Category Archives: Ice Fishing

Fishing when the water is hard on top

Do’s and Dont’s for Ice Fishing

Top 10 Do’s and Dont’s for Ice Fishing
from The Fishing Wire

Plano, IL — Amidst the focus on jigging and mobility over recent years, some proven strategies have been lost in the icy shuffle. Like tip-up fishing, which has consistently produced fish and forced guys into head-to-head 50-yard dash sprints since day one. It’s forged (and compromised) friendships over the years, served as fun fish story fodder, and even sent a few unlucky lads to the E.R.

picture from The Fishing Wire

The Frabill Pro Thermal Insulated Round Tip-Up is the industry gold standard.

One guy who’s tops on tip-ups is Frabill pro Pat Kalmerton of Sheboygan, Wisconsin based Wolf Pack Adventures. The good-natured guide will be the first to tell you that tip-up fishing is a sure fire way to cover lots of water quickly and ice just about anything that swims.

But Kalmerton stresses that tip-up fishing — like any angling approach — requires attention to detail. Set-it-and-forget is not part of this badger’s program.

“I’ve had the opportunity to learn tip-up secrets from seasoned anglers throughout the Midwest that would take years to figure out by trial and error,” says Kalmerton.

Thus, Like Cliff’s Notes for some class you snoozed through in high school, here’s Kalmerton’s Top 10 Tip-Up Dos and Don’ts to ace this winter semester’s tip-up test.

1) Heavy metal supersizing

Kalmerton says there’s a time and place for big hooks, but when in doubt, go smaller. In the case of walleye warfare, he sizes down to a #16 treble, usually opting for the extra flash of a gold Eagle Claw.

“I load the spool with 30-pound Frabill tip-up line and tie 8- to 10-feet of 8-pound fluorocarbon to a 25-pound InvisaSwivel. Make sure to tie the fluoro side first so you don’t have to run the whole tip-up through the Palomar loop! I slide one Owner glow bead up the fluoro and terminate the #16 gold treble with another Palomar. Then slide the bead down over the knot. I attach a split shot just heavy enough to keep the bait in a small strike window six to 10 inches above the hook and call it a day,” says Kalmerton.

For pike, he swaps out the 8-pound fluoro for 12-pound and sizes up to a #12 treble. “More often than not, 12-pound fluoro will handle any scissors beaks,” says Kalmerton.

When fishing 10-inch-plus suckers in trophy pike fisheries Kalmerton rigs 50-pound fluoro, five beads, a #6 Northland Real-Baitfish Image Colorado blade and clevis and a single 1/O hook tied with a snell knot.

“The thing I like about the snell knot is it pivots the hook when I really reef the hookset. I learned this from bass fishermen who fish punch baits — definitely ups hookset percentages.”

2) Not doing your homework

Kalmerton recommends studying LakeMaster GPS maps and PC software like Contour Elite ahead of time to surgically locate high-probability “spot-on-the-spot” locations.

“Take the time to study the body of water you’re going to fish and set out a gameplan,” says Kalmerton.

3) Setting up too close or too far from fish-holding structure

“One of the biggest reasons people get turned off to tip-ups is they spend all day in no-man’s land,” says Kalmerton. “Or setting tip-ups right on top of weeds, which can result in a tangled mess that fish will pass up 9 times out 10.”

He searches out ambush locations like green weeds, breaks, river currents, bottom transitions, and other structure where baitfish hide, instead of directly on top or too far away.

4) Fishing dead weeds

If you pull up your auger and the water’s full of plant matter that stinks, those are dying weeds. Baitfish and predators are drawn to vegetation that’s still producing oxygen, especially as winter progresses.

“Gotta get to the buffet with the freshest salad and best baitfish,” laughs Kalmerton.

5) Setting tip-ups too close together

Where you’re allowed more than one tip-up by law, fish different locations along any given structure, spreading them out as far as your state regs allow. Imagine the ice as a grid, and position your tip-ups out from your base location along a break at different depths.

6) Fishing too small of window in the water column

“A lot of anglers put a depth bomb on, come up six to eight inches for walleyes and two feet for pike,” says Kalmerton.

He suggests using your electronics to find the thermocline and baitfish to pinpoint where in the water column fish are feeding. For example, in late winter you may find that fish are up high, close to the ice, looking for water with more oxygen.

7) Mouse hunting with an elephant gun — and vice versa

Kalmerton chooses the right tip-up for your given species — or something versatile.

“The Frabill Dawg Bone can be used for both predators and panfish. For scouting panfish, simply adjust the shaft higher on the tip-up arm to release flag spring compression, which then results in sensitivity to very light bites. When hunting larger predators, just make sure you push that shaft back down.“

8) Tip-up neglect

“Walk around and make sure your tip-ups aren’t frozen in, there’s bait on your line, and it’s free of weeds,” says Kalmerton.

He adds that if you’re setting tip-ups for the evening “power hour,” think about using a Frabill Thermal to keep your holes ice-free.

9) Poor visibility

Kalmerton orients his tip-ups in the same direction, so at a mere glance he can see when one flag in a series trips. Like his fellow ice fishing authority, Steve Pennaz, Kalmerton loves the pre-lubed Frabill Artic Fire Rail tip-up for many situations. That said, when faced with deep snow on the hardwater, he’ll choose a Frabill wooden classic tip-up with a long spool arm to reach the hole and ride the flag above the snow. And for fishing in low visibility situations, he’ll affix a Frabill tip-up light to the flag shaft for easy detection.

10) Weak hooksets

Knowing when to set the hook on a fish — especially when you’re not sure when the tip-up flag tripped — can be difficult.

“Here’s the beauty of downsizing hooks. Most of the time the fish doesn’t spit the bait because it doesn’t feel the metal. As soon as I know the fish is running away from me and I feel weight, I reef on ‘em hard. Chances are you’re going to get a good gullet or corner-of-the-mouth hookset because that fish is committed to your bait!”

What Is Ice Off Fishing this Spring?

Tips for Ice Off Fishing this Spring
Utah Division of Wildlife Resources
from The Fishing Wire

It lasts just a short time. But “ice off” can be a great time to catch lots of fish.

“Ice off” also gives you a chance to get outside and test the new fishing equipment you acquired over the winter.

What is ice off?

Ice off is a term anglers use to describe that time each spring when ice starts to melt off lakes around the nation. As the ice melts, the sun hits the shallow water near the shore. If conditions are right — if the sun shines for several days, and the wind stays calm — the water near the shore can warm up fast.

The warming water draws fish from deeper water, where they’ve spent the winter, into shallow water to feed. And these fish are hungry; it’s been awhile since they’ve had a decent meal.

Randy Oplinger, coldwater sport fisheries coordinator for the Utah Division of Wildlife Resources, says, at many waters, spring is the best time to fish.

“Just as the ice starts to come off the water is one of my favorite times of the year to fish,” he says. “Fishing can be great from both the shore and from a float tube. Ice off is also a great time to take your kids fishing. They can catch a bunch of fish.”

