Ice fishing season will soon be upon us; exactly when is anyone’s guess. Last year, we had good ice where I live on some waters in southern Michigan before Christmas, but by the first of the year, things were wide open again. We even had to abandon our first ice fishing school at Houghton Lake –halfway up the Mitten–because the ice wasn’t safe. I think everyone hopes we don’t have a repeat of that kind of weather this year. The only thing we can count on is we will have ice, maybe not everywhere, but somewhere not too far away.
So, it’s time to start getting your ice-fishing gear together for when it does arrive.
Odds are high that everything you need hasn’t been touched in months, gathering dust in the basement or garage. Your rods are likely fine. A quick check of the line guides for nicks or loose wrappings is helpful, and if you find a problem, attend to it. Make sure your reels are functional. Lube them, loosen the drags completely, retighten them and check them.
I always re-spool my reels. There’s no reason not to, and it’s especially important when using ultralight line. I often use monofilament sewing thread on my panfish rods–stuff that tests at one pound or even less, and any tiny nick makes it vulnerable to breaking, especially if a big fish, like a pike or bowfin, inhales your teardrop. Those toothy critters might cut you off anyway, but why make it easier for them?
You don’t have to replace all of your line; you can add fresh line with a blood knot. If you go this way, add 50 yards–enough that if you get hold of a big fish, you can play it without letting the knot off the reel.
I don’t generally replace the line on my tip-ups every year because the strong braided Dacron rarely breaks down, but I always replace the leader. It’s an inexpensive insurance policy against lost fish.
Moving on, take a look at your tackle boxes; make sure you have all the accessories you need–snaps, swivels, split shots, the whole nine yards. Lay in a supply of extra hooks in case you have to replace some. Make sure you have all the tools you use–nippers, scissors, pliers, hook removers, and whatever else you use. They don’t do you any good if you don’t have them with you. But make sure you use quality gear–I like VMC snaps, swivels and hooks, and I really like Rapala’s scissors, hook removers and other tools.
When looking at your lures, pay attention to the hooks and split rings. If you put them up wet, they may have rusted. If they did, replace them. Don’s take chances. It’s the minor details that are overlooked that often cost you fish. Make sure your hooks are sharp; hone them if they’re not.
If you use a sonar unit–and I highly recommend it–make sure your battery (or batteries, it’s not a bad idea to have a backup power source) is charged so you’re ready to go. The same goes for your auger. Many guys have gone to electric augers and use battery-powered drills. Make sure they’re fully charged, as poorly charged batteries can let you down at any time. And if you use a gas auger, start it up. You don’t want to get out on the ice and find out you can’t get through it.
For a lot of guys, we’ve covered it all already. Plenty of guys fish small lakes and only go out in fair weather. Many ice anglers can carry everything they need in a bucket or, worst case, by pulling a small sled behind them. But if you fish big water or during inclement weather, you need a lot more gear, most notably shelter and transportation.
I always set up my shanty before I go out for the first time. If the weather’s good enough, you can do it in your driveway or backyard, but if the weather’s bad, you can do it in the garage or pole barn. (I always put mine up in the pole barn.) Check it out thoroughly; if mice got into it, for instance, you might find holes or broken zippers that are much more easily fixed at home than a couple of miles out on the ice. And make sure you’ve got it all–poles, stakes, ropes, everything you need. Setting it up will ensure you do. If you’re looking for a new shanty, check out the Clam XT–it’s extra tall, so you can use longer rods for a good hook set without hitting the shanty ceiling.
Make sure your heater is working, and your propane tank is full, or you have enough canisters if you use a small portable, like a Little Buddy.
As for transportation, I use a snowmobile. Some guys prefer quads, and they’ll do much of the time, but it can be tough going on a quad if there’s deep snow, which is always possible. Either way, make sure your vehicle is in good running order. If your quad was running fine during deer season, for instance, you are likely ready. But if you use a snowmobile, odds are you haven’t had it running since the last ice, so start it up. It’s a lot easier to get work done on it before the snow flies, as once it does, you may have to stand in line to get it serviced.
Lay your outerwear in order –odds are you’ve used your long underwear, thermal socks, and probably your boots. But odds are, your ice armor has been hanging in the closet for months.
Lastly, remember your safety equipment–your spud for checking the ice on the way out, rope in case of an emergency, ice spikes, etc. Bad things can happen out there if you’re not ready for it. So do like the Boy Scouts: Be prepared.