The Lean, Mean Ice-Fishing Machine

There is equipment out there that not only makes ice-fishing easier but also puts you over more fish. Here are the keys to mobility.

With electronics and a portable shelter, you can go where the fish are, rather than waiting for them to come to you. Photo by Noel Vick

Operating cumbersome ice-fishing equipment is unacceptable for my gang, better left for guys dressed in snowmobile suits while hauling metal-runner sleighs out to their hard-sided shanties. We ramble, migrating from rumors to tips with the fleetness of gypsies. Only the essentials are in tote. But our minimalist arsenal manifests a science, a precise and concise composition and arrangement of ice-fishing's finest apparatus.

In this endeavor to fish fluidly but outfitted, nothing matters more than what we wear. All is lost - fun included - if you're underdressed and frozen or overdressed and sweating.

The past decade has advanced outerwear that keeps us toasty but doesn't impede mobility. The outer layer is water- and wind-retardant, basically weatherproof, but breathable. Little or no insulation is required either as thermal properties are reserved for inner layering. Top-of-the-line raingear, or guidewear as it's known, makes for the consummate outer shell. Whichever brand you choose, just focus on weatherproofing, volume of pockets (deep and sealable), wrist adjustments, a hood, and matching pants with knee and seat reinforcement.

Underneath, for leanness, warmness and wick-ability, I'm partial to polypropylene undergarments covered with breathable cotton - sweatshirt, turtleneck, etc. - and then maybe a light jacket before mounting the shell. Layering defies the coldest conditions but can be easily cropped down for milder temperatures.

The world of winter boots gets equally as complex. Light is right, but overall warmth certainly supersedes weightlessness. I still run around the ice in military-surplus boots because they're faithfully warm. In the realm of modernized footwear, you're best searching for a lightweight and waterproof cold-weather boot. Some companies manufacture models that cater to contemporary ice-anglers.

OK, so you've harnessed body heat and are well on the way to becoming a lean, mean ice-fishing machine. Next in outfitting comes the shelter, and in my mind there is only one choice: flip-over portables. They set and collapse the fastest but still guard against the elements.

Besides the ease of getting in and out, flip-overs also afford cargo capacity, via a synthetic sled. The sled, which supports the skeleton, is the resting place for your rods, tackle, auger, etc. A moderately loaded flip-over can be dragged around by hand, but when ice thickness suffices, I favor the pulling power of an ATV or snowmobile. We often link several portables together and pull them around in caravan fashion.

Single-person shelters are surely the lightest, but they lack carrying capacity for extended trips and aren't built for conversing with buddies. So I've settled on a two-person design. When you're fishing solo, the added seating space doubles as a workbench and temporary storage. USL Product Fish Traps and Frabill Ice Rangers are frontrunners in this genre.

An auger is the single bulkiest piece of equipment in the armory but necessary nonetheless. Early on when the ice measures 6 inches or less, a fast hand auger is preferred. StrikeMaster Lazers, Jiffy Jets and Eskimo Barracudas are the finest manual drills. I'm partial to 6-inch-diameter bits for universal application.

Later, as winter progresses, power augers become necessary for vagabond ice-anglers. Again, I point to the same manufacturers listed above and encourage shoppers to procure the best and lightest power auger they can afford. Ounces matter, especially at the end of day when you've busted 100-some holes through 30 inches of ice. Typically, I run an 8-inch blade on a power head. Wider is beneficial for sight-fishing and landing monster fish, but it's also heavier.

No other category has benefited more from the thrust toward powerful but petite than heating and lighting. And combining the two elements produces the ultimate in efficiency. Supercharged lanterns, such as Coleman's Powerhouse, yield illumination and byproduct heat that'll warm a portable in moderately cold conditions. Regardless of lantern brand, though, consider models that run on disposable cylinders - no messy fuel - and have self-ignition - no dinking with wet matches or wind.

If you're looking for heaters as individual components, you'll find that the marketplace offers a number of new portable and potent heating units. I rely on styles that are flameless (safety issue), lofty in BTUs (upwards of 5,000 units), and run on disposable cylinders.

