Making the Most of your Ice Fishing Experience

By Steve Weisman

Ever wonder why some ice fishermen just seem to have all of the luck and others seem to always be struggling? Here are some things to do so that we can achieve more fishing success. A lot of it has to do with preparation, using common sense, knowing the ice conditions and weather conditions. Here are a few suggestions to help make your ice fishing trips more productive.

It is important to make sure everything is ready to go, no matter if it is the first trip or last. Nothing will ruin a trip more quickly than having equipment malfunction.
• First off, check your clothing, both the under clothing and the outer. Make sure that cap/hat, gloves/mittens and boots are ready to go. Check your cold weather outfit to make sure zippers still work and that there are not any tears.
• Replace line from the year before, especially if you are using light 1-2 pound test mono. Age and sunlight can make it become extremely weak. The result? Lost fish!
• Locate all of your gear…many times we don’t always put our ice fishing stuff away-together in one central location!
• Check your ice cleats. Are they sharp and “in one piece?”
• Check both the hand and power auger. Did you go through some bad, sandy late ice? If so, did you check them before you put the auger away? Every so often it is a good idea to replace the blades just to make sure.
• Did you empty the gas tank on the power auger at the end of last season? Always start with a fresh gas/oil mixture. How is the pull cord? It might be a good idea to get this tuned up just to make sure it’s ready to go.
• Check electronics. Cameras and flashers should be charged every so often in the off-season. If you haven’t done this, do so before you head out on the ice to make sure the battery will hold a charge.
• Check out the shelter. Are there any tears or loose bolts, etc? If kept in an outside storage building, make sure that mice didn’t make it their home for several months.

#2-Check the ice
This is so incredibly important, but anglers are always so excited to get on the ice that they will sacrifice safety and common sense for the chance to catch that first fish. Remember this: not all ice is created equal!
• Early ice-when is it time? Don’t push the envelope!
• Stay away from areas of incoming water.
• Stay away from bridges where there might be current.
• Stay away from shallow gravel points and rocky areas.
• Clear ice is always stronger than cloudy or snow covered ice.
• Rule of thumb for ice thickness-based on several state DNR sites (for clear ice only):
1. ALWAYS err on the side of caution!
2. 2” or less, stay off!
3. 4” for walking on ice (don’t fish in a tight group)
4. 5”+ for snowmobile or ATV
5. 8”-12”+ for car or small pickup
6. 12”-15” medium truck
• Always have safety gear on uncertain ice: ice picks, 50’ of rope and a life jacket.
• Always have a spud bar to check ice depth or use the hand auger to drill holes so you know the condition of the ice.
• As the season winds down, be careful of late, honeycombed ice! With the intensity of the sun and the water running into the holes, ice can deteriorate and quickly become unsafe.

#3-Beware of noise and clear ice
Tough fishing occurs when this happens. Clear water and clear ice can mean spooky fish. I’ve fished early ice on West Okoboji and anything shallower than 10 feet deep was very difficult when the sun was shining and during the middle of the day. The panfish just went deeper or into the weeds. It took low light conditions before and after the sun hit the tree line.
• This is quiet fishing time-keep the noise down
• Fish lowlight conditions
• Fish deeper weeds during the day
• In clear ice/water conditions, cloudy days are better
• Don’t make unnecessary movements
• Sometimes even a shelter can spook the fish

#4-Watch out for the wind
This can be especially true on large open bodies of water. I remember a clear ice condition with a strong wind. I set up the portable shack, and it about took off with me hanging on for dear life. Thankfully, I was able to drop the top and get things stopped!
• Have something that will anchor or hold the shelter
• Don’t leave buckets out in the open. I have seen them end up on the other shore with damaged rods and reels and lost lures
• Watch in early and late season ice conditions for wind cutting the ice or even dislodging big chunks of ice with anglers on the ice
• Wear ice cleats on clear ice during windy conditions

#5-Keep bait fresh
A lot of anglers use live bait such as wax worms and silver wigglers. Minnows need to have fresh water to make sure they are kept lively. Unfortunately, some anglers don’t take care of their bait, and then they wonder why the fish just weren’t biting.
• Always check bait before leaving-better yet, the day before.
• Silver wigglers need to be refrigerated.
• If it is really cold out fishing, keep the live bait where it will not freeze.
• Make sure to keep fresh bait on the lure. Don’t try to skimp and think an old maggot will entice a finicky fish to bite!
• Plastics need to be kept in containers or plastic zip bags to keep fresh. It is about both sight and smell!
Ice fishing is a lot of fun. However, tip the odds in your favor. Following these five suggestions can help you have a better and more productive experience on the ice!