February finally gets here and as I write this, it feels like winter came with it. Although I am a fan of warmer weather this time of year, the recent colder temperatures finally started making solid enough ice for the ice fishermen.
Most of the local ponds have thick enough ice to finally be safe and even some of the braver souls are venturing out on the ice up in the harbors of Lake Erie. Although, the early reports I am hearing for East and West Harbors are that the ice is just barely thick enough and there are many spots, especially around the edges that are not safe yet. Unfortunately, this weekend’s big snow fall will not help make more ice.
Contrary to popular opinion, snow does not increase the production of ice. Snow on top of the thin ice acts as an insulator and will actually slow the production of ice. If you are an ice fisherman, and you do venture out, please be careful. Do frequent spot checks for the ice thickness and anything less than four inches should be a no go.
If you have not ever ice fished, and want to give it a try, you can get started with a basic set up equipment fairly cheaply. Like any other sport, there are lots of variances in prices and quality of equipment, but for some basic gear for catching bluegill through the ice, it doesn’t take much to get what you need.
To get started, your largest investment will be to purchase a quality ice auger. These guys can be expensive,but it is a purchase that will last a lifetime and will quickly pay for itself when you start cutting holes into the ice. Be sure to keep the blades sharp by touching them up occasionally with a sharpening stone.
Next, you will need to put together an ice fishing rod. You can purchase these guys fairly cheap, but they are easy to make on your own. All you need to do is cut about two feet off the end of a sensitive rod and attach the rod tip to a wood or cork handle. Attach an old fishing reel that you don’t use anymore and you are in business.
For fishing line, I recommend that you use the lightest line that you can get away with, preferably in the four to eight pound category. Ice bobbers will also be needed and these are very inexpensive.
As far as lures and bait, I recommend using ice jigs in the 6-10 size range. For the bodies of water in this area, I would go as small as you can. Ice jigs come in a range of colors and I have had my best luck with orange and chartreuse, but I am not convinced that it really matters. For bait, you have three choices: minnows, night crawlers, and wax worms (maggots). For a good all around bait that will attract panfish, bass, and catfish, I whole heartily recommend the wax worms. They just seem to work the best for ice fishing.
The last few things that I recommend you bring along is an ice dipper to keep the holes free of ice, a thermos of your favorite hot drink, and a bucket to sit on.
Now that you have your gear, it is time to head out, we need to take a moment to talk about safety. There is a very serious risk with ice fishing. Do not venture out on bodies of water that are spring fed or have moving currents under the ice. For your first time out on any body of water, drill a hole near the shore and check the thickness of the ice. I recommend having at least a depth of four inches of good ice to be sure of your safety.
When picking a place to fish, just remember the smaller the body of water, the easier it will be to find the fish. You may need to cut several holes and try different areas before you find a school of fish. There are some very nice portable fish finders made just for ice fishing that will help you find the fish quicker but I wouldn’t invest in one until you decide to become a serious ice fisherman. When searching an area, I would first try weed line edges, break lines on depth changes, and edges of the channels first. Even in ice up conditions, fish are attracted to structure so drilling holes near sunken trees or rock piles will increase your odds.
During this time of the year, the fish can be real finicky about the depth, so change your length of line frequently. I always like to cut two holes close to each other and set the jigs at different depths until I find the fish. It is always good to start near the bottom and work your way up until you get into some action.
Once you have found the fish, catching them can be very easy. Most panfish will travel in schools and when you find one fish you will usually catch a lot of them. Often the action can be so fierce that you can’t get the jig down to them fast enough. I believe the fight of the hooked fish attracts the attention of the other fish. Sometimes the action will all of a sudden just completely stop. When this occurs, one of two things is happening: either the school has moved on and it is time to move yourself, or a predator fish (like a bass) has moved into the area. Get ready and give the hole a few extra minutes in case the big fish decides to take the bait.
Remember, fish through the ice are still affected by weather, changes in barometric pressure, and time of day. Fishing is always best when the ice is first formed and the action will dwindle as time goes on. If you are struggling with having any luck, you can try bobbing your jig up and down, pounding on the ice with your ice dipper (yes, this does work at times), or chumming.
If you decide to give it a try, be safe and dress warm. Take a kid with you if the weather isn’t too cold.
Until next time, Good Hunting and Good Fishing!
Ken Parrott is an Agricultural Science teacher with Northmor High School.