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Ice Fishing 101 – Embrace the Hard Water Season

Todd Martin reveals his crash course to one of Canada's favorite winter pastimes!

Story & photos by: Todd Martin        

 

            It’s as Canadian as Mounties in red surge, hockey and maple syrup. Ice Fishing is a classic Canadian winter activity. When you think of ice fishing, the frozen north of Manitoba, Ontario, and Quebec come to mind, but most areas of B.C., north of Metro Vancouver, experience a real winter too, and it provides a venue for terrific winter angling.

             In my opinion, the best part of ice fishing is not catching fish, it’s not escaping the dreaded honey-do list, it’s the camaraderie among fellow anglers. Ice fishing can be compared to visiting your local watering hole and talking sports with your buddies. It’s the most socially engaging form of fishing I have found. When you visit a popular ice fishing lake, you inevitably start drilling holes in a circle, popping up your chairs and solving all the world’s problems.

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            Ice fishing would seem to be fairly basic, but there are subtleties in technique and gear, that improve success dramatically. It’s not as simple as drilling a hole, lowering a baited hook and waiting a few seconds for the strike. A common belief is fish must be starving in the winter months and they should immediately strike anything that loosely resembles food. But in reality, ice fishing is just as challenging as any other method of angling. It’s easy to get started in ice fishing with some basic gear, and you can shorten the learning curve due to the friendly, social nature of this winter sport.

            The most important aspect of ice fishing is safety. You are standing in the middle of a frozen lake. If something goes sideways, it happens quickly and can have dire consequences. So be sure to understand these safety guidelines before you become the next Darwin Award winner.

            To safely stay on top of the ice, you need an absolute minimum of four inches of solid, clear ice. Anything less than this, stay off! Five inches will support a snowmobile or ATV, eight to twelve inches of ice will support a small car, and you need over 12 inches of ice to drive a pickup truck out for a tail gate party. These are the bare minimums needed to ensure you don’t take an unexpected bath. I don’t ice fish unless I have more than six inches of ice. It’s just my common sense, personal rule.

            The B.C. interior ice-fishing season generally runs from mid-December to early March. During this peak period, most of the lakes I frequent in the Kamloops and Cariboo regions easily have 12 to 18 inches of ice. With over a foot of ice, hordes of anglers can run amok with snowmobiles and ATV’s like packs of wild dogs. Just make sure to check with local tackle stores and other anglers before venturing out. You can also walk out a few feet and drill a test hole to check ice thickness. Always make sure you fish with a buddy. Ice fishing is not a smart solo activity.

          Appropriate clothing is something that needs to be discussed. If you are already a winter sports enthusiast, you likely have everything you need to stay comfortable for a few hours of ice fishing.  When ice fishing you are usually sitting or standing still. You’ll need good clothing to keep you happy while waiting for the next bite. Protect your extremities. Goretex lined winter boots, gloves, and a toque are mandatory. If your hands and feet get wet or cold, your day is over. Always carry a spare set of gloves. Baiting hooks, handling fish and skimming your hole, inevitably leads to wet hands. On a windy day, that gets dangerous in a jiffy. Also ensure you bring sunglasses. It’s bright out there!

          A snowmobile suit is one of the best clothing options available. They are designed to be flexible, comfortable and warm. Others will simply layer up and wear coveralls for an extra wind-breaking barrier. Last winter I upgraded to a Rapala Pro-Wear Interface clothing system. It’s a waterproof, breathable, insulated jacket and pants system that are designed for ice fishing. If you want to spend quality time on the ice and stay comfortable, this or something similar is what you need.

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          Now let’s discuss the tackle needed to get started. The first step is drilling a hole in the ice. For this you need an ice auger. You have three options here. I use the basic manual version. They are inexpensive and work well. However, if you want to become a quick drilling, hole hopping, ice fishing ninja, you can go with a two-stroke, gas or propane powered auger. Possibly the best option is an auger that comes with a cordless drill adapter. Now you can attach an 18 volt cordless drill to the top of your auger and pull the trigger. You will drill a standard eight inch hole through 18 inches of ice in mere seconds. Just make sure to bring an extra fully charged battery for your drill to swap out as needed.

          When it comes to rod and reels, most veteran winter anglers purchase inexpensive, ice fishing specific, rod and reel combos. This pairs a 24 to 28 inch light action rod, with various reel types. It allows you to sit right over top of your hole, detect soft bites, and feel the movement of your lure when jigging. Berkley, Rapala, Abu Garcia and numerous others produce ice fishing combos. They are easy to use, and easy to transport due to their short length.

          Next you’ll need a skimmer to clear your hole of snow and ice. You’ll also need to periodically skim as you fish depending on how cold it is. If ice fishing in -15 celsius, you’ll be clearing your hole every 10 minutes as it tries to re-freeze on you. Other basic essentials are a small folding camp chair or milk crate for your seat. Ice fishing is all about being comfortable. Many bring a foam pad for the ice crate seat or to simply kneel on and hover over your hole during periods of good fishing action.

          For lures, there are so many options depending on what is locally effective and what kind of fish you are pursuing. When after kokanee and trout, think small, weighted casting spoons. Good lures to start with are the Sonic Baitfish by Mack’s Lure, Deadly Dicks, Williams Wabler, Northland Forage Minnow and the Ruby Eye Wiggler from Gibbs Delta Tackle. One of the most popular lure options are the brightly coloured glow hooks from Jesarin Tackle and Mack’s Lure. They come pre-tied with a few feet of monofilament leader.

