by Chip Leer
It’s 4:30 p.m. on a late-December afternoon, and dusk is settling over the lake. You’re six miles off shore, and you’ve been set up for an hour, making sure everything is just right for what has been a red-hot evening crappie bite. In fact, the first big slab has just appeared on your sonar unit when you are interrupted by a voice outside your shelter.
“Would it be all right if we borrowed your power auger?” a stranger asks. “We can’t get our auger started.” A few minutes and a couple of crappies later, there’s a voice from beyond the other side of the Otter. “You all wouldn’t have an extra propane canister for our heater, would you? We forgot to bring extras, and we’re freezing.”
Nearby, the sounds of approaching vehicles and power augers speak for harried anglers rushing to get in on the action. Little do they know it has started without them.
More than any other angling adventure, preparation and organization are essential to successful ice fishing. Unlike the open-water season when you can race back to the dock or pull into a marina to get something you’ve forgotten or fix something that is broken, that isn’t often an option when you are set up all warm and cozy, about to “hit the window” of an awesome evening bite.
For most of us, opportunities to get out on the ice are limited. Wasting them is like drawing a bead on a 10-point buck without a shell in the chamber.
As far as I’m concerned, an ounce of preperation is worth a pound of fillets.
Preparation begins in the basement or garage with an inventory and inspection of equipment. Rather than relying on a mental checklist, one way to get organized is to visualize the outing before the fact, make a checklist and take yourself through it step by step.
That begins with the mode of transportation you will use to reach your fishing destination, whether it’s a snowmobile, an ATV, a vehicle or walking. If it’s a snowmobile or ATV that hasn’t been used since the previous winter, make sure the battery is charged and the fuel is fresh. Take it for a test run and don’t forget to make arrangements for towing the gear you will need.
If the ice is thick enough to support a vehicle, be sure it has plenty of fuel, a spare tire and a tool kit. Throw in a shovel, a tow strap and a bag or two of sand, just in case, and always consider the same safety precautions that are necessary for long distance winter highway travel: Blankets, snacks, flashlights, flares and bottled water should be considered a necessity.
If you’re planning on traveling by foot, now’s the time to start taking “Fido” for extra long walks, it’ll be good for both of you.
Safety should be a primary concern once you are on the ice, too. Regardless of ice conditions, wear a life jacket and keep a throw able PFD (it also makes a good seat cushion) with a 100-foot length of rope at hand. A few medical supplies belong in the safety category, as well, including bandages, gauze, disinfectant and antibiotics.
Once those considerations are resolved, it’s time to think fishing. The first items I’ll need are my GPS and myhand-held sonar unit. Both get new batteries and a quick test. I also fill a small squirt bottle with drinking water to facilitate use of the sonar thru the the ice (and also a quick drink – if thirst invades).
Now that my virtual outing has guided me safely to the area I intend to fish, it’s time to set up. That means I’ll need my power auger. It gets a fresh spark plug and a new set of blades, with the set from last year stowed in a convenient location for back up. Since I drained the fuel tank when I put it away in April, I don’t have to worry about old fuel. Check the starter rope for wear. Then fill with gas and fire it up. For future fueling, a six-pack ofauger oil is kept on hand, with each small bottle of oil conveniently available to mix with every gallon of gas used. Later in the season, an auger extension is usually a must, especially in Northern Climes (Come to think of it – my same friend couldn’t find one of those late last year, either!).
A quick set-up and inspection of my tent and sled follow. Assuming it’s in good working order, my preparation moves on to the accessories required to make the outing comfortable and enjoyable. Is my heater in good working condition? How many fuel canisters will I need? How about my sonar unit and/or underwater camera? Are they fully charged and ready to go?
Light sources are next, especially if I expect to be out before dawn or after dark. I prefer propane lanterns to battery-operated options because of their reliability. Cold weather and batteries don’t jive. The lantern gets a fresh set of mantles, and I won’t “burn” the mantles until I’m out on the lake so that they’re in tact when I need them.
Now I’m ready to fish. My reels get newline. My rods get a brief inspection for any damage or nicks in the guides. If tip-ups are in the plan, they get worked over, too. Lures and terminal tackle get special attention. I like to keep hooks, sinkers, bobbers and lures where I can get to them quickly and easily when my hands are cold and light is limited.
The terminal tackle I’ll need on this adventure goes in a box of its own. Meanwhile, Beckman’s Tackle Books are a great way to keep lures organized and at hand. My arsenal include an assortment of Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoons and Dropper Rigs, Fire-Eye Minnows, Airplane Jigs, Ghost, Doodle and Bro Bugs while my fishing partner Tommy Skarlis treks out loaded with Lindy Frostees, Genz Worms and Bugs and Fat Boys. Since glow lures are a staple in both of our arsenals, Northland Glo-Buster Bluelights and Lindy Tazers will be found in a pocket of every coat we fish with.
The care and storage of live bait are one more consideration. Wax worms, Euro-larvae and “mousies” can be stored in small tins and kept in a pocket where body heat will keep them lively. If minnows are in the plan, a small personal cooler is ideal, and a petroleum jelly applied to the lid seal will keep it from freezing to the cooler. Numerous jars and bags of Gulp! and Power Bait are stashed as well, most times getting more play than live bait with none of the hassle of keeping them alive!
Throughout the preparation process, I’ve been setting aside extra items that might be needed. In a small bag, I store extra lantern mantles, propane canisters, auger blades, fishing line, batteries, handwarmers and Strikemaster Get-A-Grip Xtremes, which are slip-over boot covers that provide traction when there’s no snow cover on the ice.
Finally, it’s time to put it all together and load up. Multiple rods are rigged with different presentations and stashed by threes in a Beckman rod bag. Then, just like loading the boat, it all goes into a covered sled for transportation.
Hopefully, when I hit the ice I have everything I will need, and I’m ready to fish. And while some of those other anglers are rushing around trying to get set up, moaning about a dead sonar battery, digging through a hodgepodge of equipment looking for a particular lure, or lamenting the fact that their minnows have all died, I’m easing another fish out of the hole while anticipating the next five I’m going to catch.
Editors Note: Fishing the WildSide On Ice, co-founded by Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis, is an extensive effort focused on generating excitement for the great sport of ice fishing.