How Ice Fishing made me feel
by Bryan Lund
It was the day of Donald Trump’s inauguration. The sky threatened rain. I almost listened to his speech instead of going ice fishing for the first time.
NPR’s reports of low attendance, planned protests, motorcyclist meat walls, and lingering ethics concerns cluttered my mind while drizzle accumulated on my windshield. I didn’t want to hear about any of it, but, like a car crash, I couldn’t turn away. I was in the crashing car.
These were the thoughts rattling around in my head when I found Eric at the entrance of Fleet Farm. He was hyped and ready to fish.
We spent some time talking about gear in Fleet Farm, then headed to his secret fishing hole. I rode along in his truck, blindfolded.
I’m kidding about the blindfold, but where we went is a secret. I will say that it’s not a place you would normally expect to find peace, though.
We schlepped his equipment across some pavement, then onto the ice, where I was made to use a hand-auger to drill a hole. It wasn’t as tough as I’d imagined. Peering through the translucent tunnel into blackness, it occured to me that, even as our lives feel bound to political tides, the fish under the ice move about unaffected.
Eric begins telling me about the nuances of this lake. Where the deepest points are, how the fish act, the cycles that come with different seasons.
He sets up his shelter, and drops it over the holes. When we block out the windows, light shines up into the tent from the holes at our feet.
We settle in. I’m jigging my line up and down. Eric helps teach me about the yank to set a hook.
We talk about his children. I speak honestly about my writing and respect for the people in the newsroom. Things get casually deep.
Then, a fish jiggles a line. I yank up. Eric has me hold the thing. It just kind of hangs out. We dump it back into the hole from which it came. We go back to chatting.
It’s gloomy outside, but its warm and dry in the tent. The windows are shut. The only thing we know is what’s going on in front of us, and we’re focused on what’s going on below.
How to Ice Fish
by Eric Atherton
Ice fishing is a fairly straightforward sport to take up — and it definitely is a great way to spend a winter afternoon. Rochester’s flood-control reservoirs, Foster-Arend Lake, and the still-developing Cascade Lake offer good opportunities to catch panfish for fun or the frying pan.
You can spend several thousand dollars on ice fishing gear if you want a big shelter and the hottest electronic fish-finders. But if you just want to give it a try, you can buy everything you really need for about $150.
That’s crucial, because a very thin, extremely flexible rod tip will move up and down if a bluegill or crappie so much as breathes on your bait, which will be your signal to set the hook. I’ve got ice fishing rods that bend double when I reel in a six-inch bluegill, but I’ve never lost a fish because my rod was too light. You won’t, either.
Some rod-and-reel combos are sold with line already on them. Walk right past these reels. The line on them will likely be cheap and heavy, and line is an item you don’t want to scrimp on.
If two guys are fishing in the same shelter, the one using 3-pound test line is going to catch at least twice as many fish as the guy using 6-pound test. I go as light as 2-pound test, and I’ve been known to spend more on the line than I did on the rod and reel. If you can afford to spend $20 for a 100-yard spool of 100 percent fluorocarbon line, do it. With no current and in water that tends to be fairly clear, fish have all the time in the world to look at your lure, and cheap, highly visible line will stop them cold.
I use a shotgun approach to buying ice fishing lures; that is, I buy a lot of them, because on any given day I’m not sure what will work.
About 80 percent of the time you’ll find me using a jig that is mostly green, with perhaps a little white and yellow. But my tackle box also contains jigs that are white, pink, orange and even blue. Nearly 100 percent of the time, I tip these jigs with a waxworm.
Early in the season, when the bite is hot, I’ll start with a fairly large jig. When the fish are hungry and I’m trying to keep the little fish from biting, I’ve found that a big lure attracts bigger fish. But as the season progresses — right now, for example — I use the smallest jigs I can find. If green doesn’t produce bites in the first five minutes, I change colors until I find the color that suits the fish.
Before you can drop a line, you’ll need to punch a hole or two in the ice. Basically, your choice is between hand-crank augers and motorized augers (gas or electric).
Fifteen years ago, I paid $60 for the hand-crank Lazer Strikemaster auger I’m still using today. I’ve replaced the blades on it twice, for about $25, and it’s never let me down. That’s the great thing about a manual auger — it never runs out of gas, has a dead battery or causes you to dislocate your elbow from having to pull the starter cord 100 times. Plus, it’s far quieter than a power auger.
The downside? It’s hard work. Right now, with ice about 15 inches thick in Rochester, I can drill two or three holes before my elbow and shoulder start to complain. When the ice is 20-25 inches thick, just one hole is enough to cause some pain in my middle-aged back.
For an extra $200, a power auger will let you drill dozens of holes in fairly short order. That’s a big advantage, given that the fish aren’t always under the first hole you drill. Plus, a power auger drills bigger holes. My manual auger cuts a 5-inch diameter hole, while power augers generally cut 8-inch or 10-inch holes. A 5-inch hole is big enough for most fish you’ll find around here, but a bigger hole is easier to fish through.
You’ll need a scoop for cleaning the ice chips out the holes you drill. You’ll need a five-gallon bucket to sit on and to carry out your fish.
I’d also recommend a pair of ice picks, which are essentially a thin-diameter rope that with metal ice picks on the ends. You drape the rope around your neck, in the event that the ice breaks beneath you. It’s never happened to me, but if it did, those picks would give me a fighting chance at pulling myself back onto the ice.
And of course, if you want to be truly safe, wear a lifejacket every moment you’re on the ice. As the DNR is fond of saying, “Ice is never 100 percent safe.”