If the sky stays clear and the wind stays calm, fishing from shore can be fast and furious for one to two weeks. Then, as water in other parts of the lake or reservoir warm, fish start to move away from the shore and travel to deeper water.

Your ice-off fishing experience can last a lot longer than one to two weeks, though. If you stay updated on which waters are losing ice, and you’re willing to travel a bit, you can extend your ice-off fishing experience into April.

To stay updated on which waters are experiencing ice off, visit DWR personnel across Utah update fishing reports on this site every week.

Another great resource is and Anglers visit these fishing forums daily to share information about their latest fishing trips.

Stores that sell fishing tackle, and stores located at various marinas in Utah, also have excellent, up-to-date information.

Shore fishing

Ice off can be a great time to catch lots of fish from shore. And you might not have to travel far, to get in on the action: many of Utah’s best ice-off fishing waters are close to some of the state’s biggest cities. “Many of these waters have good shoreline access,” Oplinger says. “And many of them have restrooms and fishing piers too.”

Oplinger says three waters — East Canyon Reservoir, Rockport Reservoir and Steinaker Reservoir — should be especially good to fish at ice off this year. “Ice-off fishing, at any of these reservoirs, would be a great day trip for a family,” he says.

There are a number of tactics you can use, to catch fish from shore during ice off:

Tactic 1 — Fish the edge of the ice

Oplinger says the open water near the edge of the ice is a great spot to cast your bait or to start retrieving your lure. If the ice isn’t too far away, getting your bait or lure to the edge of the ice is easy; simply cast it onto the ice, and then retrieve it towards you until it falls into the water at the edge of the ice.

Tactic 2 — Use PowerBait or nightcrawlers

If you’re fishing for rainbow trout, PowerBait and nightcrawlers are excellent baits to use at ice off. Oplinger recommends placing a large sinker on your line, a foot or two above your hook, and then casting your bait and letting it sink to the bottom of the water you’re fishing.

Another strategy is to float your bait one or two feet off the bottom. PowerBait comes in a floating variety that will float at whatever distance you place the hook from the sinker.

Nightcrawlers or PowerBait will also work for cutthroat trout, tiger trout, lake trout and splake (a cross between a lake trout and a brook trout). However, chub meat is the most effective bait to use for these fish.

Tactic 3 — Use lures

Using lures can also be an effective way to catch trout at ice off. Dark-colored plastic tubes and grubs, fished on a leadhead jig, can often provide excellent results. Spinners and spoons are also very effective at ice off.

You can fish these lures simply by casting them out and retrieving them back. Or, you can try the following technique:

Fill a clear plastic bobber about half full of water. The water will make the bobber heavier, but it will still float.

Slide the bobber about two to three feet up your line, and then tie a swivel on the end of the line. The swivel will prevent the bobber from sliding down your line and onto your lure.
Before you place your bobber and swivel on your line, cut a three-foot piece of fishing line. After placing your bobber and swivel, tie one end of the line to the swivel and the other end to your lure. Then, cast your lure.

After the lure hits the water, it will sink below the bobber. Slowly retrieve the lure back to you. Watch the bobber; as soon as a fish takes your lure, the bobber will start to move. Or, it might go under the water. When it does, pull your rod tip up, and set the hook!

Float tube fishing

Many people also catch fish at ice off while fishing from a float tube.

“Float tubes can be a great way to fish areas that you can’t reach from shore,” Oplinger says. “You can use them to get around the lake and find two things, all in the same place: a place where fish are biting and that you can fish all on your own. Plus, they’re a lot of fun to fish out of.”

Many waters are good waters to fish from a float tube at ice off, but four—Lost Creek Reservoir, Strawberry Reservoir, Cleveland Reservoir and Panguitch Lake—should be especially good waters to fish from a float tube this year.

“When fishing at ice off,” Oplinger says, “most float tube anglers use flies. But baits and lures can be effective from float tubes too. If you use flies, dark-colored wooly buggers, or flies that resemble a leech, are some great choices.”

Tips for success

Regardless of whether you’re fishing from the shore or from a float tube, Oplinger has tips to help you catch fish at ice off:

Tip 1 — Be patient

During ice off, trout often bunch together and cruise the shoreline in groups called schools. For that reason, it’s important to be patient.

“You have to be patient and wait for the schools to swim through,” Oplinger says. “You can sit there for awhile, with no bites, and then—all of the sudden—you’ll get bite after bite after bite. Then, after the fish swim through, it gets quiet again.”

Tip 2 — Check your equipment

Before you fish at ice off, it’s important to check your equipment.

“Over the winter,” Oplinger says, “fishing line, tippets and jigs often become brittle and lose their effectiveness. Before your first fishing trip this spring, make sure you check your equipment and replace worn line and old lures.”

Tip 3 — Watch anglers near you

“Pay attention to the anglers around you,” Oplinger says. “If you learn they’re catching fish with a certain lure or bait, and you have that same lure or bait in your tackle box, get it on your line.”

Wrapping Up the Ice Fishing

Wrapping Up the Ice Fishing Season
By Bob Jensen

For many of us, the ice-fishing season is over, but open water fishing is still a little ways off. Some will make a trip to a river to get in on some open water angling, and others will travel north to find ice that is still safe, but for many, now is a down time for actually wetting a line. That makes it a great time to take care of some things that need to be done to make our fishing even better next year. Following are some of those things.

Let’s start with some tasks that should be done now to wrap up the ice-fishing season. If you have a portable shelter, open it up and let it dry out good on the inside. Clean everything out of it that might attract mice or any other pest. Make sure it’s completely dry, then close it up and put it in storage. I prefer to store my shelters off the ground. Just put a couple of boards underneath it to allow for air flow. I’m not sure this is necessary, but I still like to do it.

Now, here’s a big one: Storing your auger. Different augers use different types of fuel today. Check with the manufacturer on how best to store your auger and then do it that way. Many ice-anglers like to start their auger every month or so and just let it run for a minute.

Also, if you noticed that it was getting harder to make a hole in the ice, have the blades sharpened or install a new set of blades.

Make sure the battery on your sonar unit is charged.

Take some line off your reel and remember to add fresh line when ice-season approaches again. Back the drag off also.

Open up your tacklebox and let it air out. Make a note of what lures need to be replaced.

Last thing: Clean out the pockets of the clothing that you wear on the ice. Make sure there are no candy bar wrappers or containers of waxworms, spikes, etc. Bad things happen when these are left in your coat.

Now to prepare for open water. If you haven’t been ice-fishing, remember to get a new fishing license.

If you didn’t do it when you put your rod and reels away for the winter, strip some line off and add new. More and more, anglers are realizing the importance of fresh line. On my jigging and rigging rods, I take about fifty yards off and tie new line to the old line. I generally never have more line than that out when jigging or rigging. I started using P-Line last year because it’s outstanding line that I can count on, but it’s also very affordable. With trolling reels, you’ll want to add more fresh line because you’ll often have more line out when trolling.

If you have a boat, make sure the batteries are charged and ready to go.

If you have waders that need some attention, get that done now. Leaky waders in the cold water of spring are no fun.

Check your tacklebox and make sure you have the lures you’ll need for the upcoming open water season.

