As I set my last trap, the sun begins to show, illuminating the vast sheet of creaking ice that lies beneath my feet. I can no longer hear the booming, echoing hoots from the barred owl that resides along the shore of the small cove. Its call has been replaced by the quiet chirps of songbirds and the distant quacks from high-flying ducks that, like me, are getting ready for a long winter day.
As I gaze into the sunrise, I begin to ponder why it is, exactly, that I’m attracted to frozen ponds in the dead of winter. Perhaps it’s moments like the one at hand, where I’m surrounded by nature’s silence and treated to a brilliant skyscape. Or maybe it’s the same deep-rooted carnivorous instincts that put our ancestors at the top of the food chain that drives me to try to outwit small animals. Or possibly, it’s my desire to be outdoors with good friends, having fun, and setting my mind at ease. Or perhaps, wait.
“I’ll bet it’s a big one! Race you to it!” I yell to my friend Joe. He is across the cove, having just finished setting up his five traps. I begin a steady, rumbling jog towards the trap that’s been hit. I try to remember the last time I actually ran; it’s been a while, but surprisingly, it feels good. The light is still low and as Joe starts running, I can tell that he still can’t see the flag; he’s just heading in the same general direction as me. Joe is smaller and much faster, and the trap is an equal distance from both of us, but I got a good jump and believe my slow and steady roll will beat out his frenzied, meandering sprint, (which I’m hoping will lead to a wipeout). But Joe identifies the flag, picks up his pace, and it looks like there will be a dead tie in our race to the hole.
Like two baseball players simultaneously coming in hard to home plate, we look at each other for a split second and both realize we’re on a collision course. Stopping is not an option when you have a full head of steam on a slippery sheet of ice. I lower my shoulder and let out a roar, hoping to intimidate him off course. This is not our first go-around of full-contact ice fishing. With us both 10 feet from the hole, Joe makes one last long stride, drops to the ice, and dives into a beautiful foot-first slide. It’s a crafty maneuver that catches me off guard. I drop low and try to push him off course, but in doing so I lose my footing and I am overcome by momentum. As I make a clumsy, fumbling recovery, Joe swoops in low, grabs the tip-up on the slide, and somehow, amazingly, sets the hook and begins pulling the fish through the hole, all in one graceful motion.
It isn’t a big one, but that’s okay, it’s the first fish of the new year. Joe picks the small pickerel off the ice, removes the hook, and slides it back through the hole. We both start laughing. Safe ice has returned to New England, ice-fishing season has begun, and it’s time to have some serious fun.
➤Why go ice fishing?
When I tell people that ice fishing is a lot of fun, I often get funny looks. I’ve met many good fishermen who are seemingly repulsed by the idea, but most fishermen who are willing to try it discover that they enjoy it. For many, it turns into a new winter pastime that keeps them fishing 12 months out of the year.
Whether you are a die-hard fishaholic or just a casual angler looking to broaden your horizons, ice fishing has a lot to offer. Not only does it allow you to catch a lot of fish, it’s also is a good way to catch a true trophy, wall-hanging pig. Pretty much all freshwater fish feed throughout the winter, and forage is in short supply. There are few insects or crayfish to feed on, so the fish get hungry and are willing to take chances they might not at other times of the year. Add to this the ability to set up to five traps per person (subject to state laws), and you have the potential for a fast-paced day of fishing. If you do it right, you’ll spend more time sweating than shivering, and days of catching 30-plus fish will have you begging for more.
Perhaps more than any other kind of fishing, ice fishing should be a social event. The more people the merrier, and more traps leads to more action.
A good day on the ice should also include indulgences in food and libation. A proper “ice camp” contains the following: a portable propane grill, manly food like venison, Pringles, jerky and doughnuts, folding chairs, fireworks (where legal, of course), a couple of dogs, a cooler (to keep beer warm, not cold), hockey sticks, a small fire, a radio (in case you want to dance), a football and perhaps even a pellet gun.
Over the years I’ve noticed that ice fishermen seem to be the friendliest subset of anglers in our region. Unlike super-secret surfcasters or territorial boat fishermen, ice fishermen tend to be a more outgoing lot and are usually more than willing to take in newcomers. Information is shared, jokes are told, and if you visit another group’s ice camp, chances are good you will be offered food, a beverage, and some solid advice. Don’t be shy when you’re out on the ice.
➤What gear do I need to go ice fishing?
Just like any other hobby, ice fishing can be as simple or as complicated as you want to make it. Ice-fishing gear, for the most part, hasn’t drastically changed in the past 100 years. There are many more gadgets and gizmos available today, but the fundamentals remain the same.
There are two ways to catch fish through the ice: use ice traps called “tip-ups” or use a specialized jigging rod to deploy your bait through a hole in the ice. Most ice fishermen set out all their tip-ups, and if they get a hot hole, remove the trap and start using a jigging rod. If you are just getting started, a set of tip-ups should be your first investment.
Tip-ups share many similarities with the good, old-fashioned mouse trap. Both are constructed of wood and wire, both were invented a long time ago, both have been redesigned in hundreds of different ways, and for both, the original design remains relatively unchanged.
