By Ken Poor

    With two weeks of frigid temperatures behind us, and colder temperatures ahead, ice conditions are great and the icefishing season is in high gear. Early ice normally provides some of the best action of the ice fishing season and early season reports indicate this year will be no exception.    

     Most of the lakes in Northeast Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin where I do most of my icefishing have an abundance of bluegills and decent numbers of crappies. Crystal Lake, Silver Lake, Powers Lake, Lake Elizabeth, Browns Lake, Lake Geneva and the Fox Chain are just a few of the area lakes that have excellent ice fishing. All have good access, adequate parking and a convenient bait and tackle shop. 

     Ice fishing is a lot of fun if you are properly dressed and take along the correct equipment. Dress in multiple thin layers and keep in mind that everything you bring has to be pulled or carried to the places you intend to fish. For that reason it’s important to keep the load light and not include a lot of unneeded items.

     An important part of a good ice fishing strategy is to move around the lake either to locate or follow active fish. Once you find a likely area you need to be able to set up your equipment quickly and get to the business at hand – fishing.  When the action slows down move to another spot. Relocating a dozen times in a day is very realistic.  Including a lot of unnecessary equipment would make these moves slow and difficult. 

     Most ice-fishermen target panfish such as bluegills, crappie or perch. For you southern anglers panfish is the same thing as bream. Funny thing about ice fishing, you don’t hear a lot of southern accents out on the ice.

     Typically, ice fishermen use tip-ups and large minnows for catching northern pike or walleye. In the far north some lakes also support good populations of lake trout. Lake trout can be caught on tip-ups dressed with live bait or by jigging. Normally when you use tip-ups you will not need to move around as much as when ice-fishing for panfish. Whatever the species you are targeting or technique you are using, if an area is not producing fish – it is time to move.

     If it is windy or extremely cold you will need a portable ice shanty. When the shanty is in the down position it serves as a sled for transporting your equipment.  After you select a spot to fish it should quickly set up for shelter from the wind and weather.

Panfish such as crappie and bluegill are typically caught by jigging grubs or minnows through the ice.

     All the equipment you bring, including rods, tackle box, tote bag, lanterns, heater, bait bucket, ice strainer (for skimming ice), chum-can and tip-ups, should fit into a couple of six-gallon plastic buckets. A chum can is a small coffee can, filled about halfway, with oatmeal and scented with fish attractant.

     The reason for not filling the chum can all the way to the top is to allow room for containers of bait such as spikes or wax worms. Use a small, insulated bait bucket for live minnows when you are fishing for pike or walleye. Your plastic buckets are then strapped to the sled to prevent then from overturning while moving around on the ice.

     A properly equipped tackle box should include an assortment of ice fishing jigs, small hooks, assorted split shot, bobber stops, and small floats, spare line, depth bomber (clip-on lead weight) and something for cutting fishing line. If you intend to fish for northern pike add a few snap swivels, suitable pike hooks and wire leaders. As you can see, a small tackle box will hold these items plus a few extras if needed.

     The small waterproof tote bag is handy for carrying items such as sunglasses, flashlight, spare lantern mantles, knife, spare auger blades (in a protective holder), needle nose pliers, screwdriver, file, towel, and extra matches. If your lantern burns propane carry a spare tank of fuel and I highly recommend you include an extra pair of gloves, socks, and a rain suit.

     Except for the ice auger – which never seems to have a handy spot – the only other items you will need is a portable fish locator, lake map and when fishing at night carry an extra lantern. A power auger is great when you need to drill lots of holes, but you can make do with a manual auger. One lantern stays in the shanty to keep it warm and the other is used for light when moving around on the ice at night.

     Under most conditions portable fish locators will read through the ice without drilling a hole. Occasionally there will be a lot of air or cracks in the ice that can distort the signal from your locator. If you find this condition you may have to drill holes to get an accurate reading. Normally squirting a little water on the ice will adequately couple your transducer to the ice well enough to get a good reading. Currently there are several good portable fish locators for ice fishing on the market including both flashers and LCD. 

     Lake contour maps are available from a number of different sources including local bait and tackle shops, sporting goods stores, and on line at Fishing Hotspots Maps. The importance of using a lake contour map and taking good notes cannot be over emphasized. Make a paper copy of your lake map or the section of the map you are fishing that day, put the copy in a three-ring binder and use it to take notes or record what you see on your locator each time you fish the lake.

     After the ice shanty is set-up the plastic buckets become seats. Six gallon buckets are taller and more comfortable to sit on than five gallon buckets.

     For safety reasons never fish alone, especially during the early season or at night. The few extra items needed to outfit a partner don’t add much weight. As a plus dragging an ice shanty around a lake or drilling holes in the ice is a task that is best shared with a willing fishing partner.

Ice fishing derbies are a great way to break-up the winter doldrums and to meet some people that share a mutual interest. Most ice derbies are much more a social event than a competitive event.

     Ice cleats strapped to your boots make travel on the ice a lot easier and safer. Another important safety item to include is a five-foot length of nylon cord with a large sharp spike attached to each end of the cord. Wear the cord around you neck, outside your clothing. The spikes will enable you to pull yourself onto the ice if you have the misfortune of breaking through.

     On some fishing trips you won’t need everything I have mentioned and it can be left in the truck or at home. For example, if I plan to use only rods I can leave the tip-ups at home. In cold weather add a high-energy snack plus a thermos of hot chocolate. The important thing is to expand you fishing season and take advantage of the great icefishing available on our local lakes.