These things are small details that often get forgotten, but if you remember them now, you’ll be more prepared to hit the open water soon and the ice when it returns.

To see all the newest episodes of the Fishing the Midwest television series, new fishing related tips, and fishing articles from the past, go to

What Is First Ice Safety?

First Ice Safety
By Mike Gnatkowski
from The Fishing Wire

When someone tells you “you’re walking on thin ice” it’s meant as words of extreme caution or warning. Ice fishermen need to take it literally. First ice produces some of the hottest ice fishing of the year and ice anglers are anxious to get on the ice to start the new season, but first ice also demands an extra level of vigilance and concern.

“First ice is a time that demands both stealth and safety,” shared ice fishing authority Brian Brosdahl. “If you’ve ever went through the ice it’s a ordeal that you won’t soon forget and don’t want to repeat. With that in mind, make sure you have a spud bar or ice chisel.” A lot of guys may not even have one these days, but it’s a must-have tool on first ice.

Call your favorite tackle shop or a local guide before venturing out and check on ice conditions. If you don’t see others fishing or signs that other anglers have been on the ice, use extreme caution. I don’t know of anyone that hands out awards for being the first one on the ice, but you might end up on the evening news.

“A spud bar is my friend!” joked Brosdahl. “A spud or ice chisel is going to allow you to check ice conditions as you go.” Standard ice chisels, like Frabill’s ( 52-inch, 5.5-pound model, are an inexpensive price to pay for peace of mind when testing ice conditions. Use the spud systematically to check ice thickness every 10 to 20 yards or so while you gradually work your way out to where you’re going to fish. “Be careful to not out walk your spud,” advised Brosdahl. If you’re in a group, don’t walk all together in a straight line. Spread out so if you do fall through you don’t all go down together. That way, the others can help you get out. Don’t stand in a group until you’re sure the ice is safe. Use a long rope to pull your shanty behind if you’re using one so as not to add weight in one location and to keep from spooking fish.

A life jacket is a good idea. It might seem like the inflatable variety of life jacket would be ideal for the situation, but a conventional life jacket may be better. “Some inflatable life jackets have a cord you have to pull to blow them up,” said Brosdahl. “The shock of going through the ice may leave you disoriented or confused or if you get knocked unconscious you won’t be able to pull the cord. There is a pill that dissolves in the auto inflation models. If the pill doesn’t dissolve you’re toast and a regular, conventional life jacket works all the time.” Once you’re on the ice and are sure conditions are safe you can take it off.

Even better is a floatation suit like Frabill’s new I Float Jacket and Bibs ( Several manufacturers make foam-filled suits that are the ultimate life-saving devices. Not only do the suits float, but they also maintain your body temperature preventing hypothermia until help arrives or you can get yourself out. Flotation suits sport bright colors that can aid rescuers in finding you; they also have glow-in-the-dark patches or piping so you can be located after dark.

You can’t always tell ice quality by just looking at it. Clear, blue ice is obviously the strongest, but just because there has been a week of sub-freezing temperatures don’t assume the ice is safe. Mark some increments on your ice scoop and measure the ice thickness so you know exactly how much ice there is. Milky-colored ice or slush is never safe.

Remember that ice thickness can vary greatly from lake to lake. Smaller lakes and ponds will have safe ice first. If there’s snow on the ice, assume that it’s unsafe until you can check its thickness. Snow acts like an insulating blanket and slows the freezing process. Ice under the snow will be thinner and weaker. A snowfall also can warm up and melt existing ice. Keep in mind that ice thickness is not likely to be uniform. Current, springs, waterfowl, and debris on the ice can cause ice thickness to vary greatly from one location to another and in a very short distance.

There’s one safety item that you should put on before you even step on the ice-creepers or ice cleats. Slick, glare first ice is an accident waiting to happen. Creepers provide traction and keep you upright. A nasty spill on the ice can result in a broken arm or elbow, torn ligaments or a concussion. Frabill’s rubber ice creepers ( pull easily over most winter boots. 10 carbide spikes (per creeper) contact and grip the ice to keep you upright and injury free.

Some other first-ice essentials should include a set of ice awls or picks, a length of rope and a cell phone in a sealed container or zip-loc bag. Several of the Frabill ( suits that ice fishermen prefer come complete with ice awls that are at the ready. Should you go through, a set of ice picks can assist you in getting out quickly. Wear them around your neck where you can grab them. If you go through, try to remain calm. Don’t remove your jacket or outer clothing. Clothing can trap air to keep you afloat and keep you warm. Dig the ice awls into the ice, kick your feet and try to roll out onto the ice. Keep rolling until you’re on safe ice. Rolling will help distribute your weight until you’re on safe ice and can stand up or crawl. Try and head back in the direction you came from. That’s where the safest ice is like to be.

A cell phone can be used to call for help and notify authorities that you need help or that you made it out of the water and are safe. If you have a length of rope it can be used by others to pull you out while maintaining a safe distance.

The best policy is to realize that no ice is safe ice. Authorities generally consider 4 inches of ice to be a minimum for safe travel by individual anglers, 6 inches to be safe for group activities and 8 inches for travel via snowmobile or four-wheeler. Traveling on the ice is never recommended by car or truck, but a minimum of a foot of clear, hard ice is required for going on the ice in YOUR vehicle, but not mine!

Find O2 To Find Fish Under the Ice

Aim for the O2 to find fish under the ice

Move regularly, change offerings often: you’ll crack midwinter’s code

By Mitch Eeagan

locate and lands fish in the dead of winter.

locate and lands fish in the dead of winter.

Bro doesn’t save lives or build rockets, but it’s his own brand of deep-thinking that locates and lands fish in the dead of winter. Photo by Bill Lindner

Imagine your home growing darker by the day, to the point you haven’t seen sunlight in over a month. Moreover, your surroundings are growing colder by the day. In fact, it’s so frigid that your muscles have become rigid; to the point it’s all you can do to muster moving a few feet…even to eat. And you’re hungry.

Oxygen is diminishing, too. Some areas are completely void of oxygen, while other pockets have just enough to sustain life. So you migrate to where respiration is still an option.

To say life’s registering a zero on the fun-o-meter is an understatement.

And with that lowly scenario in place, you now know what it’s like to be a fish living in the Ice Belt during the dead of winter. It’s been a long time since light penetrated the surface and temperatures are at the coldest they will be all year. To boot, the lack of vegetation, rain and wave action have oxygen levels dwindling rapidly.

And it’s this combination of factors that make midwinter a difficult time to catch fish. But if you’re game to put in the time, find those oxygenated zones, rewards are paid in bites and fillets.

Heavy breathers

if oxygen levels are critical, crappies, bluegills and perch could be right under the ice

if oxygen levels are critical, crappies, bluegills and perch could be right under the ice

The safest place to avoid suffocation is sometimes right under the ice. In the bowels of winter, if oxygen levels are critical, crappies, bluegills and perch could be hanging right under your feet. Photo by Bill Lindner

Minnesota Ice-Fishing Guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl is no stranger to fishing shallow, heavily snow-covered lakes. The Grand Rapids, Minnesota resident moves around a lot. And uses specialized electronics to find panfish other anglers often overlook.

