Battling Bulls

Tips and tutelage for taking a first-timer out for iced-in bluegill

By: Sara Trampe

Contributed: Tyler Trampe 

Photo Credit: Jeff Klugiewicz

Winter is here. And in true Wisconsin tradition, so is ice fishing! What could be better on a sunny, winter afternoon than staring down a 6-inch hole cut into the ice anticipating pulling a fish though it? Try explaining that sport to someone who has never done it … much less convincing them they should try it.

Well, everyone started somewhere. Someone took the time to convince you to try ice fishing, patiently showing you how to entice your favorite fish up through the hole. Something I frequently hear is “I wish my wife would come” or “when my kid is ready” (you know that person best), but have you given YOUR best effort to entice them to come and help them get ready? Returning the favor and introducing them may seem overwhelming, but can be both exciting and rewarding. 

Good impressions

Snow is piling up on the tree tops with inches of snow already covering the ground. Quite literally feet from shore, I nervously shuffled out on the ice concentrating entirely on not breaking through until my (now) husband drilled a hole and showed me there was in fact plenty of ice – over 10 inches. I remember laughing at myself and realizing how ridiculous I must have looked; with our breath coming out in puffs, our cheeks turning pink from the sting of the winter breeze, knowing the lake was making ice and not melting.

I wouldn’t have stopped fixating on the thickness of the ice, consequently worrying we would fall through until he showed me it was safe. That one simple gesture set me up to relax and enjoy my first ice fishing experience. 

Since I can fondly look back on my first ice fishing trip and say it was a success, with a little help from my husband and co-host on Sportsman’s Journal, Tyler, combined with my current knowledge and experience, we decided to share some secrets and our best tips on making the first time out with a new fishing partner a fun, successful trip.    

Set up for success

Safety is the single most important element to being successful out on the ice – whether you are new or experienced. Every year I hear about a tragic event that happened on the ice, and although not everything is preventable, most are.

(What follows is a very brief example of a few safety tips and not intended to cover everything or ensure your safety. There are more in depth articles regarding how to be safe on the ice and safety equipment you should read if you are not aware of safety precautions while on the ice.)

Never assume the ice is safe. Check the thickness as you go out further by drilling holes every few feet, wear ice picks around your neck, and always let someone else know your plan and location. If you are fishing larger bodies of water, be aware of wind conditions in case of ice heaves, currents that can create thin ice, and stay on ice roads when possible.

Definitely think about investing in a pair of ice bibs that have floating technology, and if you do break through, remember, do not panic – drowning occurs much faster than freezing to death. Also, remember you may know how much ice is okay to walk on or drive on, but your partner may not, so take the extra time to make sure they feel safe and understand the risks, large or small. 

Next on the list is snacks. It’s no secret that I love snacks, so of course it’s on my list! Having yummy food and beverages are a must on every one of our ice fishing trips (okay, okay not just ice fishing). It’s important to keep your partner involved and not hangry. Hangry is bad, causing problems for both teacher and student; therefore, plan appropriate foods and drinks for both of you.

Some of my personal favorites are soda, beef jerky, chocolate, corn nuts and combos. A thermos of your favorite hot beverage is great to have on hand too! Also important to remember is to stay hydrated. It’s easy to forget to drink water while on the ice, but you will definitely regret it if you forget.   

Got warmth? You better hope so, because this can end up being the deciding factor if your partner doesn’t like to be cold. Staying warm outdoors in the winter, out on the ice, is absolutely doable, even for someone who isn’t burning with desire to be there. Prep your partner with what to wear, encourage them to dress in layers with warm gloves, thick stocking hat, neck gator, snow pants, and warm, waterproof boots.

The extremities get cold first, so warm gloves and insulated waterproof boots are an absolute must! It is so important that you have boots that fit and are not too tight. If you have thicker socks and your boots pinch, your feet will get cold. You are better off wearing insulated boots and thin socks with room to wiggle the toes.

Personally, I use double layered stocking hats with fleece or heat reflecting technology, fingerless wool gloves or second skin gloves for dexterity and thicker gloves or mittens for set-up and take-down. (I’ve listed some of my favorite items at the end for those of you who are interested and ready to invest a little more into the sport.)

Even if you are comfortable hole hopping without your outer layer on and gloves are optional doesn’t mean it’s the same for everyone, so stock up on propane cannisters for your Mr. Heater and pick up some hand warmer packs to distribute as needed.

Staying Engaged

Knowing what and when to target by simply taking a few hours beforehand to plan out your trip will make or break those first few hours on the ice for your new partner. Do your research ahead of time or go to an already known favorite body of water. Targeting pan fish is probably your best bet, and bluegills are an excellent fish because you can have action-oriented fishing all day and have some tremendous battles with trophy bulls. At the very least, those bluegills will turn into huge ones over time as you relive the memories. 

