By Chad LaChance

Let’s get one thing straight – I’m no ice fisherman. Didn’t do it growing up; being raised in South Florida did nothing to motivate me to venture out on the frozen lake.  In Florida, ice is for cocktails and keeping your catch fresh until you can enjoy it with said cocktails. Sitting on a frozen lake peering through a six-inch hole, holding a ridiculous little rod and fishing with ridiculous little baits seemed…well, ridiculous. Surely it’s a pastime reserved for Eskimos, or so I thought.
Last winter I finally took the plunge – which leads me to my other misconception. I figured I’d fall through the ice for sure, or if not that, I’d slowly freeze to death waiting for a ridiculous little fish to bite my ridiculous little bait suspended on ridiculous little line spooled on a ridicu…you get the point.

Art Tang, client of Cats on the Red, with another great Lake Winnipeg Greenback.

I was wrong on nearly all accounts. My first trip out onto the frozen lake was nothing like I’d imagined it would be. No one fell through, no one froze, and we actually caught fish – nice ones too.  Lake trout to be specific and I deserve none of the credit for our catching.

Being a professional guide, I know the value of knowledge in catching and I really know how long it takes to obtain that knowledge through trial and error alone.  Most of what you pay for when hiring a guide is the years of experience. The rest is the use of their tackle. Since I had no experience or tackle, going out with someone flush in both seemed like a good use of funds, and I was right. If nothing else, I’d gained an idea of what exactly I was looking for in ice gear before spending my own scratch on tackle that wasn’t needed or appropriate. To further advance my learning, I went out with a different guide on a different lake, this time for smallies through the ice, to get a different perspective.   After both trips, a few key things became apparent to success. And while there are some obvious differences, I was surprised at how similar some of the concepts are for catching fish in open water or on ice.

For the record, both of my initial trips were with top-shelf, very experienced guides. These guys make their full time livings guiding, and both literally spend more time on water than land.

The thing that surprised me most was the amount of mobility both guides displayed. I figured ice fishing would be similar to catfishing in that we’d sit in one spot all day and wait, but nothing could be further from the truth. On neither trip did we fish a hole for more than about 20 minutes, and usually we moved within the first 10 minutes if there was no action.

On the laker trip, we drilled nearly four dozen holes. They appeared random at first until I figured out that we were basically following an underwater ridge. We fished for a few minutes and then moved to the next hole, never looking back. At the end of the day we were probably 300 yards from the first hole.

On the smallie trip, we drilled about a dozen holes and again it looked random. In this case, we had actually drilled holes all the way around a small hump that rose 10 feet off the bottom, as well as a couple of holes on the top. We then rotated around the various holes, fishing each for a short while and then moving to the next. Each hole was fished a few times over the course of the day.

In each case, it was apparent that we were after the active fish rather than tying to activate them with our baits. If there were feeding fish there, we got bit right away. If not, we moved.

The astute reader is now wondering how we knew about the structure in the frozen depths, or the presence of fish for that matter. Electronics of course! But wait, I’d have to drill an awful lot of holes to learn details of a piece of structure with a sonar unit built for ice. The answer is GPS.

Both guides (and me too) use Lowrance electronics. The spots we fished on ice were studied and mapped during open water season in the boat. With Structure Scan side imaging and down imaging, spots can be quickly investigated and GPS points gathered. Those precious waypoints are saved to an SD card, which is then placed in a Lowrance hand-held GPS. Presto – now you have spots to fish.  You can walk right out to the middle of a lake, drill a hole, and be assured of fishing over your favorite rock pile on the first try. How cool is that?

Once on ice, both guides deployed “flasher” type sonar to check for fish. They update in real time which is a bonus when looking straight down, and even more of a bonus when “working” a fish. By that I mean that both guides watched very intently on the flasher to gauge the response of the fish to their baits. Did the fish rise off the bottom, move off and come back, descend away from the bait, etc. The action imparted on the bait, or the bait itself, could than be adjusted to solicit strikes.

That leads me to the part of ice fishing I really enjoyed; working a single fish that showed on screen. When I said we fished holes for only a few minutes, I meant holes that didn’t have fish apparent on the flasher when we first looked, or that had unresponsive fish.  Particularly with the lakers, several times I played with a fish for 5 to 15 minutes before getting it to bite. Knowing when to jig subtly, aggressively, or not at all will only come with time, but the concept of coaxing a fish you can see electronically to bite is worth practicing and big fun to boot!

Another commonality between both experts was how simple their tackle selection is. Both relied on only a couple of lures, and both use either scent or live bait tipping of some sort all the time on ice, presumably because the fish get so much time to really inspect your lure. Neither guide uses a hut on our trip, though both do when it’s “really cold” (as though -10 laker fishing doesn’t qualify as really cold?) and both had small heaters for hand warming.

Probably the most important aspect to catching fish, or harvesting game for that matter, is being comfortable in their environment. That is even more important in ice fishing where, beyond being out in the cold, you’re sitting on a large (and hopefully thick!) block of ice.  Boots must be extremely warm and waterproof, and quality socks are key too.  Gloves are almost as important, and they too should be waterproof for dealing with slush and wet gear. It goes without saying that your noggin needs to be covered. I carried chemical hand warmers on both trips and was glad to have them. Being well fed and hydrated helps you to stay warm too.

The concept of dressing in layers is familiar to all real outdoorsmen and women, and it’s vital in ice fishing. On the smallie trip we dragged a sled loaded with gear a ½ mile across the lake at first light in zero degree temps. By the time we had drilled all our holes, we had worked our tails off. Without the ability to shed a layer or two, we would have been sweating…and then our frozen bodies would have been discovered by the next group of ice fishers! Instead, we left our outer layers off until we settled in and were nice and cozy. Once the sun got high, we again shed some layers. Versatility in layering never looked so good.

Speaking of outerwear, both guides are fans of a Gore-Tex or similar bib/parka combo, and I agree. Bibs are noticeably warmer than pants and a full waterproof exterior is always a plus when handling fish or dealing with the elements. I wear wool pants underneath and so did one of the guides. In all cases with both me and the ice guides, our layers contained no cotton. Wool or poly is the only right answer here!

If you haven’t tried ice fishing, or perhaps you harbor some of the same misconceptions I had, give it a shot. Statistically speaking, more fish are caught per angling hour through the ice than in liquid water, and it is more exciting than I ever thought it’d be. Find someone who has some gear (or at least an auger and a basic understanding of ice fishing) and tag along. The gear itself is less expensive than open water tackle, and with a little homework on spots, finding fish isn’t as hard as you might think. Geez, if a Florida guy can catch fish through the ice, anyone can do it!