While on the move after dark, you'll need even greater illumination, and from a source that's very portable. My choice is a beaconing headlamp, but it's wise to also carry a flashlight.

Electronics play a larger role in ice-fishing as our expectations and abilities grow. Few if any ice-fishing artisans perform without a portable flasher, mostly Vexilar these days. Global Positioning System technology grows while the physical size of the units shrink. The definitive ice-fishing GPS is now no heftier than a walkie-talkie and can be mounted to an ATV or snowmobile. And speaking of communication, when we're fanned out and surveying myriad locations, the group remains in contact with two-way radios.

Enough about the peripherals. Let's get serious about the core weaponry: rods and reels. I'm a stickler for preparation, transporting at minimum three pre-rigged rods and reels, each customized to the species and lake in question. The standard arsenal includes one hard-core panfish outfit, a crossover setup that'll perform on both panfish and game fish, and a lightweight game-fish version. That well-rounded lineup gets more specialized, though, if I'm after, say, walleyes only.v For panfish, contemplate a spinning outfit with a 24- to 26-inch rod and 3- or 4-pound mono or fluorocarbon. The catchall middle setup is also spinning, but with a firmer rod of 26 to 28 inches and 4- to 6-pound-test line. For light game fish, I'm partial to 28 to 30 inches and 6-pound-test.

To protect pre-rigged rods and reels during the rigors of travel, you need to case them properly. ReadyRig and Rod Guard are two sophisticated sheathing systems designed specifically for ice-fishing rods. For immediate access to rods and reels while fishing, Ice Team captain Dave Genz mounts synthetic rain gutters to the interior sides of his Fish Trap.

Beyond the poles, traditional board-style tip-ups are effective for exploring new water and addressing larger game, such as walleyes and pike. They're also compact and effortlessly integrated into the system.

Moving on to tackle, I'm not going to preach what explicit lures to tote, but I will say that you need a comprehensive kit, yet one that doesn't rival a tool chest. Instead, utilize three small pocket-sized tackle boxes. Load one with panfish baits, a second with larger jigs and spoons, and a third with terminal tackle - i.e. split shot, bobbers or floats, barrel swivels, leader material, beads and slip knots. Genz endorses aluminum trout flyboxes. They're small and rustproof, and the rows of interior clips keep his jigs untangled and accessible.

With jigs and setups in ready position, bait becomes the next issue, and it too must be ferried without turmoil. No big minnow buckets, because minnows are a last resort in the running-and-gunning mode. But if live minnows have to come along, stick them in a cylindrical foam bait container - the smallest one at the bait shop - and insert that into a big coffee can. The metal skin extends the life of a foam bucket. To thwart spillage and maintain thriftiness, Genz puts minnows in a 1/2-gallon Thermos with a screw-on cover. It's spill-proof and virtually unbreakable.

In regard to minnows, the creature's most essential body part - the head - is normally all a person needs for bait. Before embarking, celebrated ice-fishing guide Dick Gryzwinski pre-severs the heads off a batch of minnows and stuffs them in a sealable freezer bag.

Most often when tracking panfish and perch, I deal in solely maggots, occasionally wax worms. Waxies perish more easily, croaking with limited exposure to the cold. Maggots - also called Eurolarvae - are hardy, preferring cool but not freezing conditions, and they usually beckon more bites anyway. With either variety, though, I keep a day's supply in two pocket-sized unbreakable containers. Used tobacco tins and tiny plastic tubs work well.

Certain tools are as central to ice-fishing as lures and line. I won't leave the truck without donning a hemostat/forceps for hook removal, an Eye Buster tool for removing paint from a lure's line-tie, a hook sharpener, fingernail clippers and a penlight for charging glow lures. Fortunately, these vital utensils are lightweight and can be worn on a lanyard.

One hot bite shrivels but another is under way somewhere, so we go mobile. And because our gear is designed to fish proficiently and set and dismantle quickly, we're off again like gypsies.

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