Introduction to Ice Fishing
If you have not gotten out ice fishing this year, you might be missing out! With the frigid temps of February keeping a lot of folks inside, ice fishing is another way to shake that cabin fever! When the lakes are frozen over, it gives access to areas that you might not be able to fish in the warmer months. This beginner friendly sport can up your chances to catch a trophy record fish, as they tend to feed heavily and bulk up for the colder months. Ice fishing can be fun for people of all ages and fishing experience levels. Here is a general run down on the sport to get you out on the ice for a safe and successful day!
- Ice conditions and safety practices
- Preparation and angling strategies
- Equipment basics and luxuries
Montana has an abundance of ice fishing opportunities that last for a good part of the year. There are so many options from small mountain reservoirs to massive lakes like Georgetown Lake, which spans over 3000 acres. Lakes such as Hebgen, Brown, and Harrison offer amazing fishing opporties for trout. You have the chance to catch rainbow trout, brown trout, and even the possibility of pulling a Brooke trout through the ice! Other species you could expect to catch throughout Montana include yellow perch, walleye, northern pike, lake trout, cutthroat trout, Kokane, and even Burbot aka the poor man’s lobster.
Ice Conditions: When in doubt its always best to check in with the local sports shop or the Fish, Wildlife, and Parks (FWP) for updated ice conditions. Places where ice fishing is popular, there are often ice reports online. Even if you have gotten reports of safe ice, never trust someone’s word with your life. It’s best to learn the practice of checking ice as your make your way out. On your first go it might be best to start in a well trafficked area.
Watch out for signs of weak ice and avoid areas of concern:
- Ice is strongest when it freezes over quickly and will be clear to see through with a blue tint. Weaker ice will be cloudy and have lots of air bubbles which can be from freezing and unfreezing.
- Snow covered ice can be deceiving and dangerous. Snow acts as an insulating blanket, which can warm the ice to the point of thawing it out. When it begins to build standing water, it begins to warm at an accelerated rate.
- Unsafe ice may have big depressions, cracks, and other weak spots. Areas with moving water such as inlets, outlets, and natural springs make for weak ice and are generally places to avoid even late in the season.
- If you fall through.... Don’t panic! Immediately turn in the direction you fell through and get your ice picks (or hands) on the ice and dig in. Start kicking as hard as you can with both feet to get yourself back up on the ice. You want to go back in the direction you came, as that will most likely be the strongest ice. When you get your body back on the ice, DO NOT stand up. You want to roll yourself away because your weight will be more evenly distributed on the ice.
After narrowing down where and when you are fishing you can start scheming your fishing strategies. When you first get out on the ice it can be intimidating on where to set up your first hole to fish. The bigger the lake the harder it can be. You want to target areas of drop-offs, points, and structures. It can be helpful to scope out the lake during the summer to become more familiar with these target points. Before your trip you can check on the FWP Website or give your local sports shop a call for what species are available in that location. Each species might have different target points in that lake.
Nowadays, there are tons of apps that give you access to Satellite images, topographic maps, hydrological maps, and terrain overlays which can make it really easy to find these target areas. Some even give the option to drop GPS locations, so if you find a hot fishing spot, you can save it for later.
Now that you have narrowed down when, where, and what you are fishing for you can begin to make your gear list. The location, weather conditions, and target species are all factors that will effect what gear you will need to be successful out on the ice.
Items for Fishing:
- A Fishing license should always be first on your list. For here in Montana, yearly licenses start March 1st. They can be purchased easily online through the FWP Website.
- Rod and reel: Compared to other forms of fishing, ice fishing can be a relatively inexpensive sport to get into. Rod and reel combos can be found as cheap as $30 all the way up into the hundreds depending on the quality. Many ice fishing rods are between 25” and 47”. You don’t need anything crazy, a basic set up will do in most situations. Narrow down what rod and reel to get by your target species.
- Tip-ups can also be used rather than fishing with a rod and reel. A tip-up is a form of fishing where you are able to set the line and fish multiple holes at one time. The set-up has a spool of line with a trigger. When a fish takes your bait it the trigger releases a flag, the tip-up, and you run over to set the hook and pull your fish up by hand. This is a great method for both advanced and beginner fisherman. (Be sure to check your local regulations on how many lines you are legally able to have in the water per person).
- Fishing tackle: Majority of ice fishing is either done with little jigs or bait in the form of wax worms, grubs, and minnows. While you want to adjust your tackle depending on what species you are targeting, generally lighter line and tackle is the way to go. Fish are moving slow during the colder temps, so having too big of swivels or line makes it easy to see. 8 lb line is a good default as it works for majority of species when ice fishing.
- An auger or ice spud is used to create the hole in the ice. Augers can be hand crank, electric, gas, or used with a battery operated drill. An ice spud is a heavy rod with a ice chisel at the end. While these items are used to make the hole in the ice you will fish through, they are also essential for checking the depth of the ice as you make your way onto the ice.
- Warm layers: In order to last all day out on the ice in harsh conditions, it is essential to have appropriate gear. For some strategies on how to stay warm when fishing in the cold check out our article on How to Layer for Cold Weather Fly Fishing. A lot of the same principles will also apply to ice fishing!
Items for Safety:
- Ice Picks or claws are generally handheld plastic spikes that go on a lanyard around your neck. They are used if you fall through the ice, you have them readily accessible to put in each hand and use them to drag yourself out. This is something you should familiarize yourself with and always have with you.
- Ice spikes, cleats, or yak-traks are spikes that you can attach to any normal pair of boots that helps give you traction on the slippery ice. These are not a necessary item but can make a world of a difference. On big lakes where wind is blowing heavy there is generally little snow for grip and the ice is super slippery.
- Throw bags are a weighted bag with rope in it that can be used to throw as a lifeline if someone else falls in the ice. This is only helpful if you are in a group or with another person. Side tip: Keep it in a dry bag to keep the rope from getting wet and freezing solid. If your rope gets wet at all, it is likely to freeze. When you throw it, the rope will NOT unravel or be effective. It will just be a tangled frozen ball of unhelpfulness.
Items of convenience and luxury:
- Seats: Whether it’s a 5-gallon bucket or a folding chair, a seat is your best friend on the ice. You don’t want to be standing for 8 hours hunched over a hole.
- Food and a hot thermos: Having snacks and something warm to drink can make a day on the ice a lot more fun. A hot thermos is a great way to warm up a little bit. Luckily, no need to bring a cooler!
- Gear hauler: The more gear you bring, the more a sled will become necessary. Many folks will pull a sled as they walk out onto the ice will all of your essentials in one load.
- Shelters: Shelters range everything from a pop-up shanties to luxurious sheds you can bring out on the ice. The main goal is to have something to protect you from the elements. Once you try out a shelter, it’s hard to go back.
- Fish Finders: Fish finders can help you identify bait schools, depth, structures, and most importantly let you know when there are fish below. This is another item that once you try, will be hard to ever ice fish again without one.
Hopefully this brief introduction gets you excited about getting out on the hard water this season! If you and your friends get into it enough, there are even ice fishing derbies (tournaments) you can take part in. More information on this year’s contests can be found through the FWP Contest Page.
If you get out on the ice this season, share your adventure with us at #VOORMI.