During the heart of winter, when the ice is thick and the snow is deep, bluegills are fairly predictable. A lot of Wisconsin lakes have man-made cribs or brush piles in or near the main lake basin, and midday most gills will stay close to that cover. But during low light conditions – day break or sunset – the fish feel safer, so they will move up into shallower water away from the cover where it’s easier for them to search for food.

Follow the contours and set up on the shallow side of the structure near the first break or drop off – if there isn’t a drop off, just a gradual decline, look for a change in bottom structure; such as, sand to muck, or gravel.  

Once you’ve found your location, we recommend drilling two holes for your partner, one directly behind the other, and have your protégé help scoop the holes and assist in getting your shanty up, making it fun and interactive.

Also, I’m sorry to break the news, but you have to allow your new partner to use your flasher. The use of electronics can mean action-oriented fishing keeping your partner motivated to stay on the ice, or a long day of staring at a hole. Our Season 15 Episode, Ice Fishing Big Bluegills on Small Northern WI Lakes, we talk more about specific electronic units and why to use them.  Place your transducer in the back hole, which will help eliminate getting tangled when the fish comes up through the hole, and show them how to read the depth and what a fish looks like on screen. They probably don’t need an in-depth how-to on your flasher, but a basic rundown on what to look for will keep them excited and able to watch the lure action, see the fish show up on the screen and chase the bait. 

Presentations and perspective

Once the shanty is up, your Mr. Heater is burning propane, and snacks are within reach, you are ready to battle the bulls! We use ultralight rods, a reel with efficient drag, and micro tackle when targeting panfish.

Basically, there are two different types of profile lures: vertical or horizontal presentations. Typically, we will set up with one of each and see what profile is working the best. Northland Fishing Tackle, a company we use a lot while out on the ice (or open water), has an array of baits for panfish that come in various sizes and colors. Their Forage Minnow Spoon tipped with a wax worm is a great vertical presentation and easy to use because spoons are typically heavier and easier to feel while jigging. And as we all know, keeping a tight line can mean the difference between a hooked fish or a miss. The Forage Spoon is also a slightly larger bait which usually eliminates the smaller fish. Larger bait = larger fish. Bouncing the spoon off the bottom can work to your advantage during feeding windows by stirring up the bottom and getting a curious hungry fish to come over, or it can spook a midday, leery fish deeper into cover.

We use a Mud Bug Jig tipped with a wax worm or a Rigged Mini Smelt for the horizontal presentation and have had great success putting bulls on the ice. The Mud Bug has a slightly larger hook, and using live bait means a harder hit and an easier hook set, while the Mini Fry is much more finesse and typically for a more experienced fisherman. Live bait versus artificial baits can be a personal choice, but live bait with a beginner can absolutely help with getting more bites.

If the newbie is struggling with jigging and spooking more fish than enticing, the never fail dead sticking method can always produce fish. Try using a 1/64-ounce jig tipped with a micro soft plastic dipped in your favorite Baitmate Fish Attractant.

I do want to leave you with one last tip, one that is extremely hard for any avid fisherman. Don’t hold them to your standards, but rather be reasonable in your expectations with whom you are taking. Even if the fish are still biting, or lurking on the screen and you know it’s a big one, even though you only had this one afternoon to fish this week, plan a shorter day and leave while everyone is still having fun. Taking down and packing up takes time, so do this while your partner is still excited and not begging to leave, will prompt a return trip.

How do you know if you were successful? If they want to go again! Now all you need to do is get outside and do it! 

Recommended gear:

Equipment:

  • Tackle: Northland Fishing Tackle* – Mud Bug, Rigged Mini Smelt, and Forage Minnow Spoons are go-to’s for us, but as an expert in the industry Northland has an array of baits.
  • Rod: Kraemer Custom Rods* – open water or ice fishing we use custom built rods, for gills we use the 6 Shooter or AllStar Series for sensitivity and strength.
  • Reel: Shimano Sienna 500 Series – you don’t need to break the bank, just a trustworthy reel with competent drag capability.
  • Line: Berkley Trilene Micro Ice – 2 lb strength
  • Auger: Ion Electric Ice Auger – Lightweight, easy to maneuver and quiet.
  • Electronics: Humminbird Helix 7 Ice or Vexilar FL-18

 

Personal Clothing & Gear:

  • Outerwear: Striker Ice Bibs* – Ladies Prism or Men’s Predator are our favorites. I’ve owned Striker bibs for years now and I absolutely love them, wouldn’t go any other way. Striker also offers a great selection of gloves, hats and other winter accessories.
  • Base layer: Snow Angel or Under Armour Cold Gear
  • I wear various boots, but Muck Boots are a front runner if you need one pair.
  • Indoor/outdoor blanket from Eddie Bauer that is a must in cold weather.
  • Heater – we have own different variations, but the Big Buddy is a must on ice fishing trips.