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Modern Ice-Fishing Basics

A lot of ice-fishing gear isn't worth the packaging that contains it, but some items are indispensable for successful winter angling. Our expert explains what works and what doesn't.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

It was the mid-1950s and an old man with a young boy walked onto the ice of a river backwater. They used an axe to chop a hole through the ice, soaking them both and producing a ragged hole that narrowed toward the bottom. Their tackle was the same as they used during summer, a solid 6-foot fiberglass rod and a tubular steel model, both fitted with level-wind, "knuckle-buster" reels filled with braided black nylon line. In spite of all this, they caught fish and they had a great time.

Half a century later, the old man is gone except in the memory of the boy who is now well into middle age -- but how his ice-fishing gear has changed!

Those were the "good old days," but not because the fishing was better. Nor was it because that simple, crude ice-fishing gear made fishing any more enjoyable. Yes, there is a lot of nonsense tackle on the market these days that serious anglers do not need, but there is also some gear that can make winter fishing more comfortable, a little less like work and some of it will even help anglers catch more fish.


Start with the right clothing. This might not be an exciting topic to read about, but it is probably the gear that will make the biggest difference in your ice-fishing day. Proper, comfortable clothing will keep you on the ice longer, and time on the ice is the key in winter fishing.

The most important elements of winter garb include a wind-resistant and waterproof outer shell, outer layers that may be adjusted to changing conditions, and boots that are waterproof and heavily insulated between the ice and the soles of your feet.

Boots have improved a great deal over the past few years. If your boots are not quite warm enough, add an insulating insole and light socks that will wick away perspiration under heavier socks.



Gas auger designs have come a long way over the last 30 years. Some of the newer models are relatively light yet powerful enough to drill through several feet of black ice. If you fish with a few friends -- and it is wise never to go ice-fishing alone -- one power auger for the group is plenty.

Very new to the market are electric power augers that may be attached to rechargeable drills. These are the ultimate in lightweight gear. They eliminate the odor of two-cycle motor fumes, and they are relatively quiet. If you already have the drill, this is a very inexpensive route to a gas auger -- about $30. Two-handed, 18-volt drills work best. The downside is that battery life is limited in cold weather.


There are only so many things you can do when fishing vertically through a hole in the ice, so don't be tempted to get overly fancy with gear. All the fishing gear you really need is your legal limit of jigging rods or tip-ups, plus the proper terminal tackle and comfort items.

When choosing jigging rods, consider how often you may use them inside an ice shelter, in which case they should be very short. If you fish without a shelter, rods can be any length within reason, although there is no big advantage to using longer rods simply because no distance casting is involved.

The one minor advantage to a long rod is when fighting big fish through thick ice. A long rod can be stuck down the hole to prevent the line from fraying on the ice.

Rod material can be important if you fish inside a shelter or on warmer days when there is no need to wear gloves. Fish often hit very lightly during winter, so rod sensitivity can mean the difference between slim pickings and a great catch. You may not feel light hits while wearing gloves, even with the finest graphite rod money can buy. The sensible solution here is to use a spring bobber.

If you fish without a shelter, your jigging rods should have a minimal number of larger-diameter guides to minimize icing. If you're fishing inside a warm shelter, this is not important.

Ice-anglers generally use tough, inexpensive reels because the demands on them are not as great as might be the case during open-water seasons. However, a good drag is just as important in winter as it is at any other time.

Lubrication is also important. Some lubricants will stiffen in cold temperatures. There are some newer lubricants that are designed for low temperatures, but be sure what those low temperatures are. So-called "low-temperature" or cold-weather lubricants might not be adequate for the most severe ice-fishing conditions. Some ice-anglers simply clean out all lubricants and add powdered graphite or simply let the reels wear normally, which will not break down parts as quickly as they will when fishing in open water.

Newer lines made especially for ice-fishing have qualities that make them less likely to get stiff in cold weather. There have been big improvements made over the years, especially in the monofilament class. For example, panfish anglers might want to check out one of the newer 3-pound-test "ice lines."

Braided lines made especially for ice-fishing are best suited to tip-ups because handling them is easier, especially with gloves on. Everything goes slower in cold weather. Fish take more time to examine the bait and are likely to be line-shy, so wise anglers add a low-visibility leader to braided lines.

Pack-ability is an important consideration when choosing tip-ups. If you cannot fit all of your tip-ups in a plastic bucket, they are probably too bulky for today's mobile ice-fisherman.

If you fish in extremely cold weather, tip-ups that cover the holes will be easier to maintain than other types because they minimize freezing. When freezing is not a serious problem, lightweight, less bulky tip-ups might be more effective.

Quality is more important than style. The trigger mechanism that trips the flag should be sensitive, but not so light that gusts of wind trip it. Magnetic pop-ups have an advantage in this regard. But when snow or slush gets inside the tubes, they are worthless until they are cleaned out.

So-called "low-temperature" or cold-weather lubricants might not be adequate for the most severe ice-fishing conditions.

There is no perfect tip-up. Each style has

advantages and disadvantages. New models come out every year.

The under-ice water temperature in most lakes is quite uniform from top to bottom during winter. Fish often suspend or gather in schools under the ice. When this happens, you can save a lot of time by using sonar.

Anglers who do not use sonar gear generally never know about the fish that swim under their holes unless they hit, and because fish generally will not move far up or down the water column to hit a bait, you will not get hits unless you are very near the correct depth.

Sonar units made specifically for ice-fishing feature floating transducers. What's old is new again. Many serious ice-anglers prefer the old flasher style because flashers show what is under the hole right now, whereas chart-type units present a picture of what has passed under the hole. The only part of a chart that shows the immediate current situation is the leading edge of the screen.

The problem with flashers is that prices have gone up considerably since sales volume has dropped. They have now become specialized tools.

There is no need to carry a lantern and a heater if you fish inside a shelter. A propane lantern provides plenty of heat to keep you warm inside a shelter and will still warm your fingers if you do not use a shelter. Be sure your shelter is properly ventilated.

An ice-fishing sled is the last item to choose but certainly not an afterthought. It should be the last item chosen because it must carry all of the other items. The ice sled can also be made into a folding shelter.

Newer materials and innovative designs have made ice sleds increasingly efficient. They are lighter than ever before. A one-person sled-shelter combo can carry all of the gear you need and do it with much less effort than ever before.

Look for a sled that can be dragged with minimal effort over either bare ice or deep snow. It should have a wide, flat bottom with at least two runners. The wide, flat bottom will keep it sliding over powdery snow. The runners make it slide very easily over ice.

If you travel very light, there are sleds that are just large enough for a plastic bucket or two and a folding windbreak. A windbreak will not hold any heat, but just breaking the wind is often enough.

With a good ice sled-shelter, a power auger and a proper selection of gear, an ice-angler can be far more effective.

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