“I drill a lot of holes and check every one for any signs of life,” said Bro. “If fish are right under me I’ll see ’em on the ‘Bird, and, because of the ultra-sensitivity settings on the Humminbird ICE HELIX 5, I can put my jig right in their faces.

“But I’ll also lower my Aqua-Vu Micro DT down every hole, as well; especially if I am not marking anything. Fish might be just inches under the ice during the heart of winter, following the oxygen. The camera is able to spy those fish.”

Custom Jigs & Spins' new Rotating Power Minnow (RPM)

Custom Jigs & Spins’ new Rotating Power Minnow (RPM)

Custom Jigs & Spins’ new Rotating Power Minnow (RPM) has been fully weaponized. In the dead of winter, the ballistic-bait is best aimed at active fish, especially ones in well oxygenated waters. Photo by Bill Lindner

Paying close attention to the underwater viewing system’s screen the moment its camera hits the water, Bro starts spinning the lens right the bottom of the hole. Oftentimes, panfish will be literally inches away, curiously inspecting the corded device. Once fish are revealed, Bro removes the camera, strips off a couple feet of line and lowers his jig—tipped with either spikes, wax worms or mousies.

“A lot of anglers have no idea those fish are even there,” Bro added. “These suspended fish get totally overlooked this time of year. It’s cool when you can see your jig and watch a fish swim over and gobble it up.”

If there are a lot of fish just under the surface, Bro will operate out of his Frabill flip-over. The darkness not only allows Bro to see the fish better, but also camouflages the fact he’s above by muting his silhouetted movements.

When oxygen levels are low, and fish lethargic, Bro uses tiny jigs with a slow fall. His preferences are Northland’s new Impulse Helium Mayfly, Stonefly and Waxyfly. Custom Jigs & Spins’ Nuclear Ant, Ratso and Shrimpo are another trio of lifelike lures that sink slowly.

Goin’ with the flow

Walleye Pro Mark Brumbaugh

Walleye Pro Mark Brumbaugh

Walleye Pro Mark Brumbaugh holds a hefty perch taken on a Custom Jigs & Spins’ Lightnin’ VertiGlo Spoon late in the winter season. Photo by the author

When Walleye Tournament Pro Mark Brumbaugh targets pike, walleye and jumbo perch late in the season, he searches out river and creek mouths.

“Anywhere water’s flowing into a lake there will be more dissolved oxygen,” the Brownstown, Ohio, resident said. “And because fish spawn in these same rivers, they’ll be here staging to reproduce, too.”

Because there’s more dissolved oxygen near inlets, fish will be spread throughout the water column. Subsequently, Brumbaugh likes larger, heavier jigs that can move up and down quickly.

Bladebaits are one of Brumbaugh’s go-to lures in stained water as they produce a lot of vibration. Reef Runner’s Cicada is one of his favorites. He also employs Custom Jigs & Spins’ B3 Blade Bait and new Rotating Power Minnow (RPM) swimming bait.

Take a deep breath

Aqua-Vu optics and fishes in real-time with an AV Micro DT in a Micro-Mobile Pro-Vu Case.

Aqua-Vu optics and fishes in real-time with an AV Micro DT in a Micro-Mobile Pro-Vu Case.

When fish are tucked tight to the ice, Bro employs Aqua-Vu optics and fishes in real-time with an AV Micro DT in a Micro-Mobile Pro-Vu Case. Photo by Bill Lindner

As avid anglers will tell you, late winter can be one of the toughest times of the year. But maybe that’s because they weren’t looking in the right places.

Some fish might be right under foot; literally, mere inches under the ice. If this is the case, use light lures with a slow flutter and fall. In waterways with inlets, search out the entire water column with lures that sink fast so you can get the lure to fish before they turn tail.

Mitch Eeagan is a writer and photographer who not only lives, but survives off the land and water in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.

Ice Fishing Safety

Safety First on the Ice
Ice fishing safety is critical

Be Safe On the Ice

Be Safe On the Ice

Guide-tested tips for fishing smart and staying safe
from The Fishing Wire

Thanks to an extended stretch of unusually mild weather, anxious anglers across the Ice Belt are starting to venture out on winter’s magic carpet in force.

But even at this late date, ice conditions are far from perfect. In some areas, warm weather is weakening the fledgling icepack, while in others, fresh snow is cloaking it with an insulating blanket that puts the brakes on the formation of new ice.

“Safety is always a concern when ice fishing, but it’s more important now than ever,” reports veteran ice fishing guide Bernie Keefe of Granby, Colorado.

Keefe is quick to point out that weather changes can wreak havoc on a lake’s icy coating, which otherwise is some of winter’s strongest ice. “You can throw the ice thickness charts for new ice out the window once you get a prolonged thaw, rain or even thick, wet snow,” he says.

Indeed, above-freezing temperatures can greatly reduce the ice’s strength-to-thickness ratio. For example, while four inches of fresh, clear ice may support a person on foot, a foot or more of rotting, partially thawed ice may not.

That’s not to say all ice is unsafe right now. Keefe is out and about chasing lakers and other salmonids on his high-country home waters, and similar opportunities exist across the north. But he strongly advises taking ample precautions to help prevent accidental dunkings and avert tragedy if someone does fall through.

“Your first step in ice safety should be researching the conditions with local guides, bait shops and other reliable sources of information,” he says. “Facebook is a helpful tool, too, as are online forums.”

While such homework can steer you toward lakes with traversable ice, Keefe cautions that it’s just a starting point. “A smart plan of attack and the right safety gear are still critical,” he says.

For starters, Keefe never fishes alone on first ice. And he always lets someone back on shore know where he’s headed and when he plans to return.

A variety of safety gear including a spud bar, ice cleats, Nebulus floatation system and emergency rescue line can help avoid tragedy on ice.

He also arms himself with a variety of life-saving devices that starts with his wardrobe. “I always wear a Clam IceArmor LIFT Suit,” he says, explaining that the built-in Space Age lining boosts buoyancy without adding bulkiness. “You don’t even know you’re wearing a buoyant suit,” he adds.

Along with the suit, he slips heavy-duty yet lightweight Kahtoola ice cleats over his boots to assure traction on the treacherously slippery surface. “Cleats are a must, especially on slick new ice, or when you splash water onto the ice when drilling or landing fish,” he notes.

Keefe also slips the nylon tether linking a pair of Clam Floating Ice Picks around his neck, and stashes one of the company’s 50-foot Emergency Throw Rope rescue lines in his sled.

“The rescue line is easy to throw to someone in trouble,” he says. “I also pull my sled with a 50-foot rope, which provides added insurance. When walking out on the ice, I hold the line and my fishing partner stays next to the rope a safe distance away from me, so if either one of us goes in, the other one can haul him out.”

Unloaded, the sled also serves as a handy rescue device in its own right. “Just dump everything out and slide it over to a person who’s fallen through,” he adds.

As added insurance, Keefe also carries a Nebulus Emergency Flotation Device, which when inflated can support the weight of three adults plus a submerged snowmobile or ATV.

