Prepping for Ice Fishing

By Steve Weisman

When you ice fish and live north of HWY 20 in northern Iowa and the month of November arrives, it’s time to think “pre ice fishing”. You never know what might happen. Here on the Iowa Great Lakes, there have been times when I have been ice fishing on Thanksgiving. Ok, ok, I know it’s only been three to four times over the past 40 years, but there is always that chance. More often, it’s somewhere around the middle of December, but the last couple of years has even been later. Even so, right now is a good time to get ready. After all, one of the best bites occurs once there is safe ice.

Think safety first
With that being said, we need to discuss just what is safe ice. Now, I’m not going to use my thoughts or that of some of my hard ice friends. You see, a lot of them are always pushing the envelope, so to speak, on thinner ice than I feel is safe. To me, that’s like playing Russian roulette. Always keep this statement at hand: Not all ice is created equal! In other words, ice thickness will vary from spot to spot even on the same area of the lake and certainly from one lake to another.

Ice guidelines
Each state across the northern Ice Belt puts out safety guidelines anglers can use when considering ice fishing. According to ice safety experts, stay off ice that is three inches or less in thickness. Four inches of solid, clear ice is the minimum to support one angler. Be careful of fishing alone in case something happens, but a group of anglers should not walk out together on four inches of ice. It’s wise to check ice depth as you move out deeper.

At the same time, there are other considerations. Watch out for bridge areas and other current areas, areas where water is entering the lake, shallow rocky areas or weedy areas. Remember, snow on top of the ice slows down the freezing process. Before you go out, use common sense, and be prepared. Wear a life vest under your winter gear, or better yet wear one of the new flotation ice fishing suits such as the motion float technology designed by Clam Outdoors in its Ice Armor suits. It’s a good idea to carry a pair of ice picks if you do happen to break through. On clear ice, always use a good set of ice cleats to help avoid falls.

A look at northern Iowa
We are lucky that northern Iowa is blessed with several good lakes. Clear Lake and smaller bodies of water in that area, Lost Island, Five Island, the Iowa Great Lakes (Big Spirit Lake, East Okoboji, West Okoboji, Lake Minnewashta, Upper Gar and Lower Gar), Center Lake and Silver Lake (Lake Park) and Lake Pahoja (south of Larchwood). Storm Lake and Black Hawk Lake are farther south and usually don’t freeze up as quickly. They will usually be a couple of weeks later.

Living right in the middle of the Iowa Great Lakes, I can easily check ice depths. I know that the canals of West Okoboji, the Grade and Templar Boat ramp on Big Spirit Lake and the shallow water lakes of Upper Gar, Lake Minnewashta and Center Lake will lock up first. Once again, my “safe” depth is four inches of good solid, clear ice. On a positive note, after significant July rains, the Iowa Great Lakes all filled, which means that Big Spirit Lake came up over 26 inches, which means the Grade and Templar Boat ramp, along with Anglers Bay should all be good ice fishing again.

There are several baitshops that can give good ice updates and ice fishing information. Clear Lake Bait and Tackle has a good handle on Clear Lake and other area lakes. Owner Kevan Paul does live updates weekly on Facebook. In the Iowa Great Lakes area, Kabele’s Trading Post just south of Big Spirit Lake, Stan’s Bait & Tackle and The Hook Up at Oak Hill Outdoor both on the north edge of Milford do provide daily fishing updates with Stan’s and the Hook Up offering weekly Facebook updates. Bobber Down baitshop in Ruthven provides fishing information on Lost Island and Five Island lakes.

Be prepared
Don’t wait for first ice and then try to get your ice fishing gear ready. Rather, make sure that you know where everything is, batteries are charged up, the line is good on your rods, the heater is ready, and ensure the ice augers are ready. It’s amazing how much time it takes to go over the “being ready” checklist. Once that is done, then it’s time to watch the weather and look for good first ice. I know what that means: fish on the bite!