Friday, January 18, 2013

Ice Fishing 101

The bitter cold temperatures across the US has put ice fishing season in full swing over much of our country, and SUH&F has been fortunate to get out already several times this winter to enjoy the early season fishing!  Through the videos, pictures, and Facebook we have received a lot of questions about what gear to use, techniques, and keys to success when it comes to ice fishing.  In response, we are going to break down ice fishing, from the needs of the beginning ice fisherman, those on a budget, or those looking to get more serious when it comes to ice fishing.  It's only mid season, but as retailers prepare for the spring season you will already find a lot of ice fishing gear about to go on clearance, if it has not already.  Now is the time for great deals!  But before we get to far, let's start off with the basics.  Keep in mind we are going to be talking about regular prices, not the great deals you might find on clearance items.  Would you believe you can get started for under $100?

Basic Gear

Auger:   Well, to start off you need a way to get through the ice!  For those starting out, you can find hand augers for as low as $40, running up to about $100.  I really like Eskimo brand hand augers.  For most lakes, a 6" auger will do, and you will find Eskimo hand augers in the $40-$60 range, depending on size and model.  I will say that I could drill a hole with a 6" hand auger almost 3 times as fast as I could with an 8".  Find a blade sharpener to save you some life on buying replacement blades.  This is going to be your most expensive item to get started.

Fishing Pole:  If you are really strapped for cash, just take your spin rod to the lake.  The downside is you have to sit back further from the hole, and if it's not a really light action rod you may miss feeling or seeing some bites.  Under the ice, fish will often bite very lightly.  You can fix this by buying a few (very cheap) Styrofoam bobbers to see that bite.   If you can do it, buy you an ice rod!  You would be very surprised that you can find a very good rod/reel combo for $10-$15!  My first ice rod was a $15 setup, and I have added a few to the collection.  My favorite is one I spent a little more money on, a Shakespear "Ugly Stick" ice rod with a nicer reel, running me about $40 total.  Was it necessary or more beneficial?  Not really, I just really liked the look and feel.  I prefer ice rods with a little more length (around 30") and a little more rigid construction.  This is to handle larger fish in some of the lakes I fish.  In most waters, catching anything under 6 pounds will be doable on a lighter action ice rod.  There's a whole line of makes, models, and types out there for your consideration.

Ladle (Skimmer):  This one might seem silly, but I can't believe I ever tried to ice fish without one.  When we first started out, I remember sneaking a large, slotted cooking spoon out of grandma's kitchen to use as a scoop for the ice.  Fail!  I spent more time scooping with my hands than the spoon!  Save yourself the trouble and but a ladle!  You can find plastic ladles for under $5, and the more durable metal skimmers for just under $10.  During the day, blowing snow or a refreezing hole will create ice buildup in the ice hole that your line will snag on.  Keeping it clear is a must.  You will also have a lot of slush to scoop out after drilling the hole.

Tackle:  You really don't need a lot for ice fishing as far as tackle goes.  I can fit all of my tackle, bait, snacks, and all in a 5 gallon bucket, that can also double as your seat for those starting out.  Tackle does vary depending on what you are fishing for.  For typical trout, crappie jigs 1/4 oz or less will work fine.  For larger trout, you will want to look for larger tube jigs, spoons, or larger jigs in general.  I have caught many on my trout under the ice on spinners and spoons (Kastmasters, Little Jakes,Rooster Tails, etc.) just like I use in the summer.  However, my success is greatly improved with small tube jigs (1/2" or less, up to 2.5"), marabou jigs, deer hair jigs, or other jigs that look like small fish.  A lot of time color will be your most important item for successful fishing, so but a variety.  At most outdoor stores you can buy a variety pack of crappie jigs for under $10.  It will give you a lot of options.  Some people talk about powerbait success while ice fishing.  I will tell you, I have never had a productive day ice fishing with powerbait.  Price will vary on what you buy, but most 5-10 packs of jigs will be under $5.  I tie them directly onto my line, but some people do prefer using a leader.  See the "line" topic below for my opinion on lines.  Other than that, a pair of pliers and a knife are about all I need for the day.