By doing his homework and gearing up with the right safety equipment, Keefe is safely enjoying the early winter bite, and so can you, provided you take similar precautions to ensure your well being on the ice as the unusual winter of 2015-’16 gets rolling.

Check out this video for more ice safety tips from Bernie.

For more information or to book a trip with Keefe, visit:
or call (970) 531-2318.

What Are Some Panfishing Tips for Ice Anglers?

Panfishing Tips for Ice Anglers
from The Fishing Wire

Horizontal vs. vertical jigs and the underwater footage to prove our point

Custom JIgs & Spins 'Gill Pill

Custom JIgs & Spins ‘Gill Pill

A Custom JIgs & Spins ‘Gill Pill jousts soft plastic Noodels to create a delicious horizontal-hung spider from Mars.

Pick a panfish jig. But not just any panfish jig. You want one that quivers like crappie candy; moves like bluegill food. Color matters, too. Ditto for body shape, profile, texture and, sometimes, taste.

Still, it’s possible to choose wisely, while continually overlooking one very critical characteristic. Some folks call it angle of the dangle. For specialists like Panfish “Phil” Laube, it’s about hook positioning, bluegill bite mechanics, or the way a crappie crushes a jig. When to present a bait perpendicular versus parallel? When to offer a hook angle that’s obtuse, as opposed to acute (remember Geometry 101?)

Turns out, paying attention in math class really did matter. For in the real world of lure selection, the difference between bites and actual hooksets boils down to one critical choice: When to go vertical and when to hang horizontal.

Offering an optimized hook angle, the tournament-proven Chekai Tungsten Ice Jig fishes fast and active. It’s the perfect jig for pairing with plastics, particularly a Custom Jigs & Spins Wedgee plastic, or even a writhing mass of live larvae. Either way, the Chekai’s jighook is ultra sharp, with plenty of extra gap to set itself sweetly and securely in a panfish’s lip. Fishing precisely horizontal, the hook itself “tips down” slightly, a fine-tuned detail that assures the hook always finds home.

Custom Jigs & Spins tungsten Chekai

Custom Jigs & Spins tungsten Chekai

The Custom Jigs & Spins tungsten Chekai fishes fast and horizontally, and with its freakishly sharp, wide and unturned hook, sticks fish with amazing precision and consitency.

Assuming a similar underwater posture, the Diamond Jig fishes small, yet heavy for its compact size. Perfect for presenting live bait or plastics, this gem jig also sports a sweet little extra enticement—a bejeweled attractor bead at the base of the head. The Diamond Jig’s needle-sharp hook is offset at an ideal 45-degrees for ultimate hook-setting success (see, Geometry does matter.)

To turn the tables on panfish in shallow vegetation or other valuable vertical scenarios, Custom Jigs & Spins’ VertiGlo Demon remains a classic tactic. Finished with a chip-resistant, long-lasting glow paint, this perpendicular panfish jig maintains an upright posture at all times. Yet the hookpoint stands out at 90-degrees from the body—again, the optimal angle for vertical jig tricks.

jig crappie

jig crappie

Adding extra polish to each of these optimized jigs, the Wedgee plastic looks, feels and swims like a living thing. Poured with a super-fine, tapered body shape, this sweet little softbait is the ultimate ice-fishing inducement. The Wedgee’s super versatile, too. Fish the 1.75-inch plastic whole. Trim the head and thread it onto a jighook. Present it wacky-style, t-boned onto a Demon Jig for a lethal “vertizontal” posture. No matter what you do, the Wedgee’s tail just keeps on quivering. Try to stop it. Can’t be done. Also unlike live bait, it never dies.

We’re not suggesting you go back to school. Nor to revisit Geometry 101. Thankfully, the fishing folks at Custom Jigs & Spins have already aced the final exam, gifting anglers with A+ ice jigs that attract, trigger and most importantly, hook every fish that bites.

Custom Jigs & Spins started almost 30 years ago producing high quality ice fishing lures.

Ice Fishing Electronics

A Guide’s Perspective on Ice Fishing Electronics

By Maynard Lee

Big pike ice fishing

Big pike ice fishing

Photo by Bill Lindner, courtesy of Lake of the Woods Minnesota and Arnesen’s Rocky Point Resort

The frozen surfaces of lakes, rivers and reservoirs across the ice belt represent the final frontier in angling. Ice thicknesses that are often measured in feet, air temperatures that hover near zero, and frigid winds that often carry frozen precipitation all represent physical, and even psychological barriers to ice fishing success. Over the last 5 years, however, advances in marine electronics that were initially designed to assist open-water anglers have begun to breach the final frontier, providing shelter-bound ice fishers the technological advances they need to enjoy sustained success throughout the months-long hard water season. As the first intrepid anglers begin to creep onto frozen lakes this season, we caught up with noted guide and angling technology expert Dr. Jason Halfen, to tap his insights on how marine electronics can best be applied to ice fishing situations.

The Trifecta

“Whenever I lead groups onto the ice, we always carry a set of three tech tools to help us find and catch fish. This trifecta includes a portable, digital sonar/GPS combo with an installed GPS mapping chip, mechanical flasher unit for each angler in the group, and set of underwater cameras to visualize activity beneath the ice,” began Dr. Halfen, who owns and operates The Technological Angler, a company dedicated to providing technology training to contemporary anglers.

“Each component of the technology trifecta has a specific purpose, and this unique combination helps my groups find and catch more fish throughout the season.” We continued our conversation by exploring the role of each component of Halfen’s “Tech Trifecta” in more detail.

The Command Center

Dr. Halfen explains, “A portable digital sonar/GPS combo, like the new Humminbird ICE HELIX 5 SONAR GPS, is the command center for my groups of ice anglers. The GPS feature, combined with digital cartography from my Humminbird-LakeMaster chip, helps us to rapidly identify key locations to target panfish by day, and other areas to chase walleyes during low light periods.

“For example, we use the LakeMaster-exclusive Depth Highlight feature to identify key basin areas, 25-35 feet deep, that are filled with crappies all winter. Likewise, the precision depth contours provided by my Humminbird digital cartography allows me to find distinct breaklines that separate the basins from shallow weed flats, transition zones where walleyes hunt as the sun hits the treetops.”

 Use a depthfinder while ice fishing

Use a depthfinder while ice fishing

Dr. Halfen’s platoon of sonar units includes both sophisticated fishfinders with GPS and more traditional flashers. Photo by the author

However, the advantages of the HELIX extend well beyond cartography. Dr. Halfen continues, “one thing I really like about the new ICE HELIX 5 SONAR GPS is that I can move it seamlessly from my boat to the portable ice shuttle, using the same convenient set of power and transducer connections. Why does this matter? It allows me to take my HELIX on the water, before the lakes lock up, and drop waypoints on key “spot-on-the-spot” locations where I will turn to put fish on the ice, and smiles on anglers’ faces, all winter.”

