Some of the best ice fishing tips are so basic that veteran fishermen just figure that they are common knowledge. And they are to us veteran fishermen. But to new fishermen just starting out who are armed with nothing more than a pole, a bucket, and a hand ice auger, any ice fishing tip is welcome. We all start somewhere and many of us don’t have a mentor to help us along. I was fortunate in that respect as my dad and nearly all of his friends were avid outdoorsmen that hauled me along on plenty of trips. With the long U.P winters we spent plenty of time in the ice shanty or sitting on the ice fishing for perch and walleyes. A few of these basic ice fishing tips should help the new fisherman out.
First and foremost ice: Know your ice. If you’re not sure about a particular area and cannot verify that the ice is safe then just stay away. There are a lot of fishermen who will take their chances to catch a few fish. I’ve been there. I’ve known them. I’ve watched them sink below the surface of the ice. Steer clear of rocky points or any structures that protrude from the frozen surface. Strong currents carve away at the ice all year and often only freeze a thin layer of clear ice that only looks strong. Falling in there is like falling in a river. River mouths are another source of bad news for ice fishermen. If you’re not sure then find somewhere else to fish.
Let someone know where you are going. I realize you won’t be able to pinpoint where you might be fishing but a general idea is nothing short of being responsible. I’ve been on the bay fishing a beautiful February afternoon on more than one occasion only to watch a storm brewing over the horizon. Fishing over a mile off the shoreline tells me there’s no way I can beat the storm to shore which means that before I could reach the shoreline safely, I would lose sight of it. Now you’re standing there in a complete whiteout. No sounds, no sight, no idea which way is which and you realize you’re in a bad situation. Stay put. Fight the desire to wander in hopes of finding your way. The storm will clear in time and that’s when you finish your journey. If all else has failed and you need a rescue at least someone has an idea of your location.
Tipups are a great source for fishing distances and searching for fish. Unlike fishing hand-lines next to each other you can fish a hand-line and set a tipup 20 yards away to fish a different area. It increases your percentage for finding fish. One problem most fishermen find with a tipup is that when it is windy or smaller fish keep hitting the bait and setting off the flag. It means you most likely are going to have to reset the line depth to keep your bait off the bottom. A simple tip is to attach a small bobber to the line a few inches below the surface of the water. Attaching it below the waters surface will prevent it from freezing in place and creating resistance if a fish takes the bait. Now each time you check the bait you can toss the line back down until the bobber is in the same spot which will keep you off the bottom and in the strike zone.
A lot of people bring out cold beverages to drink while ice fishing. It may seem like a no-brainer on how to keep things cold but truth is your drink will probably freeze. If you have a gas auger you can simply drill a cloverleaf pattern in the ice but only let the auger barely poke all the way through the ice in the last hole. This will allow the water to rush up into the holes you drilled. Now you can drop your drinks into the water where they will stay cold without freezing. You can also use this same tip for creating a live well for the fish. Just be sure the final hole you make isn’t too big or you may lose your fish and drinks. A long handle ice scooper will make a handy tool to retrieve the drinks without getting your hands wet if you drilled them too deep. To get the fish out fill the hole with snow until it packs the fish in place where you can grab him.
Getting your hands wet on the ice when the temps are single digits and the wind is whipping up negative numbers for the wind-chill reading is not in line with staying warm. The biggest offender for getting wet hands is a lost minnow net. Everyone who ice fishes loses a minnow net at one point or another. Usually you can watch if slowly float out of sight and there isn’t a darn thing you can do. It’s an easy fix. Most minnow nets have the space in the wire handle where you can insert a piece of foam. Just cut a piece of styrofoam or similar substance and fix it in the handle of the minnow net. This will keep it afloat now and your hands can stay dry.
