A novice’s course for ice fishing

Posted Jan. 16, 2009, at 9:52 p.m.

“Just the guy I want to talk to,” said a grinning longtime acquaintance as we crossed paths in the post office lobby. “I need some advice.”

“Ask away, but remember that free advice is usually worth what you pay for it,” I responded.

It seems my friend had relatives coming to visit from Florida, and among the clan were youngsters who had never seen snow. They wanted to build a snowman, ice skate, snowmobile and, most of all, the entire troop wished to go ice fishing.

My companion admitted right up front that as much as he loved to bird hunt and fly fish, he detested cold-weather outings and had neither experience nor equipment for hard-water angling.

“What do you suggest?” he wondered.

“Postpone the visit for exactly six months when the family can actually enjoy fine fishing, warm weather and not need several layers of clothing to survive,” I offered jokingly.

Knowing that really wasn’t an option, I spent the next half-hour and two subsequent phone calls filling my friend in on ice fishing 101: Introducing kids, rookies and novice fishermen to the sport of ice fishing. Perhaps these ideas and guidelines will benefit some of you as well.

Laws and licenses

Since it’s a New Year, everyone needs a 2009 license, and resident, nonresident or alien anglers can buy one in person at a city hall, the town office, most rod and gun shops and sporting goods stores and even some pharmacies and department stores. They can also be purchased online at www.mefishandwildlife.com , any time day or night, even on weekends and holidays for those folks that forget until the last minute. Youngsters of certain ages don’t need a license so check the regulations.

Speaking of rules and regulations, a current law book should be acquired as well since only certain waterways are open to ice fishing and many have specific rules and regulations. There are daily limits of certain species, size limits, slot limits and even decrees regarding how many tip-ups or hand lines may be deployed on some lakes and ponds. For those planning to visit various lakes, it’s wise to keep the rules in the truck or your packbasket, while sportsmen exploring just one spot can jot specific regulations on a card and keep it in their wallet near their license.

Be weather wise

Regardless of how good the ice fishing action is, some days in the Pine Tree State simply aren’t fit for man nor beast. Outdoor activities are supposed to be fun, but when you can’t feel your toes, nose or fingers, the likelihood of wanting to go ice fishing again declines rapidly, especially for youngsters and novice nimrods. Check local weather reports and select a clear, calm day for that initial foray. Heavy snowfall, brisk winds or temperatures below 20 degrees require steady work to keep ice holes clear and gear functioning properly and the cold quickly saps away the excitement and anticipation,

If time constraints leave you with only a day or two to fish and Mother Nature just won’t cooperate, it’s time to seek shelter and make the trip despite brutal weather. Renting or borrowing an ice fishing hut makes any wild or sub-zero day tolerable, and not only do ice anglers have a chance to jig for fish inside as well as setting traps outside, but night junkets can be enjoyable as well. Smelts are almost always more bitish in the evening and these tasty, cooperative silver slivers are a perfect quarry for kids and rookies seeking steady action.

Smelt shanties offer a cozy respite on chilly days to observe tip-ups and to thaw out extremities after playing and landing fish or drilling holes and changing to fresh baits. Best of all, moose burgers, venison, fresh smelt or even beans and franks can be prepared on the fish hut’s stove for a tasty treat in a cozy atmosphere between flags and freezing fingers.

Wear layers

As if below-freezing temperatures weren’t enough of a hindrance, ice drillers must use bare hands to net minnows from a bait bucket, bait hooks, set out tip-ups and to play and unhook fish. Even while watching and waiting for flags to fly, sportsmen with no shelter must withstand wind, snow and sleet, all while standing on bare ice or possibly in snow up to their knees. Staying warm is crucial to enjoying each outing and that’s where selecting the right clothing comes into play.

It has been my experience that nothing beats goose down long underwear for containing body heat. Goose down long johns and jackets are somewhat bulky and moderately expensive but extremely effective.

To ensure that perspiration wicks out and heat stays in, layers of clothing work best. UnderArmour cold weather gear makes a great base layer, with polypropylene or fleece being second alternatives.

Wool pants, the old forest-green marine style made by Woolrich, are my favorite, and a long-tailed wool or chamois shirt produces a great second layer. A waterproof, windproof outer layer, such as a snowmobile suit or insulated Gore-Tex pants and a wool or Thinsulate-lined coat create a suitable outer layer.