During my conversation with Dr. Halfen, it struck me that nearly all anglers are already carrying a GPS device with them, right in their pockets: their smartphones. So, I asked why anglers should consider a dedicated marine GPS for their ice fishing needs, rather than just rely on their phones. His rapid response makes a LOT of sense. “First, recognize that plotting your GPS position on your phone, any displaying any available mapping, really chews up your phone’s battery. Coupled with typical cold air temperatures, using your phone’s GPS feature will dramatically reduce your phone battery lifetime while on the ice. Second, have you noticed that your smartphone is smaller than the holes you are fishing through? I’ve seen enough phones fall through the ice to know that phones belong in pockets, not in gloved hands trying to locate waypoints. Avoid sending your new smartphone to a watery grave by relying on your HELIX 5 for all of your GPS needs.”

Once likely spots are located and holes are drilled, the HELIX command center seamlessly transitions into sonar mode to help anglers monitor fish, and baits, beneath the ice. “All Humminbird digital sonar/GPS combos feature a dedicated ice fishing mode, which displays 2D sonar data on the traditional, circular “flasher wheel” display that we all grew up with during ice fishing’s infancy.

The new Hummnibird ICE HELIX 5 SONAR GPS merges modern mapping with refined digital sonar to stand as the most advanced combo-unit ice fishing has ever seen.

However, the ability of the ICE HELIX 5 GPS to also display that same sonar data in a standard, open-water type display that provides current AND historical sonar information can be invaluable for identifying exactly how fish are responding to particular jigging motions. That historical information can make all of the difference on a slow bite day, and that’s an extremely valuable insight that a mechanical flasher cannot provide.”

The Workhorses



Every army needs both a commander and a set of highly trained foot soldiers. In Dr. Halfen’s “Tech Trifecta”, the HELIX is the commanding officer, while a platoon of Humminbird ICE 55 and ICE 35 flashers carry the tech burden of finding and catching fish onto the icy battlefield. With such a heavy emphasis and reliance on the HELIX digital sonar/GPS combo, I asked Dr. Halfen why he would outfit his clients with mechanical flashers like the Humminbird ICE series, rather than handing each their own digital fish finder. As always, his answer is rooted heavily in the exacting physics of sonar science.

“It’s really all about the sonar frequencies that each unit is transmitting. Put too many units, all transmitting the same sonar frequency, in too small an area, and nobody is going to be able to see anything as all of the units will be interfering with each other. My HELIX sonar/GPS combo transmits standard open water sonar frequencies of 200 kHz and 83 kHz. In fact, if you look across all of the ice fishing sonar units available today, nearly all transmit at 200 kHz. This leads to a heavy reliance on noise filters and interference rejection schemes, which sometimes work, but oftentimes don’t. I prefer to address the problem at its source, rather than try to eliminate pesky, and persistent, sonar noise.

If sonar is the “yin”, the underwater camera is clearly the “yang”. Aqua-Vu’s exceptional Micro series has become even more practical and useful with the introduction of the Micro-Mobile Pro-Vu Case. Photo by Bill Lindner

One particularly compelling feature of the Humminbird ICE flashers is that they transmit a pair of frequencies that are unique in the ice fishing world: a wide, 240 kHz beam and a narrow, 455 kHz beam. This means that an angler using a Humminbird ICE flasher simply can’t interfere with an angler using the ICE HELIX 5 GPS combo because the two sonar units are transmitting completely different sonar frequencies. Moreover, I can add a third angler with a flasher into the mix, and as long as one flasher is transmitting at 240 kHz and the other is transmitting at 455 kHz, all three anglers can catch fish all day and never interfere with each other.”

Imagine, three guys in one Frabill hub shelter, each with their own sonar unit, and absolutely zero interference. Not a single blip. It’s not fantasy, but rather the science of modern ice fishing.”

The Spies

Underwater camera

Underwater camera

As valuable and irreplaceable as sonar is to contemporary ice fishing, visual information from underwater camera systems can help elevate the stream of insights delivered to the ice anglers to an entirely different level. Dr. Halfen refers to his Aqua-Vu underwater camera systems as his “spies”, covertly delivering tactical real-time visual intel.

“We use Aqua-Vu camera systems exclusively, in part because of their convenience and ease of use, but also because they offer us distinct advantages for finding and catching fish. First of all, systems like my Micro 5 fit completely within the front pocket of my Frabill I4 bibs. Their internal Lithium battery packs outlast even my longest days on the ice. And Micros weigh next to nothing, especially when compared to other camera systems on the market that seem to come with their own zip codes.

“When it comes to finding and catching fish, my Aqua-Vu camera allows me to conclusively identify bottom substrate, like telling the difference between sand and mud, which is a significant advantage when we are chasing perch that forage on mudflats. My underwater camera is also the primary tool that I use to distinguish between healthy green weeds, and their lifeless, brown counterparts.

Big crappie caught ice fishing

Big crappie caught ice fishing

Photo by Bill Lindner

“One thing I really like to do, especially when tip-up fishing for walleyes, is to deploy an Aqua-Vu Micro 5 PLUS a few feet away from my bait, so I can visually monitor it during the day and into the evening. The first time I did that, I was SHOCKED at the number of fish that inspected my baits but refused to bite. My underwater camera alerted me to the fact that fish were present and active, but perhaps not responding well to the sucker minnows I was using for bait. This was my cue to switch over to shiners, and that little change was all that was needed to start putting white tips on the ice.”

The Science of Modern Ice Fishing

Ice fishing has evolved well beyond its early days of chisels to cut holes and lead weights to estimate depths. The technology explosion that has revolutionized open-water fishing now stands on the threshold of frozen lakes, fishing’s final frontier. These tech tips from Dr. Jason Halfen will help you tap into that torrent of electronic fish-finding information, so that your ice fishing adventures this winter are met with a bounty of hard water success. Learn more about the ways that modern technology can improve your fishing by visiting The Technological Angler online.

Ice Fishing Safety Tips

The Coolest Sport Around

Michigan DNR Offers Ice Fishing Safety Tips, How-To Info
from The Fishing Wire

For many people, fishing is the most relaxing way to spend the day. And in the winter months the most popular angling activity is ice fishing. To those who have never tried it, ice fishing is sometimes looked upon as an oddity, but for others, ice fishing is the best kind of fishing.

Although it doesn’t appeal to all, many anglers actually prefer fishing through the ice to open-water fishing. For one thing, anglers can get just about anywhere on the lake during ice fishing season, something they can’t do without a boat during the open water season. Virtually every fish that’s available to anglers in the summer can be caught through the ice – some are even caught more frequently in the winter.

Once you’ve spent a little time on the ice, you’ll soon see a different picture. Ice fishing is more than just a way to fill the long days of winter. It’s a chance to breathe the cold, clean winter air, to spend quiet time outdoors with family and friends, and to relax and collect one’s thoughts away from the hustle and bustle of a busy world.

Just walking on the ice can be a unique experience, especially when no snow obscures the view of the water below. However, as with any outdoor activity, safety should be your top concern. When it comes to ice safety, you should steer clear of dark spots or places where the snow looks discolored.