Safety:  Generally, 4" of ice is considered safe, but even after ice fishing for about 15 years, I don't feel very comfortable until I see 6" of ice.  A lot of people really fear the popping and cracking the ice makes.  It can get pretty noisy once the sun hits it in the morning!  I have always been told this is a good sign, it shows that it's cold enough that the ice is strengthening.  I have never heard of anyone falling in due to the ice cracking under them.  It's usually caused by someone walking onto thin ice and simply falling through.  Test the ice as you go out to make sure it's uniform.  Early ice can be sketchy, as lakes will tend to freeze in segments, from the shore towards the center.  As the season goes on, the center becomes the strongest part of the lake.  Always proceed with caution, and early on avoid those large cracks we call "pressure ridges".  That's where accidents usually happen.  As the ice thickens these become no problem, they just look a bit scary.  You will always see hundreds of cracks in the ice below you, just keep in mind those are caused by the pressure of the ice expanding against itself.  Those cracks are safe, and you will no doubt see now form as you walk along.  It will spook you, no doubt, but again, I have never heard of anyone falling in due to that popping and cracking of the ice.

To be safe, be sure to take good footwear, or even buy you some "cleats" or in other words spikes that slip right over your boot to give you traction.  These can be found for under $20.  Also, buy yourself a pair of spikes.  Wear these around your neck and if by the unfortunate chance that you do fall in, use the spikes to stab the ice to pull yourself up.  Taking a small buoy or life jacket attached to a rope to throw to your buddy for a floatation device is also a good idea.

20" Splake
Clothing:  Our family dresses pretty simple for an outing; thermal underwear, snow pants over our clothes (or overalls) a warm coat, gloves, and a beanie, and we double up our socks in our snow boots.  We take a bunch of hand warmers for the kids' hands, and even some toe warmers for their boots.  These are getting pretty cheap, we buy large packs of them for around $5 each.  Early morning fishing can be bitter, but once the sun comes up we are usually shedding layers.  Most ice fishing days aren't as cold as you would think.   Try to keep your feet and hand dry, and the kids from laying in the snow and it is usually a good day!

Bait:  For trout, meal worms and wax worms are typically best.  I also like to use shrimp.  Yes, that's right, shrimp.  Buy a few cocktail shrimp, tear small chunks off and tip the jig with shrimp.  Tipping with cut bait is also very good.  Perch, chub, and sucker meat can produce great fishing.  Be sure to check the regulations of your lake to see what you can use.  For example, it is illegal to take chub meat to a lake that has never had chubs, even if all you are doing is using cut bait.  Check your regulations before tipping those jigs with cut bait.  Nightcrawlers can also be productive.  

Looking to become a more "serious" fisherman?

Gear:  Here's the big things that bothered me as ice fishing became more of a serious thing; I hated packing all of that stuff out there, and I hated drilling holes by hand, especially when the ice was almost 2 feet thick!  Here are some things to help out!

Sled:  What an investment!  I can fit all of my gear in this little plastic gem, and it saves me a ton of energy of packing everything onto the ice.  You will find them in various sizes, ranging from about $30 to $100.  My Cabela's sled ran me about $40, and can fit my power auger, 2 buckets full of tackle snacks, and poles, a cooler, fish finder, 2 chairs and if I stack it right, even my ice shelter.  It's a bit more money that others it's size, but it is also a more durable construction.  It's on sale now for $39.99.

Power Auger:  Again, here you will find that Eskimo is my favorite brand.  Eskimo has quite a selection of augers, I went with the Stingray series, running me about $300.  The 22cc Viper engine has been plenty for ice up to 24" thick, and has run great for me.  They also have augers up to 10" diameter, the Shark 71cc, which is hailed as "the most powerful ice auger in the world".  It will run you about $540.  My power auger has saved me a lot of time and energy.  In fact, I went in on this investment with my grandpa and a friend, one of the best deals I have made with buddies on something like this.

Ice Shelter:  We bought our first ice shelter last year, mainly as a way for the kids to escape the wind.  I love it!  While most days I don't use it (it will get so hot it will run me out!) but it has on several occasions been a life saver on breezy days.  Again, I go with Eskimo, an I love their new Fat Fish series.  The wider bottom promotes more fishable space.  I picked up this 4 person shelter for about $250, however, depending on number of people and features, you will find them from about $80 to $500.  Here's follow this link for my complete review of the Fat Fish 949 shelter:

Fish Finder:  A fish finder was one of the best ice investments I made!  In larger lakes, it can be so hard to find the fish, what depth, where they are suspended, and what size.  I went with a Humminbird "Little Buddy" fish finder, running me about $130.  I also bought it to use with my float tube in the summer.  If you have the money, I would get the Humminbird portable fish finder.  The Ice 345 will run you about $350, but the features are worth it.  With an actual ice fishing finder you can see your jig in relation to the fish.  I cannot with the Little Buddy. 