When an angler first picks up a tip-up, it might seem crude and archaic, and it might take a while to comprehend exactly how it works. But, like mouse traps, they are not that complicated. A tip-up consists of a spool with line, a mechanical trigger mechanism, and a flag that pops up when a fish pulls line from the spool. Set your bait on the hook, lower it down, set the trap, wait for the flag, and then run like crazy! When you get to the hole, remove the trap, grab the main line, wait until you feel the fish, and then give it a hard snap to set the hook. You fight the fish “bare-knuckled,” using your hands, not the spool, to pull it in.
Aside from the tip-ups, there are a few other essential items. Most importantly, you’ll need a tool to cut a hole in the ice. The most economical choice is an ice chisel, sometimes referred to as a spud. A good chisel can be bought for around $40. The next step up is a hand auger, which can run from $50 to $100. Both of these tools work well but will give your arms a good workout, especially if there is thick ice. If you plan on doing a lot of ice fishing, a gas-powered auger is a wonderful tool that makes drilling holes extremely easy. It allows you to quickly drill numerous holes, which will enable you to move traps around to cover more water. Power augers start around $350.
Rounding out the shopping list, you’ll also want to pick up a hole skimmer, some sort of sled to drag your gear in (a cheap plastic children’s sled has served me well for years), a depth sounder, a pair of ice picks and, perhaps most importantly, a pair of traction cleats for your boots.
➤What thickness should the ice be for safe fishing?
Generally speaking, the first safe ice of the season will give you a shot at the best fishing. The fish have been relatively unmolested by anglers for a few months, they’re hungry, and they haven’t yet been educated by the barrage of ice fishermen who will soon be harassing them.
First ice can also mean dangerous ice. In the past, I’ve ventured out on ice as thin as 2 inches and lived to tell about it, but I’m a big guy, and if anyone in our group is going to go through, it will most likely be me. Nowadays, as a good rule of thumb, I like to have a solid 4 inches of clear black ice. Always continue to test the ice’s thickness as you move away from the shore, and if you are the designated ice-checker, wear a life preserver or flotation jacket. Never venture onto the ice alone and always have a long length of heavy rope on hand. Avoid areas with a brook or stream entering nearby, and also stay away from trees or large branches that extend into the water, as they will absorb heat from the sun and weaken the ice.
Different bodies of water will freeze at different rates. This is important. Just because you see someone ice skating on the local cranberry bog doesn’t mean the town reservoir has safe ice. The south side of any body of water will almost always freeze more quickly than the north side since it receives less sunlight. Small, shallow bodies of water freeze quicker than big ones. In a good freeze, I’ve found that ice forms on a pond at a rate of about 1/2-inch per day. So if we have a full week with temperatures near or below 32 degrees, there should be some safe ice to be found.
➤Where do I start ice fishing?
Ice fishing is an effective way to catch just about any species of freshwater fish. Understanding a particular body of water—and the fish that live in it—will give you a big advantage. For the most part, where you find the fish in the spring and fall will be the same place you’ll find them in the winter. In my experience, I’ve found that most of the best ice-fishing action comes in water from 3 feet to 20 feet deep. I like to set up my traps so that they cover a variety of depths. Areas with rockpiles, weedbeds or dramatic contours are all good spots.
Since most species of fish will be found near the bottom, it’s important to sound the hole so you know how deep to place your bait. Some species, however, such as trout and salmon, have a tendency to cruise just below the ice, so if these species reside in the pond you’re fishing, it might be wise to set a few baits just below the ice. Always be diligent and check your traps at least every half hour. Baits will disappear or find their way into weeds, and you will often find tangles at the spool caused by a circling bait. Keep your baits fresh, as a lively minnow will almost always out-produce a dead one. You will also want to make sure your holes don’t freeze over, so skim out any ice and make sure the traps don’t freeze solid. It’s also always a good idea to check your traps occasionally to make certain they are set properly and the flag mechanism is working. I’ve lost more than one nice fish due to human error that occurred while setting the trap.
➤What is the best bait for ice fishing?
What you use for bait, for the most part, will depend upon what your local tackle shop has to offer. Shiners are the primary bait you’ll find, and they will often be available in different sizes. Stick with small shiners for trout and panfish; go big if you are seeking bass or pike. Some shops will also carry chubs, which make great baits and are often cheaper than shiners. I’ll often buy as much variety as the shop has to sell so I can offer the fish a veritable pu-pu platter of different meal options. Some days, the fish show a significant preference for one bait over another.
The past few years, I’ve been experimenting with nightcrawlers for bait and have had some good results. The lowly earthworm is a delicacy to many fish: I’ve had good success with trout and panfish, and I’ve even caught a few impressive bass. Set them right above the bottom and expect a lot of bites, as just about any fish in the pond will take a stab at them. You might have a problem with bait-stealers, however, so make sure you bring along some minnows as well.
If you are going to be fishing with a jigging rod, it’s tough to beat the classic Swedish Pimple in one of the smallest sizes available. Adding some meat to the jig will always up your odds, so tip the hook with a mealworm, a small piece of nightcrawler, or if all else fails, the eyeball from a kept fish (yellow perch seem to especially like the flavor of an eyeball). When jigging, focus your efforts close to the bottom, and opt for a slow and steady jigging motion.
Ice fishing is a traditional New England pastime, and it’s a great excuse to get outside on a winter day. The next time we enter a deep freeze, take advantage of it, pack up a sled and celebrate with a day on the ice.