Dress warm. It may seem cumbersome to drag anything extra if you are walking a half mile out on the bay but this makes it that much more important. You can pack your extra clothes for the walk out to fish but once you start sitting there on the ice it will get cold fast if you have no heater. Even with a heater inside a shanty I always dressed like I was sitting on the ice. Storms come quickly on the big bays and lakes and heaters don’t work forever. There’s not a whole lot worse than being so cold you can hardly stand to fish anymore and, the fish are biting. Dress like you’re heading out to sit in your treestand in December and you’re probably still a little under-dressed. Layers trap the air and retain the heat and allow you to remove and add garments quickly.
Bring a compass. This is probably the smallest item you can pack that can have the biggest impact. When I mentioned getting stuck in a storm earlier I could have gone on talking about a lot of points. The thing is people today say well hell, I have a cell phone so I could just call someone. Or, I have GPS built right into my phone or this app tells me my exact location and sends the signal to my family on Twitter and Facebook. Fine and dandy if you have a signal. Obviously you’ve never been in a blizzard. A simple three dollar compass will tell you which direction the shoreline is if you took a reading before you left or know the direction due to locality. It is so simple and archaic that many people refuse to view it as a worthy tool. Truth is you hope you never have to use it. Just get one, put it in your pocket, and hopefully you never need to take it out. But if you do, you’ll be glad you had one. Maybe you can use the light from the cell phone to read the compass.
You’ll find that sometimes when you fish shallow water for panfish that the slightest changes seem to affect the fishing. One aspect is sunlight. When you clear out a new ice fishing hole you create a window into the water below. This window can also let direct, albeit refracted, sunlight penetrate the darkness below. Fish can be finicky. The light can have both negative and positive effects as well as no effect. The point is when you find the fish aren’t biting or maybe they’re not taking the bait good enough to set the hook, try changing this small dynamic. Push a little bit of slush or ice into the hole so the light doesn’t penetrate as much. I’ve heard the suggestion that fish can even detect the added oxygen in the water due to an area like this. I won’t speculate on that but I will suggest trying to obscure the ice fishing hole a little to see what happens. It won’t hurt the fishing if nothing is biting at the moment anyway.
It’s easy to say that you need to stay mobile as an ice fisherman but when you’re just starting out chances are you’re relying on elbow grease with a hand auger and not that gas powered model you been dreaming of. That’s where patience comes in and a few little tips for making finicky fish take an impulsive bite out of your offerings.
It’s not going to hurt to hang around the crowd a little bit when learning. I’m not that guy who likes to be around the noise and the movement when ice fishing but I am that guy who wants to learn. The hurdle is the people who are catching fish aren’t sitting around telling everyone. They don’t call them fishing secrets for nothing. So you need to increase your percentages and that will start with color and baits.
Ice fishing lures come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, and colors. Some are meant to look like fish while others are meant to attract fish to the bait. When purchasing your ice fishing lures think about the depth and the size fish you will be fishing. You can fish a bare hook in 50 feet of water if you like as long as you put some weight on the line to get the bait down near the bottom. Generally that’s where most fishermen prefer the bait to be. In the last foot of water before the bottom is a typically cruising depth for many fish that aren’t suspended. Thinking in terms of darkness and water clarity I tend to use lure in the silver, white, orange, and pink, colors. They’ve always done well and a handful of these in different sizes will be a good start to your ice fishing tackle box. Throw in some bobbers, a few regular hooks, and some split shots and you have the ingredients to get started.
Experiment with the lures in different depths using different colors. Attach a minnow or wigglers, wax worms, or mousies, to the hook for some added enticement to the fish. Let one line set still while wiggling or jigging the other. If one line starts getting hits or producing fishing then try reproducing the technique on the other line. This will help you determine if it’s the action, the bait, or the color of the lure that’s working. Check each presentation before you drop it to the fish below. Lower the lure and bait below the surface a few feet and watch how the bait reacts. Jig the line up about a foot then let it drop back into place and you’ll see firsthand the action of the lure. Make adjustments if it doesn’t look right. Hooking a minnow through the lips, through the back, or under the belly, will all have a different effect on the presentation and the number of fish you will catch. That’s the fun of ice fishing especially when you know there are fish hanging out right below you waiting to take your bait. It’s what get’s novice ice fishermen hooked!