By Shawn Hines
Visualize grossly overdressed anglers toting super-sized drills and kid-sized rods, waddling around an ice hole, attempting to coax out unseen fish. This sight is not only ridiculous; the activity is absolutely addictive. Growing up in Texas, the only ice for miles was generously heaped into cups to chill a drink on a stifling hot day. Upon moving to Colorado over 20 years ago, I resisted the invitations from many friends to give this seemingly mundane pursuit a fair chance. I was taught that only one person ever walked on water, so the act of stepping out onto a sheet of frozen water amid a cacophony of cracks and moans raised more than a few puckers for this lowland transplant.
The concept was simple enough. Watching the ritual unfold still had yet to raise a hair on my neck…until the first flag popped. All tasks were immediately halted. Everyone raced to the hole with all eyes fixed on the eight inch portal into the watery abyss. It was a tip up rig, so the line was pulled up firmly, but with the finesse that allowed the fish to make multiple runs before tiring. After what felt like minutes, the head of a toothy water dragon emerged through the opening and a 28” Northern pike was held for admiration by our entire group. Hero shots were taken, high fives were intermixed with fist bumps as this underwater leviathan was gently released back into his realm to fight another day.
Something clicked. While this was not the fishing I was taught by my grandfathers along the banks of the Trinity River, it was absolutely fishing and damn fun. My first bits of gear were hand-me-down rods, a second hand sled with a hole in the bottom, and a five gallon bucket. My big purchase was electronics. I picked up a flasher-style fish locator. It uses a series of red, green, yellow, and orange lights to show your lure as well as any fish cruising through the water column below. The information is relayed to a circular display via a cone-shaped transducer dropped into a hole in the ice.
As with any pursuit, the gear involved can be as simple as the bare necessities, but there are a myriad of stores that are more than willing to outfit you with the latest and greatest equipment, all with the swipe of a magnetic strip. As a self-diagnosed gear junkie, I have amassed enough gear to make one corner of my garage permanently inaccessible for a solid portion of the year. If you're already drinking the hardwater Kool Aid, I am preaching to the converted, but if you are contemplating a new way to enjoy winter and possibly bring home some wonderful table fare, then read on and I will break down the gear that I have found to be essential and effective for a foray into the world of ice fishing.
1. Rod & Reel. There are many types available, but unless your target is something specific, like musky or lake trout (which can grow to well over 25lbs), a small spinning reel mounted on a 24-36” rod with a medium action and a supple tip will handle most any fish from bluegill to walleye and even pike. There are many rod/reel combos that fall into this category from companies like Fenwick, Clam, Shimano, and 13 Fishing to name a few. Most combos can be had for $30-$60.
Side note: Line selection is actually pretty important. Monofilament is prone to curling up in cold water and creating a bird nest on the reel. The preferred way to spool up a reel is to use braided line such as Power Pro, Sufix, Clam Frost or any similar brand as backing on the reel. Most are sold in 50yd spools; one spool will fill one rod sufficiently. Attached to the business end of that braid, I use a 3-6’ section of fluorocarbon like Vanish or Berkley FireLine tied with an Albright knot or something similar.
2. Tackle. Fortunately, you do not need a Bassmaster’s super deluxe 20-tray tackle bag, complete with 200 assorted crankbaits, spinnerbaits and soft plastics, to go ice fishing. Ice fishing is quite affordable when looking at options for bait and here are a few essentials:
- Spoons: an assortment of spoons such as the Kastmaster, Swedish Pimple, VMC Tingler, and the Clam Leech Flutter Spoon in 1/16-1/8oz are lethal for most species of fish. Depending on water color, it’s good to have silver, gold, and white as well as patterns mimicking perch, trout and baitfish.
- Jigs: tungsten and lead are the two primary jigheads. While tungsten is a bit more expensive, it tends to sink faster, but either function well. Colors ranging from white, yellow, chartreuse, pink, and green are common and the patterns on some jigs are as varied as the companies that make them. Again, 1/16-1/8oz is plenty of weight to get down to the proper depth in most cases.
- Worms: mealworms (mealies), wax worms (waxies), and spikes are the three most common worms used. Crawlers are also used and the debate over which is the best rages on the ice and on forums with no end in sight. I have used all with great success. What isn’t argued is the application of worms. Common practice is to take a worm and thread it onto one of the hooks of any jig or spoon to give additional movement, liveliness and scent to your presentation.
- Minnows: fatheads are the most common, but there are many options. These can either be fished live on a jighead by hooking it through the lips. The other practice is the pinch the head off of your minnow and thread the head onto either a jig or spoon. Both are lethal and few fish can resist a minnow when the bite is on.
