ICE FISHING BASICS
By Ken Poor
Ice fishing season is just around the corner. First ice normally provides some of the best action of the ice fishing season. By mid-December ice begins to form on the lakes in Northern Illinois and Southeast Wisconsin and by the end of the month most of our area lakes will be safe to fish. These time frames will vary slightly depending on weather patterns.
Typically, we don’t have safe ice in Northeast Illinois Southeast Wisconsin until the last week in December, but this year some back channels and small shallow lakes have had skim ice since early November. Warning, skim ice is not safe to go out on.
Ice fishing is a lot of fun if you are properly dressed and take along the correct equipment. 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 ice fishing strategy is to move around the lake to locate and 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 in one spot it is time to 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.
Nearly all local ice-fishermen target panfish such as crappie, bluegill or perch. A few use tip-ups and large minnows for catching northern pike or walleye. Normally when you use tip-ups you will not need to move around as much as when ice-fishing for panfish. Whatever the species we are targeting or technique we are using, if an area is not producing fish – it is time to move.
Most of the time I fish in a homemade portable ice shanty mounted on skis. When the shanty is in the down position it serves as a sled for transporting my equipment. After I select a spot to fish it quickly sets up for shelter from the wind and weather.
All the equipment you bring should fit in a six-gallon plastic bucket, a small tackle box, and a small waterproof tote bag – except for the ice auger, which never seems to have a handy spot.
The properly equipped tackle box should include an assortment of ice fishing jigs, hooks, split shot, bobber stops, and bobbers, 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, and wire leaders so you can protect your line from those toothy critters. 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, 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.
Two sturdy six-gallon plastic buckets (that fit inside each other) serve as rod holders while moving around. After the ice shanty is set-up, they become seats. Six-gallon buckets are taller and more comfortable to sit on than five-gallon buckets. Bait bucket, ice strainer (for skimming ice), lantern and chum-can will fit nicely into one of the buckets.
The chum can is a small coffee can filled about halfway with oatmeal scented with fish attractant. The reason for not filling the can all the way to the top is to allow room for a container of bait such as spikes or wax worms.
Except for the ice auger, the only other items you will need is a portable fish locator and when fishing at night bring along an extra lantern. One stays in the shanty to keep it warm and the other is used for light when moving around on the ice.
For safety reasons don’t fish by yourself especially during the early season or at night. The few extra items needed to outfit a partner don’t add very much weight. As a plus dragging an ice shanty around a lake or drilling holes in the ice is a task that should be shared with a fishing partner.
Ice cleats that strap 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. Wear the cord around your 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.