Ice Fishing Preview

By Ben Leal

December is around the corner! And with any luck, we will have a chance to get out and start punching holes and feeding our ice fishing addiction. There have been times when we’re on the ice by Thanksgiving, but in most cases, except for Northern Iowa, we’ll still have ice that’s pretty unsafe to fish or not at all. Good news though! December brings continued cooling weather, with average daytime highs ranging from 28 to 37 degrees and lows from 9 to 21 degrees. Ice making weather for sure.

Safety First
Before we dive into the ice fishing preview, let’s review some of ice fishing’s safety aspects. First off, there is no such thing as “safe ice.” Too often, we hear stories or see news pieces that talk about anglers going through the ice. In every instance, those anglers were sure they were on “safe ice.” Ice thickness can vary from one part of the lake or pond you’re fishing to another. You may have four inches at one point, and ten feet away it’s one to two inches. Use a spud bar to test the integrity of the ice as you make your journey out.

If you’re going out alone, always let someone know where you’re going and when you plan on returning. Carry a throwing device tied to a rope that is weighted on one end so it can be used to help get you out of the ice or another angler you’re trying to help. Safety equipment has grown leaps and bounds over the years. The industry has provided us with better ice fishing suits equipped with flotation sewn in, the Emergency Throw Rope by ®Clam, and devices built for your ATV or snowmobile like the ®Nebulus Emergency Flotation Device. All this safety equipment is designed to enhance our ice fishing experience while providing us with some reassurance that we’ll be able to get out of the frigid waters and return home to our loved ones in an emergency.

As November gave way to December, much of our fishing activities came to a screeching halt. Sure, you can still brave some of the cooler temps to find fish that might stretch your line, but this is also a great time to start prepping your gear. If you’re like me, we tend to leave our ice rods and reels in their bags, out of sight, out of mind. While they’ve been resting over the summer months, your line has developed reel memory. Now that we’re getting excited about the prospects of hitting the ice it’s time to check rods, reels, your assortment of tackle, fish finders (mostly if you haven’t left it on a trickle charge), your ice shack, anything you use for the season needs to be checked.

Fishing line is probably the most important thing you’ll use over the ice fishing season. It will determine success or failure, especially if it’s been a few years since you’ve added new. In a previous article, I spoke with Mr. Dave Genz about what he does to prepare. One suggestion was to, rather than completely unspool your reel and filling in entirely with new line, pull off about 30-40 feet, tie on new there, and spool it up. “How many of us use more than 40-feet of line when we’re on the ice?” he said. That’s a time saving as well as a cash-saving tip there my friends!

Check batteries ensure that they are charging and holding a charge. Turn on your flasher for a while and let it run. The last thing you want is to get on the ice, only to turn it on and give up the ghost within an hour. Remember that cold weather, especially sub-freezing temps, are hard on batteries. While it may work in the basement, setting it outside and letting it run is a better test. Many of us are using 18V drill setups for augers. The same holds true for these; see how well they last in the cold.

For those of you that run ATV and snowmobiles, start that thing up and let it run as well. Check your fluid levels and make sure everything is in tip-top shape. One last thing about your ATV and snowmobiles…make sure you have a current registration for them! The Iowa DNR is good about checking those, especially if you’re a tournament angler. That’s a beacon for large crowds, manageable for the DNR to come by and check many folks in a short amount of time.

Lake Maps – Mobile Device Technology

As we’ve progressed into the modern era of technology, much of what we carry and use on a daily basis can benefit us out on the ice. Of course, one of my favorite sayings is, “modern technology is great…when it works!” And we’ve all experienced some technological failure in the past; it’s part of the game we play.

So for simplicities sake, the Iowa DNR website and precisely the “Where to Fish” page has a lot of downloadable lake maps in PDF form. They all have contour lines, show the max depth of a lake, and feature fishing structure. These are great, especially for doing some preseason scouting without pulling out your phone or other electronics. Another benefit is you can see the entire lake instead of what portion can fill the screen.

