The Ice Fisherman Cometh

© 2007 Gordon Alexander

Posted 12.12.07

This story is mainly for the very few of us up North who haven't suffered the frosty bite of the ice fishing bug yet. You folks who are already seasoned ice fisherpeople can move on to something more because if you read on you will probably think this writer is nuts.

If you happen to be a fair-weather fisherman who doesn't or can't afford to ski, snowmobile, or head to Florida, why not give some thought to making the cold weather you are stuck with for a couple of months work for you and try ice fishing.

Ice fishing may bring back thoughts of an old movie "Grumpy Old Men" where senior citizen ice fishermen Walter Matthau and Jack Lemon duel beside their ice fishing shacks -- over a lady -- using frozen fish instead of swords.

Ice fishing gets a little more complicated that conventional summertime boat, shore, or wharf fishing. You will have to deal with cold weather and the hazards of venturing out onto the frozen surface of a lake or pond and hope the ice will hold you. You are in the fish's territory now, not on dry land and a mishap could have your intended fish nibbling on you.

An ice fishing trip in Quebec will net you mainly walleye, yellow perch, and pike. You may need a few of these to make a meal for two.

I'm not an ice fisherman but like to observe those who enjoy the sport. Wandering out onto the cracking ice in pursuit of a photograph or story information, in my opinion, should entitle me to hazardous duty pay.

Questions prey on my mind while I am out there on a couple inches of ice a half mile from shore include:

  • Is the hole I just drilled large enough?
  • What if I land a fish bigger than the hole?
  • Why does the ice crack more where I am standing?
  • Where can you discretely go to the bathroom out here?
  • If I build a fire to stay warm, will the fire melt the ice I am standing on and drop me into the water?
All these thoughts and more probably go through the minds of any novice ice fishermen who may be nervously standing in the middle of Lake Memphremagog.

The are plenty lakes and ponds to choose from in Northern Vermont or the Eastern Townships in Quebec, just north of the border.(If you are in Ontario, make that west of the border ) One of the most popular fishing spots is the long Lake Memphremagog that extends from Newport, Vermont, all the way up to Magog in Quebec, Canada, some 30 miles to the north. When driving around the area in mid-January motorists can see little groups of ice fishermen here and there in streams and in various ponds and lakes. Pick one.

© 2007 Gordon Alexander

When the ice is thick enough you can see encampments of ice fishermen with their warm shelter/shacks, 4-wheel-drive trucks, and snow mobiles parked nearby. By then the ice is in excess of 15inches thick. A talltale Yankee fisherman once said that the pond at Island Pond, Vermont, freezes right to the bottom. How he would catch fish if that were so must be another tall tale.

Most of the major lakes have a bait and tackle shops nearby where you can stock up on supplies, bait. and get ice thickness and weather conditions. There are basic supplies you can get by with or you can go into it in a big way and get fully outfitted, portable warm shelter and all, depending on how enthusiastic you are or what you budget will allow. A sled, a drill, bait and tackle, a portable seat, and warm clothes are all you really need to start to catch fish.

Ice fishing is the byproduct of our long Northern New England winters. When November comes around, the cold north winds start to blow, the heavy rain cools the water down, the fish start getting lethargic, and most sport fisherman start going though withdrawal symptoms.

Ice should never be considered safe; at this early ice stage, be careful when venturing onto the hard water.

What follows are tips to keep you who venture onto the ice dry and safe throughout the winter season. Some rescue teams attached to local Fire and Rescue teams dread the coming of ice fishing season because they just know that some ill-informed and otherwise not too bright fisherman will drive his truck out onto ice before its time and may wind up scrambling to get out of his truck before it goes to the bottom of the lake.

When is ice safe? There is no sure answer. Ice is tricky, and just because a lake or stream is frozen doesn't mean the ice is safe. Here are points to consider, some based on research by the US Army Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory in New Hampshire.

Generally speaking, new ice is much stronger than old ice.

Direct freezing of lake or stream water will be stronger than ice formed by melting snow, refrozen ice, or ice made by water bubbling up through cracks and freezing on the surface. Several inches of new ice may be strong enough to support you, while a foot or more of old, "rotten" ice may not.

Ice seldom freezes or thaws at a uniform rate. It can be a foot thick in one spot while, ten feet away, only an inch thick.

A layer of snow insulates ice, slowing down the ice-forming process. In addition, the weight of snow can decrease the bearing capacity of the ice.

