Stewardship… On Ice

By Rod Woten

It’s amazing how far ice fishing has come in the past several years. Devices like portable sonar systems, underwater cameras, fully rigged ATV’s and snowmobiles, efficient gas augers and even the internet, have helped all of us to become fish catching machines when the hardwater months set in. We’ve become so efficient at catching fish, in fact, that sometimes it’s easy for us to cause irreparable damage to some fisheries. Truthfully, we’ve become better at fishing, regardless of the season; hard water or soft water, but there’s something about the ice fishing season that seems to increase the potential for damage to a fishery. Maybe it’s the fact that we can get right on top of the fish and surgically fish for them? Maybe it’s the fact that ice is the great equalizer and turns every shore-bound fisherman into an ice-roving fish hunter. Fortunately, Ice anglers are also some of the most willing to adapt conservation-minded practices in order to keep the fishery viable.

Selective Harvest
One of the most effective things we can do to steward our fisheries is practice selective harvest. There is absolutely nothing wrong with bringing home some fish for the table; it’s part of the heritage of our sport. Besides, fish are not only delicious, but are nutritious as well. Therefore, I am not going to preach a 100% catch and release philosophy, but by the same token, I am also not going to deny that selective harvest involves at least some amount of catch and release. The difference is that selective harvest involves making smart decisions about which fish are harvested and which fish are released.

Have you ever wondered why certain individual fish grow to trophy size? Sure, abundant forage and good habitat are important, but equally important…or maybe even more so…is genetics. Genetics are the reason Shaquille O’Neal was a basketball superstar and Shawn Johnson was a gold medal Olympic gymnast. Shaq didn’t gain his impressive size by eating the right foods and living in the right environment, he got that big because it was in his genes. Similarly, many big fish became big because they were genetically pre-disposed to reach trophy size. That being the case, wouldn’t we want those genes to remain in the breeding population? Why then would we want to harvest such a fish? Therein lies the basic principle of selective harvest; harvest the medium sized, less genetically gifted fish, and return the larger, genetically superior, fish to the water to continue to pass those desirable genes along to future generations.

Fish Handling and Non Toxic Tackle
If we’re going to be releasing certain fish, we also need to be very careful about how we handle the fish, to ensure they don’t die after release in spite of our best efforts. Things like circle hooks that prevent gut hooking, keeping fish wet while handling, and minimizing the time a fish is out of the water can all significantly improve the chances that a fish lives after released.

Because of the sudden pressure change, fish caught from water deeper than 20 or 25 feet will often die after release even when handled properly. Unfortunately, the damage done to their swim bladder when quickly pulled up from such depths is irreversible and usually fatal, so limiting the depth at which you fish can also help keep fish populations healthy and thriving.

Non-toxic (non-lead) or biodegradable tackle also helps ensure healthy fisheries, and benefits waterfowl as well. Many ice anglers are already helping out in this area without even realizing it! Tungsten is a metal that is non toxic, and also happens to be all the rage in ice fishing right now. Tungsten’s high density means it is much heavier than that of an equivalent amount of lead so it sinks fast making it ideal for ice anglers. With advantages for ice anglers as well as fish and waterfowl tungsten just makes sense!

What We Do On The Ice
While selective harvest can be one of the most significant things you can do to protect a fishery, there’s much more to stewardship on ice than just practicing selective harvest. Ice anglers also seem to be some of the worst for leaving garbage on the ice. I suppose it’s because it’s not that much different than littering on dry land, to those that choose to litter. Those green one pound LP cylinders that almost every ice angler uses are one of the most common trash items found on the ice, so it’s pretty easy to see why the connection between trash on the ice and ice anglers is so easily made. Close behind are soda cans, beer bottles, tackle packaging, food wrappers and cigarette butts. The solution is pretty simple…take your trash off the ice with you. Even then, there will always be those that feel it is their right to leave trash like this behind on the ice. To combat this, true stewards of our frozen fisheries not only pick up after themselves, but after others as well. I always keep a plastic grocery sack in my portable shelter for trash that I come across on the ice. I fill the sack and simply drop it in my garbage when I get home. A simple but effective solution, especially if we ALL start doing it.

What We Do Off The Ice
For the past several years, I have had the privilege of working with a non-profit conservation group called Recycled Fish. Recycled Fish is a huge proponent of selective harvest, proper fish handling, non-toxic tackle and picking up after the other guy, but their battle cry, “Our lifestyle runs downstream”, really defines what stewardship is all about. When you think about it, EVERYTHING we do, eventually ends up in our waterways…from lawn clippings that blow into the street, the chemicals we use on our lawns and crops to garbage that is not properly disposed of and motor oil that leaks onto a parking lot, all these things eventually end up at the lowest point in the system.

That lowest point is our fisheries, so the phrase “Our lifestyle runs downstream”, really makes me pause to think about exactly how anything I might handle or do away from the lake could eventually end up in the lake. It also makes me realize how simple things I can do around the house can help protect the fisheries that I hold so dear. Installing low flow shower heads is an example. The less water I use at home, the less water that has to be processed before it can be safely returned to our waterways. Energy efficient appliances and lighting require less electricity, which requires less coal fired steam, thereby reducing pollutants pumped into the air to eventually precipitate into our waterways. Recycling means we can reduce the amount of NEW plastics, papers, metals and glass that we need to make. All of these require water for processing and can pump pollutants into the air, so the less of it we have to make the better off our fisheries will be. If you take the time to stop and think about it, everything we do can have an impact on the fish we catch. If we take this approach in our everyday lives, we can start to make choices that make more sense for us and our favorite fisheries. If improving our fisheries is important to you or you’re interested in even more ways to ensure that our children and grandchildren have healthy viable fisheries to fish, check out Recycled Fish at their website,