There are quite a few of the open water fishfinders that we use during the summer that can be converted to use on the ice. The benefit there is, many have lake maps built into them, and you’ve got waypoints and notes saved where you’ve had success. Side imaging and down imaging technology has grown immensely in the last few years. Finding structure is easier, and you can pinpoint a location. As you head out on your first adventure on the ice, pull up those areas where you had success either late in the season or early. Fish are nomadic, and they do roam, but they also are creatures of habit and return to areas that provided food and shelter.

Phone apps abound these days. Navionics is one that I’ve used, and it’s incredibly handy, especially if you’re just out exploring a body of water. For tournament anglers, this can help as you locate areas of the lake to fish without adding to what you have to carry on the ice. Mobility is the word, and phones are easy to pack along. There are quite a few free apps and sites that offer some mapping. There may not be as much detail, but you can at least have a look at the lay of the land beneath the surface of the ice.

New Gear
Every year the industry presents us with new tackle, rods, reels, lures, jigs, plastics, on and on. There are a few items that are worth a mention. While this may not be “new” per se, the Dakota Lithium line of batteries is a game-changer. Everything we use out on the ice, especially if we’re dragging a shack on foot, weighs us down.

The Dakota Lithium 12V 7AH battery is the perfect replacement for most of our fishing finders/cameras. It’s half the weight and lasts much longer. They recently released at 12V 10AH version that is the same size and dimension as the 7AH battery but again giving you quite a bit more lasting power.

Garmin Panoptix, while not new, certainly has taken the fishing industry by storm. Likely one of the priciest items you could buy, but a game-changer in the fishing industry as a whole.

Clam Outdoors has been on the leading edge of floatation technology for quite a few years. They have new Rise and Ascent Float bibs and parkas that will help keep you afloat and warm, along with new cold-weather gear. We all know that cold feet can spell disaster when it comes to spending time on the ice, and the new Extra Heavy-Duty Boot Sock will help. This year Clam Outdoors also celebrates the 40th anniversary of the original Genz Fish Trap. They’ve released a 40th-anniversary version, all in white with red letters in celebration of this milestone.

Go Fishing!
Now we’ve got a game plan on preparing for the season, testing, and setting up our gear; the next step is to go fishing! Ice fishing is a great way to get the kids and family out of the house during the winter months. Today’s advances with shelters and heaters provide opportunities to spend time out on the ice with the kiddos, keeping them dry and warm. Hooking into nice bluegill or crappie with a short rod will bring hours of fun.

Big Creek Lake – probably one of the most popular lakes in Central Iowa during the ice fishing season, but also lots of room to spread out. The Iowa DNR continues to add structure to this lake by sinking old Christmas trees in relatively shallow water. These underwater “forests” hold a lot of crappie and bluegill. Visit the Iowa DNR website for more info.

Aquabi Lake – located in Warren County, this lake provides ample opportunity for bluegill and crappie. It also holds a lot of bass, so early in the ice fishing season, you may find one of these two to three pounders pulling on your rod and giving you a run for the money! Use caution towards the dam; geese tend to winter there and keep the area along the dam open and free of ice.

Clear Lake – for those of you that enjoy chasing after yellow bass, this is the destination. This lake holds plenty of yellow bass that will provide you with hours of family entertainment, but it’s also home to a significant population of walleye. Perch are also in the mix along with bass, so always be prepared for the unexpected. For information on fishing, this lake give the folks at Clear Lake Bait & Tackle a call, and they’ll point you in the right direction.

Remember that the resources we share in this great state are our responsibility to steward. The Iowa DNR does a great job providing us with opportunities, but we need to do our part for fisheries to remain viable. Practice CPR (Catch, Photo, Release), especially of those trophy fish; those genetics will only help the fishery. Limit your catch; don’t catch your limit. By being selective in our harvest, we help preserve these resources for generations to come. Be safe and remember…Tight Lines All!