Ice near shore is weaker. The buckling action of the lake or stream over the winter breaks and refreezes ice continually along the shore. If you hear ice "booming" or cracking on cold days or still evenings, it doesn't necessarily mean the ice is dangerous, merely that it's changing shape as the temperature changes.

Ice formed over flowing water can be dangerous near shore, around inflowing or outflowing streams, or on lakes containing large numbers of springs. River ice is generally about fifteen percent weaker than ice on lakes. Straight, smooth flowing stretches are safer than river bends.

River mouths are dangerous because the current undermines the ice and creates unsafe pockets. A potential danger spot on lakes is an open portion completely surrounded by ice. Winds will force exposed water beneath the ice and rot it from below.

Once you understand the physical properties and problems with ice, you can understand why ice is so unpredictable and why the only absolute safety factor for ice is to stay off. If you are an ice fisherman, cross-country skier, ice skater, snowmobiler, or ice boater, staying off the ice is going to crimp your winter fun.

Just for starters, beginners or novice ice fishermen should only consider ice fishing where quite a few other ice fishermen are visibly present and have set up shacks or warming shelters for fishing. Stick to just fishing in those lakes or ponds where you see others out ice fishing, rather than attempt to venture out onto unknown ice where no other fishermen are around.

The larger ice fishing communities out on the lake may have cars trucks or snow mobiles around, indicating that the ice is thick enough. Take the route they took out onto the ice and you can be reasonably assured that the ice is safe.

Ice thickness recommendations

  • Less than four inches -- STAY OFF! There is no reason to test newly formed ice at this time.

  • 4-6 inches -- Ice fishing, foot travel in single file lines, and small spaced seating on the ice should be safe, presuming the ice is clear and clean.

    6-10 inches -- Snowmobiles and ATVs can travel safely on good ice.

    10-16 inches -- Small cars and pickups can begin to venture on to the ice. However, it is always best to avoid driving on the ice whenever possible.

    16+ inches -- A medium-sized car or mid-size pickup can drive on good clear solid ice.

Know the weather and water The urge to get on the ice right now may be overwhelming. However, a day of risky fishing and the potential for a disaster is far outweighed by a winter full of good, safe ice fishing. Check with local bait and tackle shops for advice on which lakes or ponds are safe and which is the best part of the lake to fish. Again, look for numbers of other ice fishermen and fish where they do until you get more lake ice experience.

Important factors in good ice formation include: Steady subfreezing temperatures; the colder it is for a longer period of time results in a better freeze up of lake waters, the less the wind blows, the faster and more solid ice freezes.

Water type: if the lake you fish on or are looking to walk on, is high in salinity, or is a large body of water or is spring fed, it will freeze at a slower rate than that of a smaller, clearer lake.

Heavy snows: if there has been a lot of precipitation in the form of snow (or worse, rain) the formation of good ice is hindered. Pay attention to the amount and type of accumulations that have occurred recently . Vegetation: shoreline plants result in thinner ice. Cattail stands and tree roots near the water's edge can weaken ice and slow formation. Avoid these areas when possible.

Location-specific factors: if there are springs, feeder creeks, or aquifers that put water into the lake, make sure you know where those areas are to avoid weak ice. The more moving water in a location, the less solid the ice will be. Pay close attention to the weather, and talk to local tackle shops and fishing guides about ice formation, as they are usually the first to know.

When venturing out on to a recently frozen body of water there are some safety precautions that can help you be prepared for the worst. Bringing several important tools can assure that in the event of ice breakage and submersion, you can avoid hypothermia and survive.

The buddy system: the best idea is to NEVER venture on the ice alone. The buddy system virtually assures that another person will be along with you to help in case of a fall-in or broken ice.

Life jackets aren't just for summer anymore. By wearing a personal floatation device (PFD) underneath a coat or overalls, personal buoyancy is increased, keeping the head and shoulders above water. This is especially important as cold water shocks the system, and when a person hits such cold water, a loss of breath often occurs -- with less air in the lungs, the body is less apt to float. The added buoyancy of a PFD also aids in escape.

A 50-foot rope: this tool keeps a lifeline handy for you and your buddy. It can also be used to tether your team together when venturing on new ice. By attaching a block of wood to one end, the rope can be effectively thrown out and floated to a person who is struggling in the water.

Dry clothes in the car: keep a spare sweatshirt and some old jeans in your vehicle along with some dry wool socks. The faster you can get your body dry, the less chance you have of suffering from hypothermia. Water transfers heat twenty-five times faster than air; therefore, getting dry is the primary goal after being submerged in near-freezing lake water.