Some other good rules to follow include: 1. Never fish alone, 2. Tell someone where you are going and when you expect to return, 3. Always test the ice with a spud (described later), 4. Take the appropriate emergency items, such as a lifejacket and ice picks, and 5. Take a cell phone with you in case you need to call for help. Dress in your warmest winter clothes; fill a thermos with hot coffee, chocolate or tea; and bring an empty bucket or old lawn chair to sit on.

To get started ice fishing, you’ll need the basics: something to make a hole in the ice, something to clear the hole and keep it open and ice free, and something to fish with, or equipment.

Drill a hole for ice fishing

Drill a hole for ice fishing

The two basic tools used to make holes in the ice are spuds and augers. A spud features a long-shank with a chisel-like end that’s used to chip a hole in the ice. A spud is a tool you use when the ice isn’t too thick. An auger is a corkscrew-like device with a cutting blade that operates like a hand drill to make a hole in the ice. For extremely thick ice, power augers that run on batteries or small gasoline engines are available and make creating holes much easier.

Once the hole is created it needs to be cleared of ice chips or slush. A skimmer (or a slush scoop) is a small cup with holes in it (to let the water run out) on a long handle. It is inexpensive and perfectly suited for the job. A skimmer is used to clear the hole right after it’s made, as well as throughout the day if it’s particularly cold and if additional ice forms.

Please note the size of the hole is important. The hole must be big enough that you can get a fish out, but not too large of a hole that it may endanger someone’s life. Anglers are recommended to keep their holes to a maximum of eight to 10 inches in diameter which would accommodate the size of most fish species. When abandoning fishing holes, anglers should mark them with a tree branch, sticks or chunks of ice to alert others of their presence.

Ice fishing equipment can be divided into three basic categories: hook-and-line, tip-ups and spears.

Most hook-and-line anglers use short, limber rods with reels or simple spring-tension spools to hold the line. Sometimes they may use something as simple as a couple of pegs on the rod handle used to wrap the line around. Limber rods allow the use of light line, which usually results in better fishing and absorbs more of the shock when fighting fish.

Bait for ice fishing

Bait for ice fishing

Hook-and-line anglers use live bait, artificial lures or sometimes both to catch many different species of fish. Anglers often use small lures, such as teardrops or flies, with live bait – such as wax worms (bee moth larva), spikes (fly larvae), wigglers (mayfly larvae) or minnows – attached to the hook for better action. The bait can be fished without movement or jigging can be used to attract the fish. Jigging is most successful if a lure of any kind is used.

Hook-and-line anglers have the choice of using a bobber on the line, just as they would while fishing in the summer. Some may also fish with a tight line and use a spring bobber, which is a small strip of metal or wire that extends off the rod tip like an additional eye on the rod. Any motion alerts anglers to the bite, a bonus for small fish or light-biters. Generally, anglers begin by fishing near the bottom and work their way up in the water column until they locate the fish, then continue to fish at that same depth. Anglers can use bobbers to set their baits at a preferred depth or fish a tight line, either fishing without movement or jigging.

For bigger fish, anglers use heavier gear with larger lures or bigger hooks which allows them to use larger baits – minnows, smelt, salmon eggs or spawn bags. Anglers generally start at the bottom and gradually move up in the water column when jigging, while those fishing with live bait, spawn bags or salmon eggs generally fish right off the bottom.

Tip Up

Tip Up

Some anglers prefer to fish with tip-ups, which are devices set on the ice above the hole that dangle the bait (most often minnows) beneath them. Tip-ups, which feature small reels submerged in the water, get their name from a flag that’s bent over and attached to the reel. When a fish takes the bait, the reel turns and releases not only line, but the flag as well. The flags’ “tip up” action alerts the angler to the fish taking out line. Tip-ups are usually spooled with heavy, braided line. Often an angler who is fishing with a rod will also set a tip-up in a different hole, giving them two ways to catch a fish and giving them an opportunity to fish for different species, or more than one fish, or at two different but close by locations.

Spearing is another form of ice fishing that is a more specialized but traditional sport. Anglers who spear cut large holes in the ice, usually with an ice saw or chain saw. They fish from tents or small shelters commonly called shanties that can be portable or more permanent (or at least as permanent as the ice is). The shanty blocks the light, allowing anglers to see down more clearly in the water in order to spear the fish. This has given rise to the term dark-house spearing. Spearing anglers generally dangle decoys or large live baits (such as suckers) in the water to attract their target fish. They utilize spears that typically have a substantial weight to them and have seven to nine tines on the end of a seven-foot handle.

The most common species hook-and-line ice fishermen are looking for are panfish: bluegill, sunfish, perch and crappie. Tip-ups are generally used for larger game fish, such as northern pike, walleye and various trout species. In Michigan, spear fishermen are allowed to target northern pike, muskellunge, lake sturgeon and many other species. There are many restrictions associated with spear fishing and anglers should read the annual Michigan Fishing Guide for more information.

A basic tip for all three ice fishing methods is that the most success is seen around dawn until mid-morning and again from late afternoon until sundown. This is especially true for panfish and walleye. Some species can be more aggressive at other times during the day, such as northern pike. It’s also important to understand that fish are more sluggish during the winter and move around less, especially during the middle of winter when ice thickness and snow cover is the heaviest. The more holes anglers cut and try, the better their chances are for locating aggressive fish.

One common piece of equipment nearly all types of anglers who ice fish utilize are electronic fish finders. These help anglers locate both aggressive and non-aggressive fish and make it easier to determine if your holes will be active and how present fish are reacting to your fishing methods.

It’s important to be prepared to face the elements when you go ice fishing by including these items: shelter and apparel.

Ice fishing can be a fairly cold activity, especially on those windy days when it doesn’t seem fit to be outdoors. On such days, a shanty is almost a requirement. Many portable shanties are available at your local sporting goods store, although some anglers, especially in northern Michigan where the ice fishing season can last for many months build elaborate but removable shanties on the ice. These may have insulated walls and many of the comforts of home. Propane heaters can keep them warm and help keep the fishing holes from freezing. But even a simple windbreak, made of plywood or particle board, can help. A sheet of plywood, cut in half and hinged, makes a simple windbreak. If skis or runners are added to one side, then it can easily be pulled across the ice.

It’s important to note that all shanties must be removed from the ice by a certain date, appropriate to the zone in which you are fishing. When removing a shanty, anglers must also remove any and all garbage affiliated with the structure, including plywood and propane tanks.

On less harsh days, many anglers can be seen on the ice on portable folding stools or overturned five-gallon plastic buckets. Buckets often double as gear carriers. Anglers can fit their rods, lures and baits into a bucket and easily carry them out on the ice with them. In many cases, anglers build gear boxes, often on sleds or skis, which they can pull behind them. The creativity of Michigan anglers can regularly be seen on the ice as many have built sophisticated devices to transport their gear and to insure their comfort.

Anglers who go out on the ice with or without shelters must dress for the weather. Anglers should dress in layers so they can add or remove them as the temperature changes. Many items of clothing – such as bib overalls, coveralls and fleece jackets – are made of modern lightweight fabrics that provide surprising warmth. Anglers should consider wearing a layer of thermal clothing against their skin that absorbs sweat and wicks moisture away from the body, thus keeping the angler warm. Anglers can break a sweat trudging across the lake, especially if they’re pulling a load behind them. One should also have on an outer layer of a wind-breaking fabric. Waterproof boots are a must and a pair of moisture-wicking socks under wool socks will help to keep anglers’ feet warm and dry.

