Like George Washington, I cannot tell a lie. With that said, I’m here to tell you ice fishing is not easy. Then again, nothing you do is simple in the midst of the coldest part of the year. No matter what sport, equipment used during the winter months needs to be able to withstand use and abuse in sub-zero air temperatures.
There’s no doubting the biggest advances in fishing equipment over the past decade have been made in gear for catching fish through the ice. And most every apparatus made is more than just a gadget; they are tools for better success of catching more fish, and, staying safe and comfortable.
To tell you the truth, I didn’t realize just how much these new tools of the ice-fishing trade had progressed until a few years back, during the first few Ice-Fishing Vacation Schools (fishingvactionschool.com) put on by fishing professionals Mike Gofron, Roth Grothe, Mark Brumbaugh and me. During the three-plus day course, we instructors break away from the large group setting and work one on one with students, helping them understand all aspects of ice fishing while using their own equipment.
In the past, at the beginning of the school, students receive some of the newest equipment available as part of their schooling. It was after some students replaced their vintage gear—some pieces I hadn’t seen the likes of in a long time—I realized just how much modern ice-fishing devices had advanced, and, in such short period of time.
Of course rods and reels are lighter than ever; line more subtle yet stronger; lures morel life-like; hooks sharper; electronics more powerful; clothing warmer. And the devices to haul them with, as well those to keep us organized and safe are better than ever, too.
When it comes to feeling hits, setting the hook and reeling in fish, nothing vintage beats today’s ice rods, reels and line. This gear is not just the same used in warm weather, but manufactured to withstand the harsh environments of ice fishing.
Take, for example, Berkley’s LX Ice Combo – a 26-inch graphite rod, with bonus spring bobber in the tip, matched with a balanced 2-ball-bearing ultra-light reel (and bonus pack of Berkley PowerBait Wigglers). The combo fits well in the hand and is light in weight so as not to fatigue your arm after an all-day session on ice. I also own a few custom hand-tied ice rods, and to those I adorn an ABU Garcia Cardinal 400I series (ultra light 400Ui or light C401i) spinning reel. These reels are light in weight and have a smooth drag, which is needed for large or hard-fighting fish that make hard runs.
In comparison, during my days of youth, some of my ice-fishing “rods” consisted of nothing more than a stick (literally) carved from hardwood, with Dacron line wrapped around the handle rather than spooled on a reel; not the most sensitive or light-weight rig, for sure.
Modern-day ice lines’s really had a makeover from those of yesteryear, as well. Nowadays, they are made from materials that have the perfect amount of stretch and stay soft in the cold. Berkley Cold Weather line, for example, is a monofilament (mono) that has the same stretch at below-freezing temperatures as regular mono does at 70 degrees Fahrenheit – great for live bait rigging. Their Micro Ice, on the other hand, has less stretch and is perfect for jigging. Both are colored so as to be seen easily by the angler on the ice, but are nearly invisible to fish below it.
Super line for ice fishing, such as Berkley’s FireLine Micro Ice Fused Crystal, is manufactured so as not to absorb water and freeze up on your reel, and, its nearly-no-stretch properties make it a great line for jigging in deep water. And to ward off line twist when ice fishing in deep water, I tie on a tiny Berkley ball-bearing swivel and use a leader of Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon, which has very low stretch and is nearly invisible in water.
When jigging, I connect my lure to my line with a small Berkley Cross-Loc snap (not snap-swivel as there’s too much hardware on the lure and will impede the lure’s action). And by far, the best lures I use have a minnow silhouette and swimming or wobbling action, such as a Rapala Jigging Rap or spoons such as Luhr-Jenson’s Crippled Herring and Hus Lure.
All these lures have VMC hooks on them, sticky-sharp right out of the package. And when replacing a damaged or hooks dulled beyond sharpening repair, I use Diichi hooks of the same size, which are also super sharp right from the start. When live bait fishing, whether on a deadstick or under a tip-up, I again use Diichi bait and treble hooks.
Sight Not Unseen
Of course I must talk about today’s electronic for ice fishing, such as sonar, GPS and underwater cameras. There’s no doubt, all the aforementioned have changed the way I ice fish.
The Lowrance Elite-5 IceMachine Color Fishfinder/Chartplotter I use nowadays is an amazing machine. Improved over the sonar of yesteryear it has a larger, easier-to-read-in-sun-light screen and built-in 16-channel GPS antenna, just name a few. The unit also has a card reader so I can install a Navionics mapping program.
Overall, sonar allows me to know if there are fish under me when I first get to a hole, and then lets me see fishin moving in to the strike zone, permitting me to be ready for a strike. GPS also lets me get to a spot and back to shore without worry. With the mapping program, I can see the lay of the underwater land below me, fish precisely on structure, and find new areas to fish.
Underwater cameras, by far, are one of the best learning tools I use. From the 8-inch screen of my MarCum VS825SD color underwater camera, I not only spot fish eyeing my lures, but can observe how they react to different lure actions. And, I actually catch more fish because I can see the hit well before I feel it, thus set the hook before they spit it out.
Never A Cold Shoulder
What other items allow me a better day on ice? Warm clothing; from head to toe, I now stay warmer with modern-day outerwear and base layers. And fishing from within a portable shanty, well, that goes without saying. But there’s more to them than meet the eye.
Yes, it’s true, there’s even clothing made just for ice anglers, such as the entire line of Clam Corporation’s IceArmor. From headwear, handwear, footwear, base layers, bibs and parkas, IceArmor is manufactured for the ice angler at heart. All the above mentioned are water resistant, so even when walking in slush or kneeling on the ice, I stay dry and warm all day (and sometimes night) long.
Once in my Otter Pro Extreme Thermal Resort (portable shanty—the ultimate insulated hut—I can get out of a few layers of IceArmor and stay toasty warm. But fishing from within this shanty is about more than just being warm: I can concentrate on the bite better from within, it covers my silhouette, and the deep sled of the unit is perfect for hauling lots of gear.
When my Otter overhead, it stops the wind from grabbing my line and I can detect strikes better. And on clear ice, especially when fishing in shallow water, this dark house keeps my movements from being seen by fish below. And the quilted 900 Denier material muffles any sound I might make, which also keeps me from spooking fish so easily.
As for hauling gear, my Otter shanty has a super-deep sled that has more room than even I can fill full of gear. It’s perfect for a long day’s ice fishing.
Not Just Modified
As you can see, modern-day ice-fishing equipment is not just warm-weather gear modified to be used on ice, but products made just for ice fishing. Because of this, it all last longer, and, keep me safer and dryer than ever before.
Mark Martin is an instructor with the Ice-Fishing Vacation/School (fishingvacationschool.com), as well a professional walleye tournament angler with Anglers Insight marketing (AIM: aimfishing.com). Visit Mark’s website (markmartins.net) for more information on any of the aforementioned products.