For many anglers, a cold break in the late fall or early winter is a cause for concern. You come to your favorite fishing spot, and long before you reach it, you’re struck by a strange feeling of unusual quietness. Lo! A thin crust of ice covers the water, with perhaps a small opening in the middle of the river or lake. Neither spinning nor fly fishing is possible, all you can do is turn around and go back home. But thousands of anglers in Finland, Russia, Alaska, Canada and other cold places will be counting days before the ice is strong enough to be trod over. In fact, even in some parts of France and Italy, where higher elevation translates into colder winters, ice fishing is practiced and popular. If you’re curious what makes people spend the days crouched over a tiny hole in the ice, and would like to try ice fishing, here’s what you need to know.
When talking about ice fishing, safety should be your first concern. Falling through ice into near-freezing water is a serious hazard, especially when you’re burdened by extra warm winter clothes and fishing gear. Rivers, with the current, that makes ice thinner and could drag you under, are more dangerous, but lakes have their dark sides too. It would be hard enough to get back out on the ice or to the shore again, and when you’re there, you’ll be facing another mortal danger: hypothermia.
As a rule of thumb, you shouldn’t be stepping on any ice less than 4” thick, ride a snowmobile over less than 6”, and a car doesn’t belong on ice thinner than 8”. But thickness isn’t all that comes into it. Be especially vigilant on the old ice that is about to melt. New ice usually gives you a fair warning by that slight cracking sound and the unsteady feeling under your feet. Old, melting ice can go from rock solid to a slushy mass of tiny crystals in one, two… whoosh, you’re in the water. No fish is worth your life. Familiarize yourself with ice safety tips, and don’t go alone.
Ice Fishing Strategies
Like in every kind of fishing, there are two possible strategies at ice fishing: active search and sweet spot. However, with ice fishing changing spots is not as easy as with most other fishing tactics. You can’t just walk or drift twenty yards along the bank and make another cast. You will need to make a hole, which could take a bit of time if the ice is thick, clean the hole, position your stool or fishing box, check the depth, set the right line length – after all these expenditures of energy and time, you’ll want to stay at your hole for a while and see if you can get a bite or two.
This is why many ice fishing enthusiasts prefer to find a spot where you can always count on a bite, secure it by building a fishing shack over it, and fish from there all season. Needless to say this is not something for a casual angler. Earlier, before sonars and fishfinders, many anglers used the ice to learn the shape of the bottom. They would make a line of holes, and measure the depth under each, looking for abrupt changes of depth and, especially, the deepest parts of the river or lake where some fish species congregate for wintering. But, of course, the choice of location depends on the species you want to catch.
What Fish to Target while Ice Fishing?
The main difficulty with ice fishing is that most species of fish are heavily affected by winter, under-ice conditions: lack of light, low temperature, low oxygen levels. Some, including the carp, fall almost into hibernation, and hardly take the bait. Predatory fish are usually more active, however, their metabolism is also slowed down, and they don’t need as much food as in the summer. Consequently, they hunt less and take the bait less. Still, it’s the predators that most ice fishermen are after.
Perch are a good target fish for a beginner in ice fishing, as they are abundant and take the bait readily. Look for perch around relatively shallow water grass beds, especially where the bed ends with a steep slope. The pike usually prefers the same environment, especially if there are also some reeds or fallen logs to hide. Hooking a big northern pike on a perch rig could be an unforgettable experience!
Walleye is one of the most popular quarries for ice fishing, but with this fish success depends on local knowledge. If you hit on the hole where the walleye congregate for the winter on a given lake, you will be getting bites all through the season. If not, your chances of landing one in the winter are slim.
Lake trout and whitefish, as well as grayling, arctic char, and all kinds of freshwater members of the trout and salmon family can also be caught from the ice. They are perhaps the most desirable trophies for any ice fishing enthusiast. Look for them in the deeper parts of the river or lake.
Ice Fishing Rig
You don’t have a lot of variety when it comes to ice fishing. You’re positioned directly above the fish, and can only move your bait or lure up and down from bottom to surface. As a matter of fact, you can do without a rod at all, just some line and lure. Most anglers, however, use specialized rods, from 10” to 20” in length or even shorter, to be more accurate while playing the lure, and be better able to detect the strike and set the hook.
Most modern rods are equipped with regular spinning reels, and anglers can reel the fish they hook right in. The old-fashioned crowd, however, chooses simple reels, that are less vulnerable to wet, ice, snow, and cold, and handline the fish they catch. This approach works best when you’re fishing in the open air, as opposed to a heated shack or tent, as the wet line may freeze on the spool, and your rod is out. This is why experienced ice fishermen always carry a couple of spares. Besides, there’s something special about feeling the fish directly with your hands, without the intermediation of the rod.
The basic lure for ice fishing is a simple lead head jig, baited with a minnow. With live bait, you mostly just drop the jig to the desired depth and leave it there. Therefore the classic method of ice-fishing is with tip-up rods that are set over the hole, and when the fish takes the bait, a little flag pops up. Live bait can be caught on the spot, with special extra-light rods baited with worms or invertebrates; in fact, it’s a good idea to carry a couple of such rods on you even if you’re after trout, walleye, or northern pike.
Artificial lures can also be used quite successfully. They can vary from jig heads with silicon tails, to different kinds of metal spoons. The spoons are designed so that they wiggle to the side when you raise them up, and wiggle back down, imitating a fish feeding on the bottom, as you let them fall. The jigs are worked by bumping them slightly over the bottom. The spoons typically offer more versatility. They can work in any layer of the water, and you can play them either by sharp, frequent jerks, or by raising in a smooth and long motion, and then letting fall.
