“That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind,” said Neil Armstrong when he first set foot on the moon. You can utter something similar – “that’s a big step in my fishing story” – the first time you set foot on the frozen surface of a body of water, with an ice auger and rod in hand.
Ice fishing is like a completely different space, excitement and pleasure. I say this as someone who fishes all year round and who hasn’t missed a single ice fishing season in 30 years. I know a lot of great anglers who only fish in winter, take holidays to do it and can’t imagine their life without it. It’s difficult to even name what it is about ice fishing that entices the angler’s soul the most – the beauty of nature in winter, the close contact with fish (after all, you always fish right under your feet) or the tools that are more subtle than the ones used in summer. However, one thing is clear – after trying this type of fishing, most people get hooked for life.
If you’re new to ice fishing and want to have the experience that will hook you for life, you need to follow a few rules:
- Even if you’re a hardcore loner of a fisherman with a lot of experience in open water fishing, try to go on your first ice fishing outing with a more experienced friend. If you don’t have one – hire a guide. In the worst case, put in the time and energy into befriending a local angler. Like other types of fishing, ice fishing has its own specifics. Grasping it yourself is not easy, even with the Internet. When you have somebody there to help, everything will go a lot faster and smoother. You’ll have an opportunity to watch him or her, and if necessary - ask questions. This will save you a lot of time.
Invest time and money in selecting the right clothing, and take the weather conditions into account. The first enemy on the ice is the cold. All cases where I heard that someone didn’t like ice fishing, were related to the cold. And indeed, when your body is shivering, the excitement of fishing is out of the question!
People who have never fished on the ice often make a big mistake: they dress the same way as they would for walking in the cold or skiing on the snow. And that’s why they freeze. Because it’s one thing to be constantly moving and another to sit or stand quietly on the ice. You have to take this into account and dress a little warmer. Particular attention has to be given to footwear: you can dress as warm as you like, but if your feet get cold, your whole body will be too.
On the other hand, don’t overdo it either. Too many clothes restrict movement and you’ll end up sweating. And when you sweat, you feel the cold a lot more and also increase your risk of getting sick. To avoid this, it’s best to wear modern, breathable, moisture-wicking clothes with sweat absorbent underwear and, in general, wear layers as people in the army or winter sports. This way, you can add or remove a layer based on the weather conditions and how you feel.
Don’t fish blindly. These days, fishing without a fish finder is like playing pin the tail on the donkey. Maybe it brings back some fond memories, but it doesn't make a lot of sense. Why waste precious time fishing where there are no fish? Without a fish finder, you become the one pinning the tail, because, normally, when you drill a hole, you don’t know if there is anything swimming beneath, whether the bottom is hard or soft, how it changes as you move from one hole to another or where exactly your bait is and how fish are reacting to it.
A modern, high-quality and compact fish finder like the one from Deeper saves time, allows you to better assess the situation, and is a good teacher if you learn how to read it. For example, with a Deeper sonar you will quickly find the bottom mounds and uneven areas where perch like to hide. At a certain water level, you will notice a group of fry that no self-respecting predator would ever pass by.
What impresses me the most is that when you fish with this device, you can constantly see your bait on your phone screen, as well as what swims up to it. Before I had a Deeper sonar, I used to think that if you find the right place to drill a hole, where there were fish, they would bite. Nothing of the sort! All the time you see how a fish swims up to the bait, follows it, but for some reason never actually takes it. On other occasions, it shows up, stays there for a while and then swims off. If you don’t have a fish finder, you would probably think that there are simply no fish and go drill another hole, but with a fish finder, you understand that there are fish, they’re just not biting and it’s time to rethink your strategy or start with changing the bait. Usually you end up finding the best bait and how to present it so that you get a fish on the line.
Another advantage of the Deeper Pro+ (the fish finder I have) is the built-in GPS and the ability to not only see where your holes were, but to also store the information in the app and in Lakebook™, Deeper’s bathymetry management platform. Frankly, when fishing, you don’t always have the time to stare closely at your phone screen because you also have to work with the bait, drill holes, lower baits, unhook fish and so on.
Often, you simply don’t notice a lot of things. Plus, it’s a totally different thing to look at what your fishing scans and analyse them on a large screen or tablet, sitting in a warm armchair at home with a bottle of beer in your hand. Usually you notice a lot more: fish that took an interest in the bait and your mistakes and correct them on your next trip. It’s a sure way to learn faster.
Don’t jump from one fishing technique to another. It’s better to master one and go from there. Even if, compared to open water fishing, there aren’t a lot of ice fishing techniques, there are still more than one. I’d say the main mistake beginners make is that they want to try everything in a short space of time or even during the same trip and they never learn to master any of them. Thus, they get disappointed that they’re not seeing the results. Let’s say, you’ve decided to go with spoon lures and actively look for predator fish – be patient and stick with it. Try to get used to one type of lure, for example, vertical spoons. When you start catching fish, then you can start learning how to fish with other baits, such as vertical jigs, minnow jigs, and other more sophisticated lures.
Don’t go after trophies. At least at first. We all want to catch trophy fish. After all, that’s why a lot of us go to the edge of the world and sacrifice our free time and holidays, so that we have something to remember and brag to our friends about. Completely understandable. But it’s best to start ice fishing with small and medium fish for a few simple reasons: there are simply more of them, they are easier to find, often not as cautious and respond more easily to the bait play that might not be the best at first.
When fishing for smaller fish, you will always get more bites. You’ll quickly learn how and when to work the bait, and when to jerk. You’ll become more confident.
Trophy hunting is often associated with the principle of “all or nothing”. And since you still don’t have much experience in this area, the “nothing” option is more likely. Really, there’s nothing worse than not catching any fish during your first fishing trip. This is very demotivating, making you doubt about the effectiveness of the fishing technique, taking away all the pleasure. So, you have to catch something on your first trip! The time for trophies will come later.
Safety. Ice fishing is fun, but you must think of your safety first, even if you’re fishing somewhere in the North of Canada, Scandinavia or Russia, where the ice can be a metre (3 ft) thick and seems like it could support a tank. Don’t forget that the ice is nothing but frozen water. Its thickness is not uniform across a body of water. Rivers, springs or currents can thin it out in some areas. There is also another risk of old larger holes that have been drilled for some reason, frozen over or covered by snow, making them hard to notice. The melting ice in spring is particularly dangerous.
Fishing always has its dangers: fuelled with adrenaline, you may not always notice them or assess them properly. That’s why you should have safety tools like ice picks on you at all times. And if you’re fishing alone, far from civilisation, you should also have means of communication and orientation. Seriously, even the best fishing is never worth risking your life or well-being.
Good luck discovering a mysterious and extremely emotional ise fishing experience!