Although the idea of going ice fishing may seem daunting, many fishing clubs and sporting goods stores hold annual ice fishing clinics where anglers can learn the basics. A number of Michigan state parks, interpretive centers and fish hatcheries also host programs during the winter months that teach basic techniques and offer hands-on experience.

Ice fishing may not be for everyone. But if you’ve ever driven by a Michigan lake in the winter and have seen the “shantytowns” out on the ice, you can tell plenty of people consider ice fishing to be a pretty cool sport.

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources is committed to the conservation, protection, management, use and enjoyment of the state’s natural and cultural resources for current and future generations. For more information, go to

Are You Ready for First Ice?

Gear up for First Ice

Dr. Jason Halfen
from The Fishing Wire

Ice Fishing

Ice Fishing

Anglers await the arrival of the first ice of winter with great anticipation. The short-lived first ice bite is classically one of the best of the winter, with active fish still found in near-shore, oxygen-rich waters that are easily accessible to the walk-on angler. My early season ice fishing adventures are governed by three guiding principles: stay safe, travel light, and fish shallow. Read on to learn about the tools that I use to accomplish these goals, AND return home with a pail of fish.

Stay Safe

Early season hard-water adventures often occur on frozen lakes that are capped by a relatively thin layer of ice. I heed the well-publicized guidelines distributed by my regional Natural Resources managers, which generally indicate that 4-inches of hard, black ice are suitable for foot travel. On frozen lakes that have not been previously accessed by other early season anglers, I will check ice thickness along my walking path using a spud bar, which is, in essence, a long-handled ice chisel. If I measure less than 4 inches of ice thickness, I will turn back toward shore.

Even with general ice coverage of 4-inches or more, thin spots may persist in the early season due to springs, current, or even the action of schools of fish or flocks of waterfowl. It is important to have a plan to get back onto the ice surface, should you fall unexpectedly through the ice. My Frabill I3 Jacket includes an integrated Self-Rescue device over the shoulders, ensuring that the ice picks are easily accessible should I fall through a thin spot. Integrated drainage mesh in my Frabill I3 suit also allows any water that accumulates in the suit to drain rapidly away.

Creepers, or some other sort of traction-enhancing device for your feet, are also useful tools for the early season ice angler. The first ice of the season is often free of snow cover, quite flat, and extremely slippery. Falls on the ice can lead to bumps, bruises, sprains, or worse, and increasing the traction of your footwear can help to minimize these injuries.

Be conservative when venturing onto early season ice. No fish is worth your life. Those fish will remain in the same general areas for a couple of weeks, so don’t rush prematurely onto an unsafe crust of ice; wait until conditions permit you to enjoy the first ice period while staying safe and dry.

Travel Light

keep your equipment manageable

keep your equipment manageable

First ice is NOT the time to haul your snow machine or hard-sided ice house to the lake. You will be traveling on foot, and you don’t want to be weighed down pulling hundreds of pounds of gear in pursuit of a hot early-ice bite. I limit my load to those items that I can fit comfortably into a medium sized sled. If it doesn’t fit, it stays in the truck. Here are the key items that always make the cut.

I bring two pieces of ice electronics with me on every ice adventure; one of these is a Humminbird sonar/GPS combo, like the HELIX 5 ICE or ICE 688ci HD Combo. These multi-functional pieces of electronics allow me to walk to the fishing grounds with GPS precision, and target the fish lingering there with either a traditional flasher-wheel sonar display or an “open water” view that is rich in historical sonar information. The second piece of must-have ice electronics is my Aqua-Vu Micro 5 camera. This compact underwater viewing device fits perfectly in the front pocket of my Frabill I3 bibs, and features a long-life Lithium Ion battery that provides for many hours of continuous use. I use my underwater camera to identify the fish I observe on my sonar, find green weeds along expansive weed edges, and even monitor baits suspended under tip-ups to learn how fish are reacting to them.

I pack a lightweight, portable shelter on early ice trips. This can take the form of a one-angler flip-over, like the Frabill Recruit 1250, which also provides the sled that I use to transport all of my gear. Unique design features of the Recruit 1250 provide me with more fishable area than other one-angler flip-over shelters, and also incorporates a full thermal shell to ensure a warm, comfortable day on early ice. If I’m fishing with a friend, I trade my flip-over for a thermal hub, like the Frabill Bro Hub which provides plenty of room for two anglers plus all of their gear, and an expansive 80″ of headroom to allow for a good stand-up-and-stretch when the bite slows. Weighing in at just 36 pounds, the Bro Hub is easy to transport to and from the fishing grounds.

Beyond my electronics and shelter, everything else that I carry, including rods in a hard case to keep them safe and secure, essential tackle and tools, tip-ups when chasing fish with teeth, an assortment of live bait, and snacks and drinks, all need to fit into that single sled. If you minimize the amount of gear you bring on early ice trips, you’ll be more likely to remain mobile on the ice, and mobility is the key to success for the modern ice angler.

Fish Shallow

Catch big fish through the ice

Catch big fish through the ice

The early ice period features one of the best near-shore, shallow water bites of the ice season. Those waters remain well oxygenated from fall winds and rains, and any shallow cover like weeds, rocks or timber will rapidly accumulate baitfish populations, as well as the gamefish and panfish that feast upon them. Now is the time to target those fish, before they vacate the shallows and head to the primary breaklines or the deep basin.

Shallow fish are generally more active, and respond more favorably to aggressive presentations, than their deep water cousins. Now is not the time for micro baits rigged on the tiniest tungsten jig that money can buy. I favor larger profile, high-action baits like the soft-plastic Ratso or the Slender Spoon from Custom Jigs and Spins. There is generally no need to tip the Ratso with any sort of live bait, as the supple action of the long Ratso tail is all that an angler needs to trigger bites. Likewise, if you plan to accessorize the Slender Spoon with an organic bait, limit that to only a minnow head, as an entire minnow will deaden the tantalizing flutter of the often imitated, but never duplicated, Slender Spoon. When you’re fishing the Slender Spoon under low light conditions, be sure to tie on a Pro-Glow Slender Spoon, and supercharge that spoon with a small LED light to enhance the bait’s appeal to crappies or walleyes lurking beneath the lake’s frozen cap.

Yes, I know there are crappies suspended out over the basin. And yes, I recognize there are probably some walleyes on that mid-lake rockpile. However, I hate to walk past catchable fish to find other fish that are much farther away, so I plan to take advantage of this early ice, shallow water bite for as long as it lasts. We’ll have plenty of opportunities to retool for offshore adventures as the winter progresses.

About the author
Dr. Jason Halfen owns and operates The Technological Angler, with a primary mission of informing and training anglers on the use of modern technological tools to find and catch more fish. Learn about The Technological Angler’s award winning instructional videos, teaching tools, and angler training workshops at