Sorrels, Pac boots with an inner lining or thigh-high, Thinsulate-lined rubber boots with heat-retaining innersoles will keep feet comfortable and dry. Neoprene gloves, two-piece gloves with a wool inner glove and a water-resistant but flexible outer layer, or wool mittens all have a place. Wise ice anglers carry at least two pair in a couple of styles as well as small chemical heat-producing packets to fit in boots, gloves and jacket pockets to further assure that extremities stay flexible, dry and warm. Ski hats that pull down over the ears top off any outfit, but for the really bitter cold days, a cap with fleece-lined interior and pull-down ear tabs is top rate. You can always shed a layer if the weather warms up, but if you don’t have certain garments along, you can’t add a layer, and nothing ends a trip quicker than hypothermia and frostbite.

Gearing up

Avoid expensive or complicated gear for rookies and youngsters. A simple monofilament and Dacron handline is fine for jigging lures and spoons for game fish or handlining cut bait for smelt and perch. If the snow is deep, use tall, easy-to-see tip-ups such as the sturdy, easy-to-use JackTraps or Tip and Spin models. Borrow or rent a gas ice auger, or use a hand-operated spoonblade auger and ice chisel to make holes. Wait on purchasing your own expensive auger until you’re sure winter fishing will be a yearly pastime.

Select a lake or pond near home to avoid long car rides that bore young anglers (and most experienced sports as well). Check with local wardens or other experienced anglers to assure the ice thickness is safe. Use snowshoes, or ice-creepers on boots when bare ice is at hand, and pull a plastic sled or toboggan to easily transport the gear, and fish near easy access points. Snowmobiles allow more range but are a lot of extra upkeep as well as added work to haul around. Finally, pick a waterway that harbors several species of game fish to increase the odds that at least one group will be feeding. Lakes with smelt, perch, cusk and pickerel almost always offer enough action to keep newbies attentive.

Small but essential items including a bait bucket, an ice skimmer, a ruler or tape measure, a small, sturdy shovel, a folding seat, bucket or seat cushion, sunglasses, camera, a filet knife and binoculars should be packed along.

A thermos of hot soup and another of tea, coffee or hot chocolate can really perk up spirits on any winter outing. For ice anglers planning to prepare a meal in a fish shanty or over a grill or an open fire outside, besides food, drink and seasonings, pots, pans and cooking utensils must be carried along.

Five-gallon buckets to be used for seats make excellent storage containers for traveling with food and cookware. Tasty outdoor-style meals make every outing more enjoyable regardless of the temperature.

Baiting up

Make sure the local bait shop will have an adequate supply of fresh minnows or smelt on hand for the day of your outing. A battery-operated aerator or frequent addition of fresh water to the bait container will assure minnows stay healthy and hearty throughout the day. An insulated bucket or placing the bait container out of the snow will assure the water inside doesn’t freeze up, killing the live bait. If worms are to be used, their containers need to be kept fairly warm, too.

Another concern that radically affects success is properly placing the baitfish on a hook. When temperatures are frigid and fingers stiff, exposing a wet minnow to the air for more than 30 seconds while trying to place the hook can kill the bait before it even enters the ice hole. Work quickly and efficiently with warm hands and insert the hook crossways through the back. Some anglers place the hook in front of the dorsal fin, others prefer behind, but above all avoid piercing the backbone.

A few ice drillers swear that hooking a baitfish through the lips is the best option since game fish swallow minnows headfirst and therefore the hook will set quicker and firmer. Other sportsmen place their hook nearer the tail, stating this setup makes the minnow swim as if it were injured attracting more attention from game fish.

However you choose to hook up the bait, when a flag finally indicates a strike, patience is of prime importance. Watch the line spool and wait until the initial run is over and the reel has stopped moving. At this point the fish is either repositioning the bait in its mouth or swallowing the minnow, and that’s when it’s time for a quick jerk on the taut line to set the hook. Then the fun begins, and a tug of war with no rod involved requires careful, subtle give and take. If the fish isn’t to be kept, release it quickly without exposure to the cold air for long periods, which can harm the gills and eyes.

Let youngsters and rookies reach the flags first and offer advice without being critical or too pushy, and don’t forget to praise their efforts. Socialize with other fishermen, tell stories, share tactics and techniques, and even play in the snow if conditions allow. Most importantly, call it a day before companions get too cold, too tired or too bored; remember, this is supposed to be fun and you hope they will want to go ice fishing again.

Winter fishing conditions are often challenging, but when it’s the only game in town, we have to make the best of it. Follow these guidelines and even the rankest amateur and youngest sportsmen should enjoy ice fishing.

bgravesoutdoors@ainop.com

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