Maybe you’ve seen them sitting on buckets in the middle of a frozen lake, and you wonder: Is that any fun? Maybe you’re the one sitting on a bucket, in which case you know the answer: Hell, yeah, it’s fun! Why else would anyone fish when the water is frozen?
You might also know that being an ice fisherman means belonging to a subculture in the angling world, and like any group, it has its own rules, jokes, and customs. Learning them is as important as being able to put fish on the ice. The good news is that you couldn’t pick a better time to join the club.
Call it a miracle on ice: The trend of high-tech gear and electronics and refined tactics has finally made it to ice fishing. The drill-and-hope approach of the recent past (think Grumpy Old Men) has been replaced by a new culture that catches more fish than ever. But don’t worry, some things never change. Even the most modern lures are still improved with a hunk of minnow, and the day isn’t complete without beer and brats, no matter how many fish you catch.
They bite best in green weeds in shallows during the first month after ice-up, and they return a month or so before ice-out in anticipation of spawning. A month into ice, deep water (30, 40, even 50 feet) is the ticket as perch root on soft bottoms. For the best of both worlds, look for big underwater bars and islands that have shallows of 10 or 15 feet next to a steep dropoff to depths of 30 feet or more.
In the early ice season and again in the late, look for patches of green weeds in 12 feet of water or less. During midseason, check hydro-graphic maps for widening contour lines that indicate flatter, deeper areas of 20 or 30 feet. The nicest bluegills graze on the fertile soft bottom, or suspend well above it. This is a spot to let a tiny jig with a waxworm or two take a slow tumble and catch bluegills on the way down.
As the surface freezes, walleyes are going to be where you last left them: in depths of 5 to 10 feet on points. After the first month of ice, they drop to the edge of prominent structures, living in the deep water on steep breaks. By midseason, they go deeper, particularly on soft bottoms near humps. Toward ice-out, they begin a push to get closer to spawning areas on shallow, hard-bottom flats near creek mouths.
Northland Forage Minnow Fry
Perch love flash, and this lure delivers it with one side in silver or gold, and the other in holographic brilliance. Sizes 6 and 8 hang horizontally, allowing gill-flaring perch to suck them in with ease. $1.69
K&E Stopper Lures Dot Jet
Both perch and bluegills are attracted to the simple, subtle shape of a teardrop jig baited with meat or a scented Berkley Gulp! plastic maggot. With a No. 10 hook, the Dot Jet, which comes in painted colors and my favorite, solid gold, provides a perfect panfish snack. $1.29
Custom Jigs & Spins Rat Finkee
I love the name. Bluegills, meanwhile, love the infinitesimal scale of 1/100- and ½00-ounce jigs, especially with some plastic on the hook shank–but not beyond–and baited with a spike. They work best when bluegills feed on zooplankton. Look for the pale little critters, about the size of a pinhead, flitting through the water in your ice hole. $1
Salmo Chubby Darter**
Usually walleyes interrupt jigging action with a light tick. Not so with the Chubby Darter, which gets nailed. Made of weighted foam for gentle, gliding jigging motion without bait, it comes in three sizes and eight colors. $8.49
HT Enterprises Glow Rocker**
Classic shape and modern colors unite for the best of old and new in jigging spoons that should be baited with a minnow head or tail for added flavor. Since walleyes want less action than in open water, a gentle jiggle, not a rip, is all it takes to get their attention. $3
This venerable blade lure needs no meat to dupe walleyes. Attach a plain snap, not a snap-swivel, to the middle eyelet of a ¼-ounce Sonar (also available in ½ ounce) for the best vertical action between 20 and 40 feet, then work it in 6-inch pumps. $3
Nils Master Hali Sukkula
This curious little spoon-shaped Scandinavian import, with a dropper that resembles a jewelry chain, punishes perch. Bait the delicate dropper hook with a maggot, wiggler, or minnow piece. Drop it to the bottom, reel up a touch, and then start shaking. It comes in a few sizes, but the mini is the version you want for perch. $3.25
Sorry, man–they’re maggots, namely, blue-bottle fly larvae. (Warning: They’ll hatch if you forget to refrigerate them and leave them on the kitchen counter. Trust me.) You can get them dyed in various colors, and a spike will catch dozens of panfish before it gets mutilated. Nick it through the fat tip next to the pair of specks.
The tail of this maggot functions like a straw to let the water-hatched creature breathe. A pencil eraser-size mousie is the plump, juicy larva of the drone fly, and when one gets shredded by biters, particles will fall off like confetti and often start a feeding frenzy. Hook them lightly through the head for any kind of panfish.
Unlike spikes and mousies, they don’t require refrigeration. Nip them through either the fatter, beady-brown head or the thinner tail (which end is up for debate among bait fanatics) for all manner of panfish. Put two waxworms on a jig like a Fu Manchu mustache to slow the descent and get more bites when the fish are touchy.
These wriggling, shrimp-like mayfly larvae will work anywhere the biomass is composed of mayflies, although they die fast. Nick a hook through their light shell, or spear them lightly through the belly one-third of the way up from the tail, with the hook going toward the head. Bluegills and perch chow down on them.
