Nov 10, 2015
BY TOM GRUENWALD
The date can’t be circled on a calendar, as first ice may occur anytime from just before Thanksgiving until well after Christmas here in Wisconsin, bringing a strangely appealing element of excitement and mystique.
While anxiously awaiting this frenzied, magical opener, I recommend easing tensions by preparing in advance. Before storing your boat for the season, use sonar to run transects on your favorite waters, looking for structural features and cover likely to offer productive first ice potential. But don’t stop there.
This process can now be taken to an all-new level. Some of today’s select data chips and mobile apps combine the powers of GPS and sonar, making it possible to record collected data and update hydrographic lake map files, so by running tight contours on your own, you can actually create customized maps featuring an amazing compilation of detail, geared specifically to your target waters and preferred species.
Note this need not be an intricate, time consuming affair, as more often than not, the best first ice action takes place in relatively small, shallow, shaded, wind-protected channels, bays and flats free of current where water cools fast and icy frostings can thicken rapidly to a tasty depth.
Pass additional time by prepping gear: Sharpening auger blades and hooks, charging batteries, replacing the backing and leaders on your tip-ups, re-spooling reels with fresh line, cleaning out gear bags, taking inventory and re-stocking tackle as necessary--all while maintaining contact with your network, monitoring conditions and making periodic visits to your target waters.
Eventually, on some crisp, frosty morning, you’ll discover temperatures have reached the inflection point where, like popcorn, water molecules at the surface have begun bursting and solidifying, causing a layer of clear ice featuring increasingly higher tensile strength to coat the water to an accessible thickness.
Although you can obtain this information from other sources, you must confirm these reports—and always with a partner. There are no certainties, so consider wearing a PFD or floatation suit on your exploratory mission, too.
Leave your fishing gear behind. Carry safety picks in an easily accessible location, and have a throw rope handy. Strap on cleats to help prevent falls before cautiously venturing out one wary step at a time, using a chisel to check the ice as you proceed. Every few feet, consider using a lightweight hand auger to cut holes and determine an accurate assessment of ice thickness and quality.
To consider fishing, the ice should be dense and at least 4” thick. If not, cautiously follow your steps back to shore. Should you discover the ice solid throughout the target area, however, return with your gear…just remember, ice doesn’t form uniformly and conditions change, so remain cautious, and never assume you can venture anywhere.
Tread quietly as well. Disturbances on bare ice are transferred to the water and travel readily. Don’t drag sleds or slam five gallon buckets on the surface, clink your cleats as you walk or make metallic pings with your ice drill against the sides of holes when cutting. Instead, approach discreetly—and early, before the anticipated primary bite so the fish have a chance to settle back in—then, continuing to heed ice conditions, cut a series of holes, using your electronic maps to drill each with pinpoint accuracy.
From here, a deep welled ice skimmer helps efficiently remove ice chips. Sonar or underwater cameras provide a wealth of information by affirming your depth, revealing bottom content and cover type, and confirming the presence of forage or fish.
Since we’re allowed three lines here in the Badger State, I suggest starting out by setting a tip-up rigged with 20-30 lb. braided Dacron, and using a quality barrel swivel, attach a leader suited to the target species—typically thin, 27 lb. wire for pike, 4-6 lb. fluorocarbon for fussy trout or crappies in clear water, or light, 4 lb. monofilament for crappies or perch.
Tip your favorite with a premium, wide gapped treble or circle style single hook—generally, a size 4, lightly slipped through the back of a 4-5” sucker or chub works well for pike, a #6 or 8 with a 2-3” shiner for bass or large trout, a #10 or 12 and a 1-2” fathead for crappies or perch. Add a split shot to help position and hold your bait at the desired depth, set the flag and you’re set.
You might also consider using a similarly rigged tip-down or “dead stick” pole to help cover water. Be sure your chosen system is well-balanced and matched for the species you’re targeting, and set it nearby so you’ll be able to react quickly when a fish strikes.
Reserve the third line for jigging with your favorite rod and reel. Micro or ultra light combos, spooled with 2 lb. monofilament followed by a small, #12 or #14 jig, tipped with a spike or plastic tail, turns tricks with small or fussy pan fish, while light action models rigged with 4 lb. line and #10 jigs or small spoons graced with wax worms, plastics or tiny minnows perform well for larger panfish and stocked trout. Should you find the fish biting light, a sensitive float or spring bobber is helpful, too.
When seeking mid-sized trout, bass or walleye, medium power systems with 6-8 lb. line, mid-sized jigs, spoons or swimming minnows sweetened with a small minnow or minnow head are effective; medium-heavy to heavy power combos rigged with heavier line and larger profile, flashy spoons and lures are better suited if you’re targeting trophy walleye, pike or lake trout.
Organize your gear in a protective storage bag or traditional five or six gallon pail. Plastic bait pucks are great for carrying grubs--and don’t forget a dipper for the minnow bucket. If you plan on fishing outside, a warm jacket, bibs, boots, mitts and hat are must-haves, and a bucket seat or folding chair is a welcome addition. On especially cold days, a portable shelter and propane heater helps provide all the thermal comforts of home.
With this, you’ll be well primed for first ice. The only thing we can’t control is…yup, you guessed it…the wait!