Most fishermen are content to sit out the cold winter months. They check their fishing gear, thumb through tackle catalogues, and wait impatiently for the warm weather that heralds the fishing season. However, there are many fishermen who pursue the sport all year round; when winter comes, they fish through the ice.
Ice fishermen must dress properly for the occasion. Layers of woolen clothing are usually worn over long, woolen, winter underwear, and the whole assembly may be topped with a windproof jacket or parka. Some people wear heavy, caulked boots, and others prefer rubbers or galoshes over their shoes. When the angler is both warm and windproof, he is ready for ice fishing.
Let's try it, and see what it's like. The first rule is one that cannot be emphasized too much: never go alone! In the interests of safety, always fish with at least one other person. Load all your gear on a sled, provided with a rope about forty feet long; it's easier to transport things by sled, than to carry them.
Ice should be at least a few feet thick before it is considered safe for fishing. Avoid places that have open cracks, protruding rocks, stumps, or weeds, and fast water. Thin crusts are dangerous; you must have strong, solid ice.
The first job is cutting a hole through the ice, and the best tool to use is an ice chisel, or spud. This is nothing more than a wide chisel with a long metal handle, to which a leather thong has been fastened. Using a spud, you can cut a hole through thick ice in an astonishingly short time, and make the hole exactly the size and shape you want. The hole needn't be larger than your shoe, so that you can't step into it. Remove all pieces of ice from the hole by scooping them out with a skimmer. This is the familiar long-handled, perforated type that is used in the kitchen. The skimmer is also used to remove ice that forms over the hole while you are fishing.
Now for your tackle. The simplest outfit consists of a hand line, leader, and baited hook. You can use any short, light, bait casting rod and reel, or you can simply fasten your reel to any stick or piece of brush about a foot long. Since you won't be casting, a rod isn't important. Many fishermen use short sticks, umbrella stays, or old fly rod tips instead of rods. These are set into short wooden handles, to which the reel is clamped or taped.
Tip-ups, or traps, are used extensively in ice fishing. These are simple gadgets, consisting essentially of a reel, a trigger arrangement, and a signal flag. Cut a slot in the ice, and stand the tip-up in it. Make a loop in your line, and pass it over the short end of the wire, opposite the signal flag. Move the lead weight over, so that the flag remains down. When a fish bites, the tug on the line will pull the short end down. The lead weight will slide over to that end, causing the flag to snap into an erect position.
The best tip-ups are those in which the reel is down in the hole, under water. This prevents the line from freezing, which is a common occurrence in ice fishing. Some fishermen set out a number of tip-ups, running from shallow to deep water. Those which don't take fish are moved to more favorable spots.
Your line should be suited to the kind of fishing you are going to do. If you're after big fish, you'll need stout line, such as 24 pound test braided line, or even metal line. Pan fish are best caught by using nylon leader material instead of line. Use a # 10 Sproat or Carlisle hook for pan fish.
Live bait is usually best for ice fishing, although fish have been taken with canned peas, corn, bits of meat, and other table scraps. Minnows are very effective for lake trout, pike, pickerel, and walleyed pike. Pan fish go for small baits, such as pieces of worm, and most insect larvae. Wood borers, grubs, and larvae that you can scoop out of stream beds are good, too. Many goldenrod stalks have galls, inside of which you will find tiny white grubs; these are excellent bait for pan fish.
Use a sinker just heavy enough to keep your bait down. You can gauge the proper depth at which to fish by looping a heavy sinker over your hook, and dropping it right down to the bottom. Raise your line about a foot, and tie a little loop into it. If you are fishing with a tipup, slip this loop over the trigger. Pull up your line, remove the sinker, bait your hook, and you're ready to fish.
Fish may also be taken through the ice by using artificial lures. These are "jigged," or alternately raised and lowered with a rhythmic motion, so that they flutter on the way down. Special jigging spoons are used for this purpose. Another popular jigging lure is the ice fly. This is a weighted fly, with large, soft hackles that move as the fly is jigged up and down.
In the northern part of this country there are many lakes which stay frozen all winter. Fishermen move portable shacks on to the ice, and keep them there as long as the ice remains solid. Some of the larger lakes have regular communities of fishing shacks, clustered around favorite fishing locations.
Before you go ice fishing, check with your conservation department and find out if it's legal where you plan to go. There may be other restrictions, too. Certain species of fish are protected at different times. Be sure that the fish you are after may be taken legally. The taking of insects and other live bait is prohibited in some waters; you ought to be certain of that, as well.
So, next time the pond freezes over, plan on ice fishing. Bundle up in your warmest winter clothing, load the sled, and try your luck.