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Hard Freeze Fishing

Only hardiest anglers and gear work in sub-zero temps

Hard Freeze Fishing
Emily Mulligan braves -20 degrees to finesse a Minnesota northern pike from a hole. (Don Mulligan photo)

In the diverse world of outdoor sportsmen and women, few pray for cold as religiously as ice fishermen. No other sport is as dependent on bitter cold for its enthusiasts to just participate.

But even for most ice fishermen there is a limit to how much cold they can stand.

Every fisherman’s definition of extreme cold, or what they consider unfishable conditions, is different. For some, their limit is reached when gear ceases to work. For others, it is all about pain.

The winter of 2013-2014 has tested everyone’s limits.

Click the image to see photos of Hard Freeze Fishing
Photos of Hard Freeze Fishing

The entire Midwest has suffered through harsh winter conditions this year, but consider Minnesota’s plight to get a feel for the worst of it.

“According to the National Weather Service, this winter is the coldest in 30 years, depending on which numbers you measure … So far this winter is running about 7.5 degrees colder than average through December and January. Add up all the highs and lows and you come up with 10.2 degrees,” Paul Huttner of the Minnesota Post said.

Ten degrees doesn’t actually sound that bad for most upper Midwestern fishermen until you remember that is only the average. To get to that number, Minnesota has suffered through weeks of subzero weather and days when the real temperature dipped to -30 degrees or worse.

The rest of the Midwest hasn’t been much better off.

“The perfect recipe for extremely cold temperatures is a deep snowpack and calm winds,” Greg Carbin of the National Weather Service said.

By February 1, Indianapolis had already registered its fourth snowiest winter ever and Chicago wasn’t far behind.

The first challenge brutal cold brings for ice fishermen is thick ice, which can be approached as a mixed blessing.


With a foot of ice on most lakes by Christmas this year, anglers were able to drive their trucks out early. By Valentines Day, however, the ice in many places in the upper Midwest was three-feet-thick.

Gas-powered augers are a must, but with ice so thick, they require extensions and new blades after drilling only a few holes.

And despite the fact that they are made for the cold, gas augers are difficult to operate when the air is -20 degrees or colder. For that matter, phones, cameras, diesel trucks, batteries, heaters, reels and lanterns have a tendency to break or die when it is that cold.

Additionally, bait freezes and dies after only brief exposure to the air, and everything gets caked with ice.

A good shanty levels the playing field for fishermen, but getting to them and setting up can be downright painful. Additionally, being restricted to a spot where a permanent shanty is sitting is often counterproductive.

Portable shanties have come a long way in their design, are more mobile and are critical in extreme conditions. Once sealed with snow, they can be heated to tolerable levels, even when the air outside is 25-below zero.

A good tipup will work, regardless of the air outside but they are painful to set up and maintain in the bitter cold. The round, insulated type is better than the stick type for obvious reasons.

Thick ice pikeSeveral factors affect where fish are and how they eat under ice. Bitter cold is just one of them. More than anything, long-lasting, bitter cold affects fish simply because of the massive amount of ice it produces.

As ice gets thicker and snow accumulates on top, less light penetrates into the water column. This accelerates plant death and decay, which in turn consumes more oxygen.Depleted oxygen is a real issue under very thick ice and can be blamed for periodic fish die-offs in some lakes. Sometimes, a lake will die-off during unseasonably cold winters simply because they freeze right to the bottom.

Assuming a lake is diverse and deep enough to avoid a cold-related die-off, there are other factors to still consider. More than the cold, the barometric pressure drives the bite under the ice.

Clear, calm skies generally bring the coldest temperatures but also high pressure. High-pressure ridges are the worst weather event to ice fish, and some fish are affected more than others.

Northern pike and muskies are highly sought-after fish in the northern states and are generally some of the easiest fish to catch through the ice. They are, however, affected by high pressure more than any other game fish.

They have one of the largest air bladders of any fresh water fish since they routinely like to suspend throughout the water column. That massive air bladder is a liability when the air pressure is high or rising.

Normally daylight and sight feeders, northern pike slow down and become more passive until the barometric pressure stabilizes or a low-pressure ridge descends.

If the pressure is right, extremely thick ice doesn’t bother pike, and they are commonly seen cruising in only a foot of water under three-feet of ice. Even in deep water under thick ice, pike fishermen know to sometimes set their tipup bait only a foot below the ice.

Pike have learned that some baitfish use the irregular ice to hide and can be easily trapped up against it. Spear-fishermen have been taking advantage of this odd behavior for hundreds of years.

As winter wears on and some shallow bays freeze out, larger pike and muskies often find refuge on deep-water breaks and cliffs. These fish are harder to find for stationary ice fishermen, especially when it is bitter cold above the ice.

Where several lines are allowed, scattering tipups across various underwater environments is necessary to find big pike. Once a good hole is identified, however, it will likely keep producing all winter.

Tipups, however, are difficult to set and reset when it is 25 below.

The old saying; “no pain, no gain,” applies to many of the outdoor sports, but none as much as ice fishing in the extreme bitter cold. Be prepared and call it quits if it gets too cold.

And remember, spring is just around the corner.

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