Ice fishing is a most democratic institution. It doesn't cost a lot of money, and the fish don't seem to care much about your pedigree when it's feeding time.
About all that's required to start is a frozen lake, a fishing license, an auger or chisel to chop a hole with, a skimmer to scoop off the ice that forms in your fishing hole, some line, hooks, split shot and bait. A bucket or small sled to carry your gear comes in handy if you can't drive to your fishing hole.
Experienced anglers usually prefer an auger to a chisel for cutting holes. Augers are faster, require less effort and, unless gas powered, tend to be lighter than chisels, which need to be heavy to chop effectively. Augers also carry less risk of plunging through your boot and foot.
Augers are available with 6-inch or 8-inch bits. Unless you are going to catch the mother of all trout, a 6-inch bit should be sufficient. A 6-inch bit will cut holes much quicker and with less effort than an 8-inch bit.
Motorized augers are heavier and more cumbersome than hand-driven augers but may be worth the extra effort and expense later in the season when the ice is 4 or more feet thick. Power augers also make exploring the ice for good fishing holes a lot easier. Most experienced ice anglers advise that if you are not catching fish where you're fishing, don't waste a lot of time, go somewhere else.
Most ice anglers, however, can get by nicely with an inexpensive hand-driven auger. The best fishing usually is earlier in the year, anyway, when the ice is thinner and the temperatures are not as brutal.
Once a fishing hole is cut, anglers must occasionally skim newly formed ice off the water to keep the hole from freezing over again. Store-bought skimmers resemble a shallow, round-bottomed pan with a lot of holes punched in it on the end of a 2-foot handle. The plate catches skim ice and the holes in it allow water to drain off.
You can make your own skimmer by punching a hole in the bottom of a coffee can and screwing it to a stick. It won't last as long, but it is cheap and easily replaceable.
Ice anglers who intend to use a hole again the next day can keep it from freezing back too thick by pouring some cheap vegetable oil on the water in the hole and covering it. Cover the hole with a small piece of plywood and shovel an insulating layer of snow on top of the plywood.
Most ice anglers prefer to punch holes in the ice fairly close to shore. Fish tend to cruise the shallows looking for food in early winter, and fishing shallow eliminates a lot of guess work about what depth to fish at. As an added bonus, you often can see clear to the bottom in shallow water and watch fish take the bait. To do so, lie on the ice with your face over the hole and your parka hood blocking the sunlight. Sprinkling some raw slices of potato or crumbled egg shells in the hole helps silhouette passing fish, making them easier to see.
You can drill as many holes as you want, but ice anglers in Alaska cannot fish with more than two lines at once. More often than not, ice anglers will fish in one hole with a bait-and-bobber setup and use a jig in the other hole.
Many ice anglers prefer to use short, light jigging rods made especially for ice fishing. The rods will usually either allow a fishing reel to be mounted on the handle or allow the user to wrap the fishing line around two pegs on the handle.
Other ice anglers regard rods as an unnecessary nuisance and prefer to use a hand line. If you are using a bobber and bait, you can just lay the plastic spool of line on the ice and wait. When a fish takes the bobber under, the scratching of the spool spinning on the ice will provide an audible signal that it's time to set the hook. Anglers also use "tip-ups," crossed sticks with a spool to hold line that signal a bite by tipping up or waving a small flag.
One or more small split shot are usually sufficient weight to carry the bait to the proper depth. Lures and bait are a matter of the fish's individual preference. Winter fish will take an astonishing variety of offerings.
Of course, cocktail shrimp and single salmon eggs are the old standbys, but stocked trout have also been known to take corn, marshmallows, fish eyes and even small chunks of raw bacon.
Artificial lures work well. Lead-head jigs (preferably maribou), jigged spoons and flies will all catch fish, though their attractiveness is greatly enhanced by a small piece of bait. The new soft-bodied, plastic baits will also do the job. Remember to keep your baits and lures slightly on the small side. Winter fish have light appetites.
The best advice is to experiment. If what you're using doesn't catch fish, try something else.
This article is a reprint of material that originally appeared in the Clarion in 1996.
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