Line:  I have upgraded my fishing line from what came on my rod/reel combos.  For lighter tackle with most trout species, I use 8 pound "Micro Ice".  It provides a very easy feel for those light bites, and doesn't seem to ice up as much.  For the larger fish, specifically lake trout, I go with a fluorocarbon line.  This line is very low visibility in water, lake trout can be very picky when they can see the line.  It is also a very low memory line, meaning it doesn't retain the loops from the reel as much as regular line.  It also has less stretch to it than normal line, providing a better hook set at greater depths.

Technique:  This is for both those advanced, and for the beginner.  For most lakes, when it comes to trout fishing you will find the fish in shallow water in the winter.  I have caught trout in as little as 4 feet of water up to 20 feet of water, most in the 4-12 foot range.  This is my trick that typically works; let it sink to the bottom and come up 2 reels, then start jigging lightly.  If that's not working, I stop the jigging and just let it sit.  If nothing, I reel up in 1 reel increments, jigging and stopping until I find that magic depth.  Most often they are near the bottom.  For the large, deep lakes where the fish are will depend on species.  One of my favorite lakes for example has several species.  Rainbows are found from anywhere in the lake, at any depth inside of 30' of water, and suspended in deeper water.  Splake hang near the bottom from about 20-40 feet of water, and will also suspend in deeper water.  Lake trout are usually found near the bottom in 90-105 feet of water, but can surprise you being suspended now and then.  This is where the fish finder comes in!  It can be hard to find the right depth to fish on a large lake, let alone actually finding the fish!

On a recent trip to Fish Lake, Utah things were not so easy.  Our magic depth has always been 30' of water, near the weed line before the lake dives off to depths over 100 feet.  We started the day by catching perch in 15 feet of water to use as bait.  Moving out to deeper water, I drilled a line of holes from 25' deep to 45', as usual.  We found the fish at 30', and began fishing.  We were getting a few lite bites, but could not pick up anything on the usual 2.5" tube jigs we usually use.

So, I switched over to a paddle bug jig, and moved about 15' closer to shore, still in 30' of water.  Bam!  Fish on in an instant!  Then fish, after fish, after fish!  My grandpa moved in to join and dropped the 2.5" tube jig that has been so successful in the past down the hole.  Nothing!  We switched him over to a paddle bug and he was into the fish.

The actual jigging technique had a lot to do with our success as well.  In the past at this lake, for us, active jigging is what has paid off.  The splake have always seemed to nail the jig when we were constantly jigging.  Last year was a little more frustrating; it seemed better to just let the jig sit and not to move it very often.  This time it took a combination.  We would jig it slowly a few times, then the light bites would start to come when we would let it sit still for a minute.  When they would start biting lightly, slowly giving the line a little tension to just barely move the jig would result in a stronger bite that you could time to hook.  As often is the case, for my success I have to try a variety of jigging patterns to find what works for that day; from letting it sit, long slow jigging strokes, short fast movement, or a combination. 

So the short story, when it comes to ice fishing, if you haven't found a fellow ice fisherman that has divulged the best jig to you, it may take some trial and error.  Try different shaped jigs, different colors, and move around a bit to find what works.  I have had very few poor ice fishing days, and usually the ones that start off poor, like this Fish Lake trip can be salvaged by finding what and where works.

Now get out there and enjoy, and send us a few pics of your success!

All of the gear mentioned today can be found at almost all of your local sporting goods stores in areas where there is ice to fish on.  On the web, check out the deals at Cabela's and Sportsman's Warehouse.  Additionally, local to Southern Utah check out Hurst Ace Hardware in Cedar City, and Jorgensen's in Richfield.  You local Wal-Mart will also carry a lot of your tackle items.  Be sure to take advantage of the great clearance sales this time of year!

If you are in the Fish Lake area and plan to stay, be sure to check out the Snuggle Inn in nearby loa for good rooms and cheap rates!  Also be sure to top off your night with some awesome Tosconos Pizza, the pizzeria is located inside of the Snuggle Inn.  Give them a cal for details, 435-836-2898.  Tosconos and the Snuggle Inn are located at 55 South Main Street in Loa.

Fish Lake is a great  place to recreate year-round!  Check out this past post on what the Fish Lake area has to offer.  This is a great weekend destination, or vacation getaway!