For many outdoors enthusiasts, no sooner than we have our deer tag notched and venison in the freezer, and we’re looking ahead to “first ice” and the next outdoor adventure. The new gear and great deals that we found at Scheels Ice Fest seems to be jumping up and down in the garage screaming, “Take me… take me fishing!” The urge is real, testing our patience.
Early ice is a time of anticipation and a time of caution: Where will I find fishable ice? How will I know that the ice is safe to travel on? When do I dare give it a try? These are all questions going through the anglers’ minds as plans for the first ice trip are worked out. Shortly after, the following questions run through our thought process: Where can I find fish? What lures should I bring?
Safety is always a primary concern whenever we venture out onto the ice, regardless of the progression of the season. But, that concern is no more important than at first ice. Having launched a boat sometimes days before on the same body of water, we wonder if walking out on the now frozen surface of the lake is a sane, rational action. The old adage “no ice is ever 100% safe” holds the same reverence as “treat every firearm as if it were loaded”. The first pieces of equipment in an ice angler’s arsenal should unquestionably be safety related.
We recommend the following tips when approaching early ice:
- Always go out with a buddy. The scout camps and youth camps had it right many years ago when they required youth campers to “buddy up” when going swimming. When we are out in pairs, we are able to assist one another should there be a problem.
- Bring along a spud bar to test the ice each step of the way. Know how to use your spud bar and how to read the ice as you launch it downward.
- Carry ice picks, a throwable floatation cushion, and rope in case of a scenario where one of you breaks through. Many ice anglers are also investing in floatation suits, like the Striker Ice Predator or Climate suits with Surefloat liners. These cold weather, functional outerwear suits provide float assist for the wearer, making it much easier to exit the water after a breakthrough.
- Wear ice cleats whenever you may be fishing on bare ice. Regardless of the time of year, bare ice presents a safety hazard that is easily preventable with a pair of inexpensive ice cleats.
Once safety is addressed and we can confidently walk on the ice, our focus can move toward the fishing tactics that will hopefully put some fish in the frying pan. Because the ice has not yet reached its maximum thickness, we need to realize that most of our excursions will take place by walking, or as the ice grows, an ATV or snowmobile. Mobility is a key in getting to and from your fishing area. We prefer to take one of two approaches, depending on how many will be fishing with us on that particular outing. The first option includes a flip-over style shelter, such as Eskimo’s Grizzly, Sierra Thermal or Wide One Inferno. This style of ice shelter offers the ability to haul all of the gear needed for our outing in the tub, which can be pulled by hand or behind an ATV or snowmobile. The other option is to pack a hub style pop-up shelter into a gear sled along with the rest of the gear and pull it out using the same methods as the flip-over. While flip-over shelters typically accommodate one or two anglers, a large pop-up like the Eskimo Fatfish 6120i allow several more anglers to fish together. This is particularly relevant if you are bringing kids or family members along who may all need to stay within close proximity of each other.
Since all of your gear will need to be pulled out onto the ice, packing light is definitely a plus. A lightweight auger like the ION X will provide more than enough ice cutting power for a full day out on the ice. And at a mere 22 pounds, it is easily transported where it is needed.
One of our favorite tactics for early ice is to find a basin adjacent to a shallow bay. These bays are typically the first to freeze over and establish ice safe enough to fish. The nearby basins are often the fall and winter home of bluegills, crappies and walleye. A Scheels Outfitters medium light ice rod paired with a 13 Fishing Black Betty and 3 lb. test line makes the perfect set-up for early season panfish. We suggest drilling holes from the deep weed edge on the bay out into the deepest part of the basin.
As we drill, one of us will follow behind with our Vexilar FLX-28, marking the depths and looking for bait and/or fish. Keep in mind that these fish may not be on or near the bottom. Often times crappies and even bluegills will suspend in the water column. Tungsten jigs tipped with a spike or wax worm work great to entice finicky bluegills. A slightly more aggressive presentation can sometimes put more fish on the ice as they find it irresistible, watching it fall and flutter through the water column.
In many states multiple lines are legal through the ice. If this is the case we will rig a second line with a small slip bobber and a glow hook tipped with a small crappie minnow. These two rigs can be the perfect one-two punch with the jigging stick attracting the active fish and the dead stick enticing the most finicky bluegills or crappies.