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Beginning Ice Fishing - Grass Roots

By Brian Athern - January 1, 2001
From an onlooker's point of view, how should the quest to become an ice fisherman start? There are some basics to keep in mind, including who, where, and what to begin with.

I began my quest asking people that I'd spent time with during the open water season. Sifting through those who had any experience, one mechanic I worked with in Berwyn invited me to go out with him.

Next, I began to inquire about the necessities; how to dress, what to bring, and the tackle we'd be using. Since he enjoyed the Fox Chain O' Lakes action in the winter, yellow bass (stripers), crappie, bluegill, and perch would be our primary targets. I needed only to spool on 2# Trilene Cold Weather line on my UL reel, purchase a 24 inch South Bend Micro Series Rod, a pair of ice cleats, and I was fishing. Today, kits like South Bend's Ice Anglers Complete Combo are recommended for the first timer, just add a pair of ice cleats!

Ted supplied the shack (which he sold to me later), the auger, the heaters for the trip, and the hot Custom Jigs and Spins' Poppee, Ratfinkees, and Striper Specials. We stopped up near the Chain at Triangle Sports for bait, introducing me to the weird but highly effective "wigglers".

Although the Chain was new to me, I went with someone who had spent a considerable amount of time on the water. Of course this made finding fish and locating structure easier, training me as to what to look for. Since I fish many smaller southwest Cook County waters, finding fish is less of a task with less of an area to cover. Again, panfish are the most abundant and the easiest to target with our efforts.

Tagging along with my brother-in-law Ken Kouba on occasions, the Plainfield fishing clubs offer ice fishing rewards, too. Besides bass, the club he belongs to hosts a slew of panfish, walleye, pike, and stocked rainbow trout. For the larger species, I have purchase a med/light action ice rod to tackle those chores. This environment offers plenty of "hands on" training for new ice anglers as well.

The best advice anyone could ever give about heading out on the ice is to dress in layers. Although I wear insulated coveralls, I start with a warm t-shirt, thermal underwear top to bottom, a flannel shirt, an insulated sweatshirt, jeans or sweatpants, and then the coveralls. In the unfortunate event someone falls in, I pack extras including socks in my truck. A thermal fleece face mask tops off my noggin' and I wear thinsulate mitten/gloves for the walk out. Once situated in the shack, I then switch to a pair of Stearn's neoprene gloves for fishing. Inside my 100 below Sorel Pak Boots, I wrap my feet with one pair of cotton socks and then insulated wool. Remember, a minimum of 40 below is key for warmth and comfort.

After determining the type of fishing you'll be enjoying, selecting the fish catching "stuff" is next. As mentioned for panfish, UL South Bend Micro rods and UL reels work fine when spooled with 2# Trilene Cold Weather. Line diameter varies with fishing needs but packing an extra med/lt combo and spare spools of 4-8# varieties would be helpful. You don't need to fill the entire spool either, just add 30-40 yards and start fishing.

I carry an assortment of tiny ice jigs like Teardrops, Mousies, Perch Eyes, Rockers, Poppees, Demons, Ratfinkees, and Striper Specials in sizes 16-8 for panfish. Popular colors are glow, pink, pearl, chartruse, orange, lime, black combos, and purple. Many shops feature these jigs made by Little Gem's Tackle, Custom Jigs and Spins, Gapen Lures, Little Atom, and South Bend in bulk discounts. Build your collection a few at a time if need be, just remember that smaller in winter is better.

Good baits to tip those jigs with are essential. Waxworms, spikes, and wigglers are some of my favorites and keep well in the cold. Minnows may be needed in whole or pieces to add to popular jigging lures. For yellow bass and perch, it's often necessary to tip a jigging Rapala or Swedish Pimple with a minnow head. Other cold water baits include mousies and Euro larvae (colored spikes) that also can be effective.

Next, a quality ice auger to drill holes is needed. A Strike Master Mora or Laser Auger in 4-5 inch diameter will work nicely for popping holes in the ice in search of panfish. Larger diameter augers would be needed for bass, walleye, and northern pike. A 5 inch Laser is a good initial investment and replacement blades are available as your auger ages.

Lastly, don't forget safety on the ice. Minimum ice thickness should be 3 inches or more for anyone venturing out on foot. The use of a spud bar to check the ice's condition is also a good idea. Bring along South Bend's Ice Escape tool or picks of life in case an angler falls through. Also, pack 30-50 feet of nylon boat anchor rope with a small weight or stick attached as a throwing device. Resort to going to a person as a last ditch effort, but lie down on the ice to displace your body's weight. Unless snow cover is excessive, a good pair of ice cleats is also recommended.

Dress appropriately knowing if you get too warm you can always take something off, hook up with a friend, and hit the hard water. Bring your gear in a 5 gallon bucket and double the empty carrier as a seat. Target some willing panfish and enjoy the frosty fishing season in the great outdoors!

Good Fishing!

Author Brian Athern
Brian Athern
Brian J. Athern is a Field Editor with MidWest Outdoors Magazine, Fishing Facts Magazine and has also worked with the former If you have any questions or comments regarding this article you can email Brian at [email protected]
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