          Tipping your lures with supplemental bait is another key to success. This is a hotly contested topic among the ice fishing community as to which bait is most effective, but almost anything works. Probably the most popular bait to tip your hooks with is corn. Pautzke Bait sells numerous colours of pre-scented kernel corn. Other popular bait options are Berkley Gulp Maggots, meal worms, shrimp, and the reliable earthworm.

           Another gear option that has grown in popularity in recent years is the use of Ice Flashers. These operate similar to a salmon flasher or kokanee dodger, and are slim, four inch versions used specifically for ice fishing. They come in numerous glow finishes that attract fish while jigging. A budget conscious option is to simply use a larger salmon lure like a crocodile or coyote spoon for a dodger. Remove the hook and tie on your your glow hook or lure with 12 to 15 inch leader below your flasher of choice, apply some bait and start jigging.

          How do you get out there? Well, I don’t have a snowmobile or ATV, so I usually just walk out onto the lake with my backpack full of gear. I will likely upgrade to a small sled that will make gear hauling easier. Snowshoes and cross country ski’s work well after a dump of fresh interior powder. The fastest way out to the honey holes is a snowmobile. Either tow a gear sled or strap a milk crate on the back for storage space. They also double as a good seat when on the ice. ATV’s are useful, but tend to get stuck in deep or slushy snow. I have helped pull more than a couple ATV’s out of slushy wet snow on recent trips. Just remember with either of these motorized methods of ice transport, speed is your friend. Going slow just gets you stuck.

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          Some additional equipment to consider are a folding snow shovel, a pop up shelter and a fish finder. Sometimes you need to clear a foot of snow before you can start drilling a hole. Wind can ruin a good day’s fishing quickly, so several manufactures like Rapala, Clam and Frabill offer quick pop up tents in various sizes and designs. A fish finder designed for ice fishing is the main accessory that you should consider once you get serious about this sport. I use a Lowrance Elite-4X. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and has a re-chargeable battery that lasts for several days at a time. Hummingbird and Marcum also have several popular models on the market.

          Now that we have reviewed gear, clothing and ice safety, let’s discuss basic ice fishing tactics. In B.C., kokanee are the preferred quarry. They are tasty, plentiful and eager winter biters. They travel in schools in the central parts of a lake in winter the same as in summer, so when the school arrives you can have fast action. Kokanee will be found anywhere from a couple feet below the ice to depths of 50 feet. Brook trout will also school up in the fall before the ice forms and stay that way for the winter months. They prefer shallower waters than kokanee. Start your search in depths of 20 feet of water or less. The same goes for Rainbow Trout, although they do not school like Kokanee and Brookies. Worm tipped lures work best for rainbow and Brookies while the flasher and glow hook combination tends to work best for kokanee. Another good winter biting fish is the Lake Trout. Even in mid-winter, you can find them near the bottom of the lakes they inhabit. You need to fish for them suspended, just off bottom, with bigger lures to get their attention.

          Using a fish finder helps detect the depth fish are holding at. However, if there are several anglers using fish finders in close proximity, interference from numerous transducers in the water can give false readings. So team up, use fewer sonar units and spread out a bit more. If you don’t have a fish finder, a good starting tactic is to begin fishing with a mid-sized lure just a couple feet below the ice to call in any aggressive feeders nearby. If you don’t get any bites in a few minutes, switch to a flasher, glow hook with bait, and work the water column a few feet at a time, from top to the bottom, and back up.

           With ice fishing, you have two basic styles. You can drill a hole and wait for the fish to come to you, or you can be more proactive and start hole-hopping. This is easier if you have motorized transport and a powered auger. It’s also called the run and gun technique. If you aren’t getting success in one location, pull up and move. Move around, drill several holes, and find the fish. It’s all about personal preference and style. Another thing with ice fishing, the bite is often light. Kokanee are notorious for a light bite. Be focused, develop hair trigger reflexes, and keep the rod tip low for better hook sets.

          In ice fishing, you are always working some type of vertical jigging technique. Just don’t overdo it. A pattern consisting of a slow lift by a few inches and a slow drop, keeping your line tight is often the most effective technique. It keeps you in contact with your lure to detect soft bites. Mix things up a bit with a sideways wiggle or even dead stick it for a while. Watch what the locals do. Rainbows and brook trout tend to bite best at first light. Kokanee and Lakers are more mid-day biters. This is best for the ice fishermen as the short days and cold temperatures have you doing most of your fishing between 10am and 2pm.

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          When ice fishing, watch where the locals congregate or have drilled holes. Ice fishing is social, but be courteous and respectful. Before drilling a hole next to someone you haven’t met, ask permission first. You’ll be sharing secrets and fishing stories in no time. Ask around at your local tackle store where the best performing ice fishing lakes are. Remember to check your regulations first, as some lakes are closed to ice-fishing.  

          You’ve now completed your Ice Fishing 101 course. There is so much to learn and it is such a pleasant winter activity, I encourage all anglers to give it a try. You might discover a new, highly addictive, and very social, winter fishery.  

 

Author Bio: Todd Martin is a well known outdoor writer and angler who lives and writes about the wild splendor of British Columbia, Canada. Todd resides in Maple Ridge and specializes salt water and fresh water fishing for Salmon, Trout, Char and Kokanee. Visit him at www.martinoutdoors.ca

 

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