3. Electronics. While not necessary, these are game changers for fishing through the ice. They range in price from $150-2,000, depending on how far down this rabbit hole you dare to tread. I have electronics from both ends of the spectrum and both work very well for their intended use. The lower end of the price range is where you'll find the traditional flashers that show flashing lights to indicate lure depth as well as fish entering the water column below. The higher end electronics will show more detail and a wider view of the water below in real time. Both are clutch in showing when fish are below as well as the depth of those fish. Since everything is happening in an 8” hole, it’s imperative to know if the fish are suspended or cruising the bottom…or if they are even there at all. The most prominent brands are Garmin, Marcum, Vexilar, and Humminbird.
4. A five gallon bucket. If you do not have at least one five gallon bucket on the ice, are you even an ice fisherman? These are a staple to ice fishing and for good reason. Not only does is hold most all of the items listed below, but it also doubles as a seat or a place to set your beer down without getting your koozie wet. White, orange, blue, black, green…the color is irrelevant, but do not leave your house without one.
Other tools at the same level as the infamous bucket include:
- Ice skimmer: these are $5-8 and they are essential for clearing the ice out of the holes after they are drilled. They are also clutch for clearing out skim ice from holes on colder days.
- Bait puck: this is nothing more than an insulated canister that keeps your worms from freezing.
- Rod holder: these can be metal, plastic, PVC or wood. They can be made at home or purchased from most tackle retailers. I have seen a few rods get pulled to the bottom of a lake by careless fishermen who left their rod laying on the ice next to the hole.
- Pliers or hemostats: most jigs are smaller hooks and most spoons are treble hooks. Neither of which are easy to remove with numb fingers, so have a pair of these.
- Hand warmers: these can extend a fishing trip on a cold day by throwing them into a pair of mitts or sliding them into a pair of boots to keep fingers and toes warm.
- Foam pad: a foam pad or mat is a great way to keep the cold at bay. I typically put one on the ice next to the hole to use as a kneeling pad or a buffer to keep my feet off the ice. Stay warm, stay longer.
- Ice cleats: on clear ice, these are the difference between safely moving across a frozen surface or giving the appearance of a drunken ice skater. Brands like YakTrax are the most common, but many options are out there.
5. Ice auger. There are three main types of augers and each has its place. They typically come in 6”, 8” and 10”. A 6” auger is suitable for most applications, but there are advantages to the larger sizes as well. All will do the job and here's a rundown on each:
- Hand augers are the simplest and most affordable. They are not ideal for those drilling through very thick ice or when drilling many holes.
- Gas augers are fast and best used where the temps are very cold since they are fairly impervious to weather conditions. They tend to be noisy and the potential for fuel messes makes them less suited for some.
- Electric augers are a solid choice for those who want more than a hand auger but don’t want to deal with the maintenance and mess of a gas auger. The downside to electric augers is that the batteries should be kept warm to keep them from draining their charge. Aside from that, these augers are capable of quietly drilling more than enough holes for even the most enthusiastic hardwater anglers.
6. Sleds, huts, and heaters. I’m including these because while not essential, they can make or break a trip, especially if you have kiddos. Here's some deets on each one:
- Sleds: no need to get fancy here. I have multiple sleds that I have bought and made. This is basically the ice fisherman’s Radio Flyer and as you amass more gear, it makes the trip from the truck to the ice much less burdensome while also serving as a shuttle for tired little people looking to get a free ride back to the shoreline. Jet Sled and Otter are the two most notable brands of molded sleds.
- Huts: some are large and some are small. There are insulated models, uninsulated models, and the features on these are seemingly endless. The functionality of a hut can make a windy foray into an enjoyable experience. Clam and Eskimo are two of the more well known brands.
- Heaters: a propane heater inside of a hut can turn an arctic front into the Riviera. Mr. Heater is the most prominent brand and aside from giving a respite from cold weather, there are also aftermarket attachments that allow your heater to be used as a small stovetop to heat up edibles such as Pizza Rolls, Hot Pockets, and canned soup. There is something extremely comforting about having a hot meal in a warm hut on a blustery day. I have extended my fishing day by hours when the kiddos know that they can sit indoors and chow down on chicken nuggets and hot chocolate. Play to your audience!
I’ll close with a quick thought or two on this pursuit that now has me praying for frigid temps like I never imagined. Be safe out there. Always, always check ice conditions before every outing and never assume that the ice where you are standing is the same depth as where you are going. At the very least, have a throw bag and make sure everyone is wearing ice spikes around their necks in the event that anyone should fall through. Today, there are also bibs and jackets that are specifically designed for ice fishermen that have built-in buoyancy to keep you afloat for up to two hours. Ice fishing is amazingly fun in that you really don’t know what you are going to catch, and in the day of social media and technology, I have come to prefer my screen time be spent watching my electronics in anticipation of the next bite.