Minnesota’s Clam Corp. has long made awesome portable ice shelters out of heavy-duty, wind-blocking blue polyester. Now they’ve taken the same durable material and fashioned Ice Armor bibs and parkas that will turn back blasting Arctic winds. Padded knees are great for scrabbling around on the ice. $300 for the set; 763-231-4120; clamcorp.com
A clean burn and light weight (20 pounds) are what you get with the new four-cycle StrikeMaster Strike-Lite power auger. It has a synthetic engine housing to reduce weight but a stainless-steel shaft and 8-inch-diameter blades for cutting power. $500; 763-263-8999; strikemaster.com
Rod and Reel
Frabill’s Panfish Popper combo pairs a balanced rod with a reel that is delicate enough to detect light winter bites. The 20-inch Micro Light version includes a spring bobber that will betray a panfish’s faint touches. It comes with a durable, utilitarian reel that’s lubed to operate smoothly in frigid temps, all at a great price. $20; 800-558-1005; frabill.com
Gloves Chota’s Fleece Flip Mits are the ticket for ice fishing in nasty winter weather. You can fold back the flaps to get at fingerless gloves that let your digits tie hooks, jig, and reel–the important stuff, in other words–in sizes from XS to XL. $29; 877-462-4682; chotaoutdoorgear.com
Even seemingly solid ice can erode to scary thinness. To help you claw your way out of an emergency, keep the StrikeMaster Life Guard, a rope connected to handles with carbide spikes, around your neck. $13; 763-263-8999; strikemaster.com
Since it absorbs less water than most monofilaments, low-diameter, low-stretch Berkley Trilene Micro Ice is flexible, not wiry, during the deep freeze. It minimizes tangles and lets you feel bites better. $2.69-$3.49 for 110 yards; 877-777-3850; www.berkley-fishing.com
The Vexilar FL-18 flasher-style fishfinder has a dial readout to show depth, fish, and even a tiny teardrop jig. It comes with a handy carrying case and a 9-amp gel-cell battery and charger. The 12-degree transducer, one of three angles, has the separation to read when your jig is within ½ inch of fish. $399; 952-884-5291; vexilar.com
**The Bucket **
Inaugural ice-fishing outings inevitably begin with an upturned bucket. Bundle up, park on it, and wait.
Cheap Portable Shanty
The next step in the evolution is an entry-level shelter–say, a cheap tent. Usually it can’t keep out the wind.
The Ultimate Portable** After my cheap shanties got shredded, I moved up to the heavy-duty blue Fish Trap from Clam Corp. If you set up a heater, you can fish in shirt-sleeves.
Our crew has built a variety of these. It’s like putting up a miniature deer cabin. One we called the Colossus measured 8×8 feet.
Monster Fish Shelters**
I’ve seen some unbelievable places in Minnesota, where they take shelters seriously. It’s not uncommon to find ones the size of cabins with bunk beds and couches. I’ve also seen an Airstream trailer with holes in the floor for fishing lines, and a school bus painted like a Holstein and outfitted with a keg-er-ator.
Up Minnesota way, I’ve watched Carhartt-clad cronies tumble frozen turkeys–which provide more bad hops than a punt in January at Lambeau–at a trio of pins during the Eelpout Festival. More than 10,000 brave souls unite there each February for the ultimate cabin-fever reliever. A basket-ball, volleyball, or dodgeball would suffice were poultry unavailable. If you’re a purist, you can actually use a bowling ball.
My personal favorite: When one of my buddies calls “game on,” we reel up and let our lines down simultaneously. Hook a fish and the cry goes out in our silliest Midwestern accent: “Having one!” The last to put a fish on ice must take a penalty shot, ingesting either schnapps or bait. Lay out the ground rules beforehand to establish what will go down the hatch.
You take the little fish that you’re going to keep (my crew usually uses the smelt we catch at night), and then you hurl them at the back of your buddy’s head. Now he’s “it.” No immediate tag backs allowed, of course. Pretty simple. Another version: Wait until someone exits the shack for a spell and leaves his jacket behind. Stash some bait in a pocket. There will be no question of who’s “it” if he doesn’t wise up before he goes home. You get bonus points if he finds the dried-up critter on your next outing together.
It’s amazing how hot it can get inside a fish house. Crank up the temperature with lanterns and heaters, then resist turning it down until everyone’s in shirtsleeves and still complaining. First one to crack loses. He’s now fair game for verbal abuse for the rest of the trip.
When you’re on the ice, no food is more satisfying and suitable than bratwurst bathed in beer. Break out the hibachi, or better yet, fire up a highly portable Coleman RoadTrip Sport Grill ($139; 800-835-3278; coleman.com), which runs off a propane cylinder. When it’s going at medium heat or higher, place a disposable foil pan on the grate and fill it with one beer, one chopped pepper, and one chopped onion. Put a pound of bratwurst on the grate, too, and grill them for six to eight minutes, turning them once halfway through. After the brats have browned, move them to the beer bath, cover them with foil, and cook for 25 minutes. You may as well open another beer while you wait.
Serve the brats on buns with peppers, onions, and condiments. Love life. Love the hard water. Ice fishing, I say, is living.