It’s the night before your first ice fishing trip of the winter, and you’re looking at what you thought was your organized tackle box and rod and reel combo and your ice tent, all ready go, when what you really encounter is a jumbled compilation of stuff you threw into a garage corner at the end of last season.
If you’ve had one too many of those season starters where you’ve had to scramble, make it different this year. Getting your ice angling gear together before the first glaze of ice forms on your favorite lake, rather than the night before you and your buddies head out, is one of the best investments you can make towards a fun season, says walleye pro Mark Martin, who will once again host one of his successful ice fishing schools on Saginaw Bay this February.
First things first, Martin says. “We always emphasize safety first, safety second and safety third. Ice fishing is great, but you’ve got to make sure you get back and not become a statistic.”
“We teach our students ‘don’t set off like the Lone Ranger’ on the ice because that’s what’s going to get you and everyone in your party in trouble,” Martin says.
Ice can move and ice thicknesses can change daily, and exploring on your own in a literal “death zone” miles from shore is not the best idea.
“We tell everyone to use self-control and make sure you know your whereabouts before moving safely. That’s the most important aspect of preparing for this coming season. I don’t care if I was on Muskegon Lake near my home or on Houghton, or on Huron, I’d adhere to the same rules. You can get yourself into trouble anywhere.”
Here are some other gear tips you can use to get ready for the season now, rather than the night before.
First, Martin says, check your transportation. If your rolling stock isn’t rolling properly, you’ll be in a world of hurt if it conks out several miles from shore.
“Make sure that if you’re using a four-wheeler to get out, that you have chains or studs for your tires. If you get caught in deep snow or break through ice and get stuck, four-wheel-drive won’t be enough to get you out of it.”
If you know the majority of your trips will be on glare ice, be sure your snowmobile is equipped with “ice scratchers” that keep your rig’s engine cool in the absence of snow, he said. If it doesn’t have them, stores like Spicer’s Boat City in Houghton Lake can add them. Always perform other maintenance according to manufacturer specs, including changing last year’s oil.
Tackle Your Tackle
Next, tackle your tackle. Go through all your tackle boxes and terminal gear,” Martin says. “Be sure you’ve got enough swivels, hooks and snaps.”
And make sure your tackle box fits the job. Smaller ice fishing gear calls for smaller boxes to store it. “You don’t really want a big tackle box on the ice. Several small ones are better for each type of lure,” he advises. “Make sure they’re all organized, with sharpened hooks, and they’re all separated and labeled so you can easily find them.”
Some of the best new organizers aren’t tackle boxes at all, per se. They’re more like wallets lined with soft foam that hooks easily sink into. “When you need them, you can reach in and readily pull out a new presentation without getting your other lures scattered all over the ice,” Martin said.
Next, look over your rods. “You should have at least two, a medium, for small spoons and jigs, and light in case you just want to use a split shot and a hook for minnows. If you go up in heaviness with jigging Rapalas, you’ll want to go to a medium rod, but don’t go heavier because you won’t need it,” he said.
If you still using up that spool of mono, look instead at investing in some good fluorocarbon line like Berkeley Vanish Transition, or other super lines, in 8, 6 and 4-pound test, as well as Fireline in crystal color in 6 and 4-pound test. If sticking with mono, look at 4- and 6-pound test Trilene XL.
Choose snaps that will be easy to work with using cold fingers. Using snaps with a jigging Rapala or spoon will impart a different action opposed to a lure tired directly to mono.
Make sure your bobber assortment is adequate for your dead rod fished with a live minnow. “Make sure it’s not too heavy. It should be light enough so the fish will inhale the minnow just as the bobber’s going down. When they clamp on, you want it to be just going under so they feel very little resistance,” Martin recommended. Place your jigging spoons in one, snaps, hooks, swivels and split shot in another and other jigging or swimming lures in another and jigs in one more.
Next, service your reels. Lube what you’ve got, or go shopping for new ones. “You’ll want small, ultralight spinning reels for most jigging rods or even small bait casting reels, palm-size, like a bass fisherman would use. Some people like those for jigging, but for bigger spoons I prefer spinning reels like the ultralights from Garcia,” he said.
“I like those because I can ‘back reel’ and tighten the drag down all the way so I get positive hookups every time. I don’t depend on the drag in cold weather because if it gets a little water on it and it turns to ice you won’t have a working drag anyhow. It might have been before the water froze underneath, and you’ll find out the hard way. I know, I have.
“By just back reeling, I can get a positive hookup because it doesn’t slip. I can feel how heavy a fish is and immediately judge to take the anti-reverse off because the fish will take off and you can back reel fast enough to get control as it runs. I’ve watched too many sorry stories and been a part of them too to do otherwise,” Martin said.
And if you’re tired of being cold after only a few minutes on the ice, maybe it’s time to upgrade to dedicated winter fishing gear. Outfits by Ice Armor, Under Armour, and new waterproof products by Carhartt and other makers, mated with chemical handwarmers as well as good, insulated boots, are the ticket to keep you comfy all day.
“Suits like those made by Ice Armor are lifesavers. You can practically lay down in water and not get wet,” Martin said. Match those with gloves or mittens that you can reach into the water for a fish and won’t get wet because the water will run right off and you’re set. If you had a pair of cloves that get wet, they’re going to freeze and become less nimble and that goes for clothing too. If your pants get wet, they’ll feel like you’re walking with cement clothes on.”
Portable fishing shelters like those made by Clam have made a world of difference in comfort. Martin recommends a two-person insulated unit for extra space and warmth.
Slip ice grippers on your boots so you won’t slip, and always carry a set of safety spikes around your neck, not in your pocket, so if you do fall in, you can dig yourself out. Always carry a cell phone and/or a handheld GPS unit in a waterproof bag as well. An old fashioned ice spud also can be your best friend if you need to test ice thicknesses.
“If you have pressure ridges and you can’t get across them, a spud can help you fill in the cracks if they’re not too wide. Sometimes ridges will expand or come together and shoot up four feet in the air where it was flat when you arrived. If you have a spud you can knock it down, or you’re not getting home,” he said.
Once you arrive on the ice, fish finders with a battery that will last all day such as the Lowrance Icemachine will let you know where the fish are, Martin said. “The Icemachine can even come with a built-in GPS unit and features a rechargeable battery too. It’s got a color screen and it does not take up much room, and they’re pretty affordable. I prefer that type over flashers because with an LCD monitor the image is immediate.”
With all that new equipment ready, Martin had some simple advice on where to fish.
Look for discolored ice and ridges, or skiffs of snow to set your lines. “Ice piles not only go up, but go down and create mini-reefs, creating turbulence and current. That’s a depth change and fish like to travel in areas where it’s darker and shaded and there’s food there too. If you set up on clear ice, you’re not going to do as well. If you have clear ice next to broken ice, set up on the edge because that’s where fish will be all the time.
Now, go fish!
Get Ice Ready Now! It's Cool to Prepare Your Angling Gear Now Instead of the Night Before, written by Bill Semion, a noted professional outdoor and travel journalist.