Learning to Ice Fish
Winter can be long and cold in many places in the country. Once the lakes freeze we have a great opportunity to get out on the ice and drop bait to hungry fish. Ice fishing requires very little investment and is a great way to put sustainable, organic meat on the table. We'll stroll you through your first attempt at ice fishing, tell you what you'll need, and offer what advice we can. Let's start with the first thing you'll need: Ice!
Here around Durango, Colorado we find that the ice is usually on most of the lakes around the end of December. Safety is always a big consideration in ice fishing, and you should always be careful when venturing onto the ice for the first time. It's never a bad idea to have one person, rope in hand, check the ice and dig a sample hole close to shore. Generally speaking, we want to see at least 6 inches of clear ice before we start running around out there. Sure, less ice can hold you but do you really want to push THIS envelope? Swimming under ice is bad for you, so follow this rule of thumb! Now that we have safe ice let's take a look at the other gear we'll need
Ice Fishing Auger
We need to get our lines in the water, and that's going to require a hole in the ice. I've seen people use shovels, rock bars, and even a chainsaw to make a hole in the ice. Sure, there's a hole in the ice when they're done but they have sore hands and have made enough noise to alert fish in the next state of their presence. The very best way to make a hole in the ice is with an ice fishing auger. It is just a big drill, tipped with sharp blades. If you maintain your blades and have them sharpened when they get dull, you will be able to drill a hole through 20 inches of ice in under a minute. It's a bit of sweat but it's worth it! They make powered ice fishing augers but honestly, unless you're dealing with several feet of ice, it's overkill. Sharp blades! You should be able to find a good auger for around 50 or 60 bucks, I like Mora augers just fine. So now we've got the ice and the ability to drill holes through it, we are in business! One extra thing that can help here is an ice scooper. A big slotted spoon even works. You want something that can scoop slush and ice out of the hole while letting water back through. Sure you could use your hand but that'd be silly! You can get a specialized ice fishing scooper for a few bucks, check your local mom and pop fishing shop before ordering from McFishing Inc.
Ice Fishing Rods & Reels
Ice fishing rods are ADORABLE! They're these cute little things, 25 to 30 inches long. The reason for the short rod is that you're sitting over a hole and you're going to try to pull a big fish through it. Imagine standing 6 feet away with a normal fishing rod. Yep, you look silly and it just doesn't work as well, however it IS entirely possible. A decent ice fishing pole will set you back $15 - $30. If you're fishing for a fish with a sensitive bite like Walleye, you might want to put the money into something special but really, the little cheapos work just fine. You're not casting, you're just vertically jigging or even just dunking bait, so a fancy rod is not needed. There are devices such as the Jaw Jacker that will hold your rod with the tip bent toward the water. A fish strike will release the hold and set the hook for you. I dunno, is that cheating? You can also use a tip up, which is a simple device that tips up a flag when a fish is on. In Colorado we can only have 2 rods in the water so usually these devices are not necessary. I've seen people ice fish with a spool of fishing line and a single weighted hook. They caught their limit and went home. You only need as much gear as you think you need. For a reel, just any reel works. If you're concerned with fish being line shy, try terminating your line with a few feet of thin flourocarbon leader, but it's a good idea to have heavier line on the reel. Line can rub against the edge of the hole, so it's nice to have something sturdy. Also, you never know what is going to bite, I've seen 8 pound Browns come through the ice. I heard that in 2012 a 15 pound, 30 inch Brown was pulled through the ice at Electra Lake, near Durango. You never know, so arm your reel well!
You've all heard me say awful things about bait and bait-fishermen. Well, this all changes during ice fishing. In Colorado, we are limited to a 10" round hole or a square hole with no side exceeding 10". When you only have a 10" column of water with which to work, it becomes necessary to stack the odds in your favor, and nothing does that like a nice stinky nightcrawler. Some people like using meal worms, and my own dirty secret bait is corn soaked in Anise oil. The Anise oil (not the baking stuff with alcohol in it, the real deal) attracts Kokanee Salmon and Trout seem to like it as well. Check your local regulations, as corn is not legal to use as bait in all 50 states. Chumming, dumping bait down the hole with the purpose of attracting fish, is illegal in Colorado. Little jigs work fantastic, and we've found that Kastmasters, tipped with bait, or one of the best things to use. We've also used blade minnows designed for vertical jigging. A little flash can never hurt. There are people who use tiny inline strobe lights on their line, and apparently it works wonders, but I've never tried it.
The Actual Fishing...
Alright, you've got ice, you've got a hole in it, you've got an adorable little fishing rod with a nice jigging spoon and some bait on it. How do you find the fish? There are expensive devices called "Flashers" which are essentially a depth finder and fish finder designed to be portable and readable in bright light. They can help you locate suspended fish. In our little lakes around here I have never really felt the need for a flasher, but maybe there's something to it when you're seeking hard to find fish like Walleye. Some people will tie in different colored patches of line at certain depths so you can get to the same place over and over again. I usually simply start at the bottom and work my way up a few cranks at a time. "Fish are about 5 cranks from the bottom" works just as well as "fish are at 35 feet!" and honestly, I usually find the fish near the bottom. Gently twitch your lure, stop, and twitch again. You can reel up and let it drop. If you have a 2 rod stamp, you can put one rod down with bait and just let it sit while actively jigging your other rod. A handy item for this is a little craft bell, it will alert you when a fish is hitting your bait. We often will drill more holes than we need in order to move from place to place in search of the fish. If you know a lake well, fish where you've caught fish before. Look for deeper water and have a blast. Another great way to find where the fish are is to simply watch for holes. If an area is swiss cheesed with ice fishing holes, chances are there are fish there. The fish are going to smack that thing and they're going to pull hard, so get ready! Once you've got a fish on, depending on the size you might have to coax it into the hole. If the fish is too heavy for your line, you'll want to grab it rather than trying to horse it out with your rod. If you're catching fish, especially Kokanee Salmon, get your line back in the water asap, as they will still be there.
Tips from slackers who ice fish a lot
A season on the ice will teach you everything you need to know, but maybe some of these tips will help you have a great first season. We've found that cross country skis are a great way to get to your spots, stay healthy and cover ground quickly. A sled lets you pull heavy gear from place to place. Why heavy gear? Well you're on the ice. You want a bucket for your fish, maybe some chairs, certainly some lunch and an adult beverage or three. Heck, why not bring some other stuff too? It's fun to make a day of it, to spend some time out in the sun, and enjoy it! Some people use little portable shelters to keep the wind off them, they're probably great, however, we find that in the sunny south, the weather is usually agreeable and have never felt the need for a shelter. If you put a jacket over your head and look down the ice hole, you can see quite far into the water without the glare. Try it, you'll be surprised. If you have some spare hard foam insulation, you can make a couple discs the same width as your auger. You can glue or tack them to a board and make a swanky ice hole cover if you plan to go back to the same spot the next day. The sled comes in handy for when the bite is off. Most of our lakes have hills down to the banks, so sledding can be a hoot! If you bring your doggie, which they seem to LOVE, make sure you bring something for them to lay on, it gets cold out there. Ice fishing is one of the most fun things you can do in the winter, and it is dirt cheap. Here in SW Colorado we have endless ways to fish 12 months a year, and this is one of the best! Good luck!!