Pre-Ice Ice Preparation

By Rod Woten

It’s hard to believe that we could legitimately be walking on water in a handful of weeks. As I write this, it is 90 degrees outside and it feels more like ice fishing season is months away instead of weeks. Eventually, Mother Nature will get with the program and the lakes will cap over…hopefully sooner rather than later for us ice lovers. That means that NOW is the perfect time to go through all our gear and make sure it is ready so that once we have walkable ice we can spend our time heading to the lake and not scrambling to get our gear in order. But where should you start and what exactly should you do? Here is a rundown of the things I typically like to do before hardwater hits, so that I am ready to roll as soon as the weather turns in my favor.

Safety First!
Early ice can often mean thin ice. Most of us are so anxious to catch our first hardwater fish of the season that we take a few more risks than we do at other times of the season. It is for this reason that the first pre-season task for me every year is to collect all my safety gear, assess its condition, repair or replace as necessary and ensure it is ready to roll. This gear should include a throwable PFD, life jacket, floating rope or rescue bag, ice picks, spud bar.

Give ‘em a charge
If you don’t use your ice electronics (flashers, cameras, GPS, etc.) during the summer, now is the perfect time to hook them up to a charger and top those batteries off. Not only does this ensure that everything is fully charged for your first trip to the ice, but occasionally topping off the batteries during the summer will prolong the life of the batteries.

Auger power
If you have a gas auger, now is the perfect time to fire it up and get some gas moving through the carburetor. If you drain the gas before you store your auger during the summer, now is the time to put some fresh gas in and fire it up to ensure that gaskets have not dried out and the float in the carburetor isn’t stuck in place. If you use an electric auger, you should charge those batteries right along with your electronics.

Keep ‘em sharp!
The other end of your augers…the business end…will need some attention as well. Trying to drill holes with dull or rusty blades on your auger is an exercise in futility. Give them a look before the ice gets here and replace blades that are dinged up too badly or have any rust on the cutting surfaces. You can remove light surface rust with steel wool, but blades with rust on the cutting edge are better off just being replaced. My very first auger was a second hand Mora with dull blades. I didn’t know at the time that the blades were dull, and it would take me a full 30 minutes to drill a single hole every trip. I would actually factor that time into my departure time for the lake! Once I put new blades on, the heavens opened up and I heard angels sing. I have not drilled with a dull blade since that day.

Jig maintenance
Now is also the time to crack open that jig box and make sure that none of the hooks on your jigs have developed rust. For some reason…maybe because jig boxes are constantly moving between hot and cold environments…jig boxes always seem to attract moisture which can be disastrous if left unchecked all summer and rust develops and spreads like wildfire. Not only can this dull the point, but it can weaken the hook to the point that it can break when fighting a fish or even when simply setting the hook.

While you have your jig box open, you might as well go ahead and build a shopping list based on the jigs that are missing. Most stores are either starting to set out their ice fishing gear or already have it out, so it’s the perfect opportunity to fill those empty slots before the selection at your local tackle supplier begins to get picked over.

Funny things can happen to fishing line as it sits on a spool in a dark rod bag over the summer. The worst of which is the memory that sets into the line. Line that was fresh just last season probably won’t be too bad, but the older spools of line, ones that have been through a couple summers’ worth of storage can develop some pretty significant coils. I like to change line out every other season. I put fresh line on about half my reels one year and then put fresh line on the other half the next season. Even then, I like to pull the first several yards off of all the reels that aren’t getting fresh line to ensure that any rough spots, knots or sun-worn areas are removed.

Machine Maintenance
The last thing you want to be doing in the heart of ice fishing season is taking an afternoon that you could be fishing to change the oil or put new spark plugs in your ATV or snowmobile. That’s why I like to do exactly that before the ice arrives, even though it may be a few weeks before there is enough ice to use an ATV or snowmobile. This also gives me a chance to make sure some fresh gas is running through the motor and check for any other mechanical issues that could spoil an otherwise fun day on the ice.

Don’t forget your trailer
If you use an ATV or snowmobile to ice fish, chances are pretty good that you use a trailer to get your machine to and from the lake. Another great way to ruin an otherwise perfect day of fishing is to be stuck on the shoulder of the road because the bearings in your hub just failed. Maintain those hubs NOW so that they will be able to run trouble free once there is enough ice to use your machine. While you’re at it, make sure all your lights are working as well. It’s amazing how many of those pesky little 12-volt devils can stop working after a summer of storage. Fix them now so you’re not wasting valuable fishing time doing so the morning of your first trip to the lake.

Make a plan
This is also the time of year that I like to spread a bunch of lake maps across the kitchen table and start a list of lakes and places ON those lakes that I would like to fish this winter. This is a great way to pass those long autumn days waiting for the water to cool down. It also means that I am ready with a plan of attack the very first time I set foot on hardwater. This allows me to be much more efficient…rather than wandering around aimlessly looking for fish, I have a hit list for areas to fish and I can cross those off the list, one by one, until I find the fish I’m looking for.

Enter a tournament
Some of the plan making I do at this time includes lakes that I will probably be fishing a tournament on during the coming season. This is also that time that many tournaments are posting their details, so I can start to plan my tournament schedule and get entry fees sent in for the tournaments I decide on.

Book a trip
Some of the other planning I do at this time involves any of the several “big trips” I make every season. From short weekend trips to Okoboji to week long expeditions to Devil’s Lake, Mille Lacs and the like, this is the time that I buy any fishing licenses or permits I might need, book a guide and arrange for lodging for these big trips.

Prep your fish house
Now is the time to get your portable fish house out and give it a good going-over. If you store it with the fabric attached, check for any mouse damage and repair as necessary. If you store it with the fabric detached, now is a great time to re-attach it and get the shelter ready to go. Check the runners on the bottom (if you have them) and replace if they are getting thin. Check all the fasteners and re-tighten any that are loose. If your fish house has telescoping poles, now is a good time to apply some dry graphite lubricant to the poles to ensure they continue to slide smoothly.

Make some modifications
While you’ve got your fish house out, now is a great time to make some of those modifications that you dreamed up while you were sitting inside of it last season. Add some lights, add some rod holders, install a different seat…whatever it may be, you won’t want to take the time to make those modifications once the ice is walkable, so this is really your best chance to get them done.

Practice your dabble
It’s been almost a full year since I was able to wiggle a jig under the ice and in that time, I’m sure that some of my jigging strokes have gotten a little rusty. Why not grab your rod and jig box and practice some of those cadences or ‘dabbles” in a tall glass of water while you watch last week’s episode of Big Brother on your DVR. This will help ensure that each cadence is sharp as soon as you hit the ice and you won’t waste valuable fishing time trying to get dialed in. You can also use this time to develop some new strokes to add to your bag of tricks and give you even more options to match the mood of the fish.

There are lots of ways to fill your time while waiting on the ice to form, so you might as well spend it doing something productive and something that makes you think cool thoughts. Anything you can do to eliminate potential downtime once the ice is here will mean more time spent fishing and less time spent preparing and repairing. I can’t honestly say that I’ve ever gone into ANY ice season feeling that I had everything completed during the pre-season that I wanted to. I would have to say that’s largely because there is always something I can do to be more prepared. The moral of the story is, if the ice isn’t here yet and you think you’ve done all you can to be ready, look through your gear one more time because there will always be something else that needs to be done.