is the circular tip-up that covers the holes. In times of freezing conditions and snow fall this style keeps the holes open as well as prevents ambient light from spooking fish. With other contrivances, the holes freeze quickly requiring frequent chipping, straining and chopping. Nothing is more frustrating than having a flag go up and then having to punch through the ice with bare knuckles (sense a theme) before being able to grasp the line to set the hook.

You may choose a more active approach to your ice fishing this winter and jig artificial lures as opposed to baiting a tip-up and waiting. Tip-ups and big game are my “thing,” but friends of mine sporting small custom ice jigging rods, underwater cameras and sonar have taken jigging to a whole new level akin to trolling the frozen substrate for fish. They drill multiple holes with their gas augers and cover as much water as possible while using small ice jigs and spoons tipped with mousies and waxworms.

Ice rods are as varied as any tackle and some even have spring tips that detect even the smallest of panfish and when paired with a small ultralight reel will keep the muscles moving on even the coldest of days atop the frozen tundra. Most manufacturers have gotten into the ice craze, and some pro-staffers even have their own signature models.

Sonar Sounds Good

Back in the Pleistocene when I started ice fishing we would lower a weight to the bottom and walk it back from the hole to see how deep the water was. Nowadays there are portable sonar units designed for ice fishing, capable of showing the relation of a 1/62-ounce jig to the feeding maw of a 6-inch sunfish and can even tell you the type of vegetation unseen below. These units feature a floating transducer that sits on top of the water in the hole and can be used as a flasher or standard view depthfinder. Many of these portable units feature GPS to get you back on the hot spot.

One of the handiest units that I have for tip-up fishing looks light a flashlight and can give a quick accurate depth measurement with the touch of a button. I have also converted standard sonar units by affixing the transducer to a bracket that rests on the edge of the hole. I can safely say that my fishing buddies who use the current technology catch more fish than I do jigging, but the tip-ups account for the bigger fish and it leaves me to man the fire or grill.

2018 12 A First Time For Hard Water TIPUP
Unlike the traditional wood tip-up, round tip-ups like the ones by Frabill are preferred by the author (and this pickerel) for keeping snow, slush, and even unnatural sunlight that might spook fish in shallower water out of your hole. Photo by Chris Lido

Fish are cold-blooded, and people are warm-blooded. Predator and prey both need sustenance while sharing the frozen white wasteland of winter. For that reason, check with your local bait shop to make sure they are open before purchasing a few dozen shiners for tip-ups or mousies for jigging. Dig out that old thermos and brew a fresh pot of mud and throw that grill you use for tailgating at football games into your sled. Lament their latest losses and wait for a bite while grilling and chilling.

A small folding table and a sled to keep all this great ice gear in are indispensable and saves wear and tear on your back. Eating while lying on the ice is best left to the coyotes, foxes, gulls and other wildlife that you will share a winter experience with as you leave the comforts of your warm living room to do what just comes naturally – fish on!

  1. Never go out on the ice alone. If you do something ridiculous, who will be there to laugh at you and take pictures?
  2. Tip-ups that have lights and sirens may go off unexpectedly and cause you to think you are getting pulled over while driving to the lake.
  3. Never add lighter fluid to a charcoal grill and close it; it only creates a weapon of mass destruction when opened again.
  4. A full contact game of ice hockey tends to scare fish.
  5. Hard liquor results in hard falls on the ice.
  6. Running to a tip-up on the ice takes years of practice. Fill a kiddie pool with 30 weight oil in the summer to simulate conditions.
  7. Bringing your significant other is never a clever idea (My significant other looked over my shoulder and suggested this one.).
  8. Pork roll can in fact be cooked on sharpened sticks over charcoal spread out on the ice when the grill is left at home.
  9. An un-insulated bait bucket may result in a 50-pound ice sculpture with shiners frozen inside.
  10. Stuffing your face at holiday dinner is a fantastic way to get in shape for ice fishing season!




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