By Bernie Barringer
One of the great things about ice fishing is this: You can make it as simple or as complicated as you like. With a cheap rod and reel, a hand auger and a bucket to sit on, you can be ice fishing for about a hundred bucks. Or, you can invest thousands in shelters, electronics, underwater viewing, rods and reels, baits and an ATV or snowmobile. I know people who have ice shacks that feature satellite TV and microwaves and cost more than a new pickup truck.
Most of us fall somewhere in between those two extremes. And that’s one of the beautiful things about this great sport; you can start small and work your way up as high as you choose to go. Let’s explore the options for a basic setup for ice fishing that will make it fun, not too much work and above all, productive.
Rods and Reels
Of course, this topic is listed first because you must be connected to the fish in order to get it on top of the ice. The models of rods and reels you will need will depend mostly on what species of fish you plan to target. Most of us will fish some for larger fish such as pike, walleyes and trout. We’ll also spend some of our time in search of panfish. Since rods and reels are fairly inexpensive, I suggest getting about four, two with a little more backbone for larger fish such as lake trout and walleyes and two light bite models for crappies, bluegills and perch.
Spinning reels do not need to be high-end, expensive models because you will not be casting them. Simply open the bail and let the line spool off. You do want a reel with a quality drag, however. You don’t have much rod to fight the fish, so in ice fishing, the line and reel are doing more of the fighting than in an open water situation. You will use and depend on your drag more than normal.
Equip one of the lighter rods with a spring bobber for finicky panfish. Spool the reels up with a good ice fishing line. Use four to six pound test for the lighter rods, eight to ten pound test for the heavier ones.
One of the first and best investments you will want to make is in a power auger. Hand augers really just don’t “cut it” for the serious ice angler. You really have two options these days, the gas powered auger and the electric. When I saw the first ice auger attached to a cordless drill a decade ago, I was pretty skeptical until I saw it work. Incredibly, the six-inch auger had drilled more than 50 holes through a foot of ice with an 18-volt cordless drill when the battery finally died. Augers that attach to the drill you already own are one option and save you a little money.
Gas-powered augers are the mainstay of ice fishing. They are reliable and will work in any conditions and plow through ice up to three feet thick. It’s an investment well worth the money even at the very beginning for the ice fisherman just starting out.
Several companies make portable sonar units that are specifically designed for ice fishing. Vexilar, MarCum, Humminbird, Lowrance and Garmin are examples. These units have drop-down transducers with cone angles made specifically for hardwater work. You can choose between a flasher or an LED screen. A starter model will run about $200 or you can add features and extras that bring the price up to about $600.
Most of these units will allow you to change the cone angle to wide for shallow water and narrow for deeper water fishing. The flashers allow you to set the depth ranges. Some models have the option for high power or low power, which comes in handy for fishing in weeds.
Another great option is to buy a portable ice pack for the sonar on your boat. Several companies offer battery and transducer packs that allow you to ply the sonar you use in open water into ice fishing situations. Hook the depthfinder from your boat to the mount, attach the battery and transducer and you are ready to fish for about half the cost.
There’s a big advantage to using the unit you have on your boat, especially if you have GPS. You can mark spots on your GPS during the summer and then go back to them in the winter. See a spot that looks like it should be good for ice fishing? Simply punch in an icon and then you can fish that exact spot through the ice with ease.
Baits are low-cost items individually, but it’s easy to get carried away and it can really add up. You will need some blades, jigs and live bait rigs. In this category, it’s best to consult the experts at Sportsman’s Warehouse for local preferences on colors, patterns and types of lures that are working in the area you plan to be fishing.
A small, clear plastic box is all that’s needed for ice fishing gear. You won’t need a big tackle box because you don’t want to carry a lot of stuff you most likely won’t need. Keep the majority of the lures at home, just pick out the ones you may use during the day and drop them in a small box that can be carried in a pocket or small pack.
Live bait containers are important. Grubs, worms and minnows are often used in ice fishing. Insulated, aerated buckets and coolers will help you keep your live bait fresh and active.
Shelters are an area where the options and the prices of the options are all over the chart. Let’s divide them into three basic categories: sleds, hub-style houses and shacks.
Sleds include the Clam or Fish Trap style flip up shelters, which are very popular and versatile. These allow you to pull all your gear out to the fishing site in them, then set up and cover up. These have the advantage of being very mobile. It’s easy to pick up and relocate, a short distance or a long distance, because they are so easy to move. They come in one-person models or lager models that accommodate up to three. You can pull them by hand or tow them behind an ATV or snowmobile. They are the most popular choice among ice fishermen for good reason.
While they do not offer the easy mobility of Clam-type shelters, hub-style shelters have been growing in popularity because they are roomy and easy to set up. For small groups they are a great option, they allow you to sit around and fish while you chat, they hold in heat well and if you are out for the day, you can even set up a table with a camp stove and cook yourself a meal. Add a small propane heater if you like. This goes for any of the portable shelters.
The term “ice shack” doesn’t really mean what it once did. Today’s wheel houses are basically campers you roll out onto the ice. The discussion on these would be best suited to an article in itself, but it’s worth mentioning that if you want to make a serious commitment to ice fishing at some point, these things are really cool and offer so many great features that fishing in one is more like a different sport than sitting on a bucket with a rod.
Clothing and Boots
You probably already have the clothing you need to keep warm on the ice if you are an outdoorsman. But it’s worth mentioning that there have been some remarkable developments in ice fishing suits, boots and gloves. Behind much of this improvement has been the Clam Company, Striker and Frabill, who produce inner and outwear specifically designed for hardwater anglers. Knee reinforcement, wind blocking fabric, fleece lined pockets, lots of pockets, removable towel wipes, storm flaps, even flotation.
The bibs and parkas with all these great features require a significant investment, but it’s hard to put a dollar value on the comfort they provide and the ability to stay out longer and focus on the fishing, rather than on trying to stay warm and dry.
You may think of this as unnecessary or over the top, but I added it here because of one main reason. It may not help you catch that many more fish – although in some situations it can be an incredible tool for putting more fish on the ice – but the value in seeing the fish underwater comes from the sheer enjoyment I get out of using an underwater viewing system. Dropping a camera down and watching the fish is a fantastic experience for me. I use it to identify the species of the fish I am seeing on the depthfinder and I position it so I can often see the fish take my bait.
It’s just plain fun and well worth the investment for me. If you are taking youngsters out on the ice with you, this item could make the difference between boredom and begging to go back out again next time.
So there you have my take on the options for ice fishing. If you are just getting started, you will probably want to pick out a few of these items and stick with the basics, but as you get more serious about it, you can sure see there are a lot of possibilities for fishing in comfort and style, not to mention fishing more effectively.