Ice Fishing Techniques
Once you’ve made your hole and decided on what bait and/or lure to use, there are two possible scenarios. One is when the fish is attracted to light and oxygen that comes in through the hole. In the other scenario, the fish will be feeding near the bottom. As a rule of thumb, the bigger fish are found at the bottom, and the small fry may be hanging above or not. Consequently, work from top down if you’re fishing for bait, with feeding the hole a little as an option, and fish the bottom if you’re after the big ones. If they, by fluke of fate, are actually near the surface, they will typically strike anyway as you try to refresh the bait or change the lure.
With an active bait like a minnow, you can simply leave the jighead at a constant depth, typically a couple of inches over the bottom, set your rod in the rod holder, and wait for any bend that signifies a fish has taken the bait. Alternatively, especially if you’re fishing with worms or other invertebrate bait, or even silicon tails, you may play the lure, moving your rod up and down, again, just over the bottom or hitting the bottom slightly.
One thing that you should bear in mind is that the ice is not like that one-way mirror you see in interrogation rooms in cop movies. The fish knows you’re there. Unless the ice is exceptionally thick, it can hear you walk on it; it can hear you drill or cut the hole, it is aware of the light coming through your hole, and whatever noise you’re making. While minnows may be attracted by your hole, serious fish is typically scared by light and sound, so it is usually worth it to take a few minutes after drilling a fresh hole before you fish in it. You might even want to “shadow” the hole with a screen, or simply showing a bit of snow in.
Other Ice Fishing Gear
If you watch ice-fishing videos on YouTube, you may be amazed at how much gear the hosts seem to have. Tents – well, it’s a good thing to have, as it protects you from the wind, and it also shadows your hole, which is useful when you’re after fish that are light-shy. Fishing shacks, heated, and equipped with padded benches, tables and lighting. Power augers that go through ice in seconds. And, of course, snowmobiles or ATVs with sleighs to carry it all. Although all the above adds comfort and increases your range, none of it is absolutely essential, especially for a beginner. It would be a shame to invest thousands of dollars into gear, only to discover that sitting over a hole in the ice isn’t precisely your idea of fun.
As a nursery rhyme from my childhood ran, a good angler needs nothing but a rod and a river. Yet, all the rods, lures and baits in the world are useless on ice fishing if you have nothing to break through the ice. As a kid, I’ve always fancied an ice chisel, because it looks kinda like a spear. As an adult, I’ve learned to appreciate ice augers. In my opinion, a simple hand auger works best for a beginner, unless you’re going to make a lot of holes in an especially thick ice. Don’t forget to pick an ice scoop to get slush out of the hole.
Another bit of gear that is essential for an old-fashioned ice fisher, is a double-duty box that serves as a seat and a container to carry all your gear, lures and lines, as well as lunch. Never, ever go ice fishing without a hot drink in a thermos bottle. Sweet lemon tea, coffee with lots of milk and sugar, cocoa, or strong, spicy broth – this is a matter of choice. But avoid alcohol. It only gives you a temporary illusion of warmth, while making you lose even more body heat shortly thereafter, and too much of it would cloud your judgement, and you don’t want that when surrounded by treacherous ice and below-zero temperatures.
They say that when you’re on the water, dress for at least 10 degrees below the weather forecast. When you’re on ice, make it 20! It’s safe to say there’s no such thing as too warm clothes for ice fishing! Make sure all your clothes, and especially boots, are not only warm but free, even somewhat loose, fit. Tight fit gets in the way of blood circulation, while loose fit lets your blood flow freely, and adds an extra insulating layer of air at that.
When to go ice fishing?
They say the best time to fish is any time when you can go out. Yet, the best times for ice fishing are immediately after the ice has set, and becomes thick enough to be walked on, and immediately before the coming of spring, when the snow melts and when fresh water, rich in oxygen and nutrition, enters the river or lake, awaking the fish from their winter slumber.
If where you live ice mostly happens in a freezer, you should still go ahead and experience ice fishing. You may not want to repeat it, but you’ll never regret going. As you handline a big pike or trout from a hole in the ice, surrounded by snow and bare trees, you feel a little like a magician pulling a rabbit out of a hat. It’s pure magic.
When work or vacation takes you into the land of cold – say, if the younger family members insist on travelling to Lapland for the Christmas break, so that they can have a word or two with Santa about their presents, be sure to book a trip with one of the guides you’re likely to find in the area. Yes, that may cost you, but considering you get to use the guide’s snowmobile or ATV, shack or tent, power ice auger, bait, and – most importantly – knowledge where to find fish, this may be the best money you’ll ever spend!
Photos by Atti Ikkala, Ice Fishing in Lapland
Frozen Trout Carpaccio, Siberian Style
Carpaccio is not only about beef and tuna. Arctic char, grayling, as well as practically any kind of trout, can be turned into a wonderful carpaccio, especially popular among the natives of Siberia. The dish is basic, but there are a number of fine points. The fish must be alive when you take it out of the water, frozen solid on the spot, and not defrosted. Let it thaw for about 10 minutes, and then remove the scales carefully, trying not to damage the layer of fat under the skin. The guts and gulls stay in. When the fish is scaled, begin to slice it as thin as you can; basically, it would mean taking small shavings off the body. A regular filet knife is usually too thin for this job, you will need a hunting knife, razor sharp. Ideal shavings are nearly transparent. A true Siberian will first shave the best bits from the back and belly, set them aside, shave the drier bits off the ribs, eat them first, and then turn to the gourmet slices. Before the shaving goes to your mouth, dip it in a mix of fine salt and black pepper. But you are free to experiment with other sequences and spices. Tight lines!