Driving through the northern states during a cold winter day will take you past frozen lakes sprinkled with people and ice shacks. No, they’re not camping, they’re ice fishing. Ice fishing is simply fishing through holes drilled into the ice with an auger while using small jig poles or tip-ups. Common target species out on the ice include perch, walleye, bass, and more.
Ice fishing has its own culture within the fishing community created by: the same tight lines but with chilly toes, the same gear collecting dust but with ATVs or four-wheelers instead of boats, and of course it’s a good time full of camaraderie all the same. With this special sub-culture comes a set of rules that you need to know before you trek to the frozen tundra, and if you’ve grown up in the Midwest like me you know them well.
I. Thou shalt always prepare the ice auger the night before.
If you’re using that green energy hand auger, this need not apply. If you’re using an electric, gas, or propane auger, you need to be ready. Nothing’s worse than getting halfway through drilling the first hole in the ice and running out of juice. Charge the batteries or make sure the gas or propane is full, otherwise, you’re going to be borrowing some guy’s hand auger
II. Thou shalt always make a stop at the Fleet Farm on the way.
There’s always going to be something you forgot. After you’ve slugged your way through the wind and snow to get to your spot, nothing hurts quite like realizing you forgot to refresh the supply of jigs or bobbers in your ice fishing bucket. Making a quick stop at the gas station or hardware store to make a lap through the ice fishing section never hurts. You’ll probably still walk right past the propane and think to yourself “Nah, mine’s still full” only to have it last for half your trip, but at the very least you’ll come out with some jerky and a pop for the road.
III. Thou shalt never take their own truck out on the ice.
As someone who’s seen trucks, snowmobiles, four-wheelers, and even people fall through the ice, trust me on this. If you’re going out with a buddy, and they offer to bring their vehicle, you should probably let them. Always be safe when crossing the tundra, watch and listen for cracks, test the ice depth along the way, and listen to previous ice reports. Currents and changes in water depths can cause thin patches of ice and the bottom of the lake is not a good parking spot.
IV. Thou shalt never get too close to another guy’s setup.
Same as when you’re fishing on the boat, you don’t get too close to another angler who’s already there, even if you know it’s a good spot. Keep going, there’s plenty of ice to go around. Be sure to give them plenty of room too. You don’t want to disturb their spot by zipping through at 100 mph on your snowmobile, and you also don’t want to end up dropping into one of their unused holes. There is one exception to this rule though: doing a fish drive. A fish drive is like a deer drive. You drive circles around your setup in the hopes it pushes the fish right to the hook.
V. Thou shalt never kick ice into the hole.
Whether you’re using an electric, gas, or hand auger, it is a lot of work to drill through inches of ice. Then you have to use an ice scoop to ladle out any stray pieces of ice flakes. Finally, you can set your tip-up or get out your jig and start fishing. That is until someone kicks ice back in the hole right after you sat down restarting the process. If you kick ice into the hole, you’re probably going to be the one who gets the “fun” job of untangling the rest of the tip-ups in the bucket.
VI. Thou shalt always bring a heater if they brought a shanty.
You’re sitting on a frozen lake in freezing temperatures, it’s going to be cold. Warm clothes will help, the shanty will block the wind, but a heater will have you taking your boots off halfway through the trip. Having a great time on the ice is what it’s all about, and it’s hard to do if you’re focused on keeping your teeth from chattering.
VII. Thou shalt always shut the door on a shanty when headed out.
There’s nothing quite like the draft that gets let in when you’re cozy in your ice shack and your buddy decides to take a lap for some hole hopping, leaving the door wide open. It’s cold out there on a frozen lake, and now that it’s been warmed up by a space heater that could keep a warehouse warm, you don’t want to be that one letting it all out. If you leave the shack, you shut the door. That means all the way, not a half zip, even if you’re only leaving for a “second.” Otherwise, you’re going to be the one buying beer at the fish fry.
VII. Thou shalt always wait at least 5 minutes before hole hopping.
Hole hopping is essentially drilling holes in the ice and then jigging along as you go. If you fish for a bit and don’t catch anything, you move to the next spot. Some people will do this in what seems like every 30 seconds. Now, it doesn’t matter so much if you’re by yourself, but if you’ve got more than one person and every time they just get sat down on their bucket only for you to say it’s time to move again, you’re probably going to lose your fishing buddy to someone with a shanty and a heater.
IX. Thou shalt always yell flag before running.
Now, the process for ice fishing after you’ve set up all your tip-ups is to sit at the last hole with your jigging rod and fish while keeping an eye out for flags. When a fish hooks onto the line below the tip up, an orange flag will fly up, signaling you got one. If you’re fishing with other people, it is absolutely necessary to yell “flag” before you start running to it. Whoever gets to the flag first gets to reel it in, so if you start running before yelling, then you’re just plain cheating.
X. Thou shalt never knock another guy’s catch.
When it comes to ice fishing, it’s more about the experience, than the technique. It Doesn’t matter if you’re using expensive gear or the latest tackle, there’s no telling what you’re going to pull out of the ice. It could be the world’s tiniest bluegill or someone’s personal best pike. Get a good picture and get set up for the next one, you might catch a walleye for dinner or you might catch an old can that’s been sitting at the bottom of the lake since 1987.
Now that you’ve got the basics, it’s time to get out your warmest boots and hit the ice. Using a GPS or lake map you can find a spot with a drop off that big fish cruise looking for prey. Start drilling some holes, wetting some lines, and yelling for your first flag. With a couple of good buddies, a thermos full of something warm, and some pretty basic gear you can have a great time no matter what you catch. It might be a new fishing addiction.
Tight Lines, Shawna Stowers
Updated on December 6, 2022
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