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My daughter Elizabeth stood on the frozen surface of a lake near our home, peering intently at the hole at her feet. It was a Saturday during the bitter winter of 2015, and she was holding a remarkably short fishing rod, dangling a metal jig down into the gin-clear water. The jig, spiced with a mealworm, was perhaps 16 feet beneath her, just above the lake's bottom.
Under a roof of ice, this little lure-and-bait combination was darting upward, then fluttering and falling, again and again. Elizabeth was trying to entice a fish to strike. I had turned away to scan rows of fish traps when she called out. I looked back to see the little rod bent, Elizabeth cranking on its reel. Soon she hoisted a fine yellow perch into the air. It was perhaps 11 inches long, its bright-orange pectoral fins set against a barred yellow-and-green flank. The fish was plump, bulging with eggs. An eater, all around. Elizabeth set it on the snow beside others. The cold water was yielding its midwinter gems, and we would be having a fish fry in our house tonight. There was not another soul in sight.
Our solitude was no surprise. One old joke about ice fishing is that it is a sport many people try once. It's partly rooted in truth, and for good reason: To those who have not been introduced to the particulars of harvesting a frozen lake's bounty, the ice can be a foreboding and impenetrable place. Divining how to bring home fish from water that you can barely see can seem confounding. Where to fish? And how? For what? With what equipment? How do you stay comfortable and safe?
The questions might sound daunting, but most of the answers are simple.
Plunging through weak ice into frigid water (often deep frigid water) is more than miserable. It is a quick way to die.
Testing the Ice
Local bait shops will know the conditions, but you can double-check ice thickness by piercing it with a chisel or a cordless drill. There are several old- timers' rules out there about ice thickness and safety—2 inches will support a man, 6 inches a snowmobile, 10 inches a pickup truck. I add at least 50 percent to these estimates to account for variations in ice strength and thickness. I started ice fishing around age three or four. Almost a half-century on, you'll not find me on ice thinner than 3 inches. I feel much more comfortable at 4, and late in the year, as ice rots with spring-like weather, I am even more cautious, as even thick ice can get soft.
Not all ice is the same. Moving water generally does not form strong ice, if it forms ice at all. For this reason, rivers are generally to be avoided, except in protected coves.
Tip: The easiest problem to handle is the problem you foresaw and avoided. If there are any doubts about ice thickness or safety—as there inevitably will be early and late in winter, and during long thaws—stay on shore.
Some anglers add a host of safety equipment to their kit, including metal cleats for their boots, a life preserver, a whistle, hand spikes, and a rope with knots or a loop at the end attached to a buoy or throw cushion that can be tossed to anyone who falls through. I carry an ice spud—a heavy steel bar about 4 feet long, with a tapered blade at its end. When venturing onto new water, I tap this ahead of me on the ice. Firm ice responds with a sharp, solid, and reassuring noise. Your ear becomes attuned to the sound.
You'll need warm clothes in layers, insulated and waterproof boots and gloves, a good hat, and maybe a hood too. Goggles are a smart investment to protect eyes from glare and stinging snow.
Ice-fishing trips can be as spartan or as fancy as you wish. My children and I tend toward spartan, and walk out on the ice dragging sleds with the kit and a bucket or cooler of live bait, sometimes adding a backpack or two with a thermos of coffee and food. Others build shanties to live in, or roll across the ice on snowmobiles or pickup trucks loaded with equipment, food, and gas grills.
Where to Fish
Yellow perch, walleye, trout, pike, crappie, sunfish, largemouth bass—these are staples of many ice-fishing trips. If a pond or lake has a healthy number of fish when it's not frozen, it'll have a healthy number when it is. Some lakes are better than others. (Good options include Lake Michigan, Vermont's Lake Champlain, and nearly anything in northern Minnesota.) Local bait-and-tackle shops can steer you, as can other ice fishermen (who are helpful online at ).
The best-known destinations can become crowded and carnival- like, especially at tournaments. (See above. Avoid.) But many other lakes, like the one where Elizabeth hauls perch, are quiet and still, and we usually encounter no one at all as we fish in what amounts to a standard fashion, with some of us setting traps while others move from hole to hole with a jigging rod, looking for fish.
How to Fish
Forget about casting. Ice fishing starts with cutting holes. Many holes. To do so requires either a spud or an auger, a large drill powered by hand or by a small motor. We use a spud in the early season (for chipping out holes) and a power auger once the ice becomes thick. There are several prominent auger brands, with disputes between adherents that rival Ford–Chevy debates. Just like a drill bit, the auger's diameter determines the width of the hole. Six inches is fine for most fishing, 8-inch augers are popular, and if you're on a lake with huge fish, a 10-inch auger might make sense. But beware: A wider diameter means more work.
Rods vs. Traps
Once you've cut holes, you have two primary means of fishing: with a rod or via traps. Rods are used for vertical jigging, or lightly bouncing the bait in the water, and dangling live minnows or small grubs. They tend to be short and simple—so basic that some people don't even use a reel and make jigging sticks in woodshops at home. More than a few old shovel handles or hockey sticks have been repurposed this way. My favorite rod is the handle and piece of a spinning rod we broke by accident about 35 years ago. It works fine.
How Traps Work
Traps, also known as tilts or tip-ups, are renowned for hooking monster fish. They suspend a large bait for hours in areas where an old, big fish might lurk. When arrayed along drop-offs or large weed beds where game fish often prowl, traps let ice fishermen cover far more water than they could with a single rod and erase the handicap of not being able to cast. Different waters have different rules for how many traps an angler can put out. Five per person is common, though we have fished one lake that allows 15.
When a fish takes the bait, its movement spins a spool of line, triggering the release of a small flag, indicating a strike. The angler then runs to the trap, takes up the line with fingers, sets the hook, and plays the fish hand over hand.
Every winter there are days when you end up unable to keep all the tip-ups set because you can't find the time, running from flag to flag, to rebait them. These are the trips you remember, and the reason you're out there. Once you hit that zone all you need are two more things: a sharp fillet knife and recipes.