Cellular phone: if you are in immediate danger of hypothermia or unconsciousness due to exposure, have your buddy call 911 with directions to the lake or stream or the nearest road. When it comes right down to it, cellular phones can mean winter survival

Ice creepers: these shoe spikes are relatively inexpensive and provide traction on the ice to prevent falls and injuries. Though you may not go through the ice, a broken arm, sprained ankle, or concussion can end an ice fishing trip just as quickly as getting wet. Keep your balance with one of many varieties of creepers for your footwear.

A message at home; make sure to let a family member, neighbor, or friend know where you are going to be throughout the day. Leave a note with your location on the lake, and the route you will take to get there and back again. Let people know what time you are leaving and what time you plan to arrive back home. This way, if you don't return as planned, or don't check in at the designated time, those who care about you will know where to start looking in case of emergency.

EQUIPMENT: Ice fishing gets a little more complicated than summer fishing from a boat, the shore, or dock. Ice fishing means that you have to in essence " walk on water" safely to get to where you hope the fish are. To do this in cold weather you will need more than just bait, tackle, and a boat. Here’s a list of the basic equipment for novice ice fisherman assuming that you wisely do not try to drive you family car, truck, or snowmobile out onto the ice.

TOBOGGAN OR SLED -- This is a practical way to haul equipment onto the ice. Some anglers put their gear on top of their shanty, which is transported on runners.

ICE AUGER -- This tool is for drilling your fishing hole in the ice. The hole should be no more than twelve inches across.

SKIMMER -- This handy tool is needed to scoop out slush or chips from your fishing hole. It looks like a long-handled soup ladle, with a shallow, sieved bowl.

ICE CHISEL -- Called "spuds," ice chisels are used for chopping holes early in the ice fishing season when the ice is thinner. Be sure to secure these thin, but hefty poles with a line tied to your arm. Many spuds have slipped from angler's grasp and plummeted to the bottom of a lake.

BAIT BUCKET -- Holds live bait such as minnows.

GAFF HOOK -- A special purpose, large and heavy hook to help hoist a slippery fish through a hole in the ice.

SEAT -- Something to sit on such as a small stool or folding chair, sometimes even a 5-gallon bucket.

DIP NET -- Used to dip into minnow buckets to retrieve bait and keep hands dry.

HOOK REMOVER -- A tool like a needle nose pliers to help you get the hook out of the fish's mouth.


Jigging rod -- Light and flexible rods used mostly for panfish (bluegills) and walleye. A short, firmer rod is better for perch.

Tipup -- A clever device that signals when a fish hits on your line. A flag "tips up" when the fish strikes and gives you the freedom to leave the fishing hole for a moment.

Hooks --Small Number 10 or 12 hooks are recommended for panfish. Short shank Number 3 hooks are good for walleye. Northern pike go for large Number 2/0 to 6/0 hooks. Swedish hooks, also called pike hooks, are used for northern pike.

Lures -- Ice flies and teardrop lures with live bait are recommended for panfish.

Jigs -- Walleyes can be caught on minnow imitation jigs.

Line -- Light monofilament (a thin plastic length of string), 2 to 4pound test (breaking strength), is all you need for panfish. Game fish require at least 10 pound test.

Fishing tips:

Use ice fishing rods, with small reels, or simply replace them with you regular reels if you are targeting bigger game fish or use the specialized "tip ups" which consist of two sticks with a pivot nail, heavy braided line, and no reel.

Secure your rods next to each hole, send the bait down 36 inches from the bottom, and wait for something to bite. Tip ups will pull downwards; for rods, use bells to let you know when something is nibbling. Additionally, jigging live bait with a small ice fishing rod will also provide results, and might make your day less boring.

If you want to make a day of it, bring along a small BBQ, water to heat for tea/coffee as well as waterproof boots, ice cleats, a good snow suit, and other winter wear to keep warm. Set up some folding chairs if the weather is not too harsh, fire up the BBQ/Hibachi, and fillet your catch for fresh shore/ice lunch. Some fishermen insist on having all the "bells and whistles" that go with their newly chosen sport, others can get by fishing with just the basics.

If at the end of the day you haven't caught enough fish for a meal for two, at least the beer stayed cold.

© 2007 Gordon Alexander

Copyright © 2007 Gordon Alexander/Log Cabin Chronicles/12.07