Tuesday, December 4, 2018
A brief introduction to fishing through a hole in the lake
So we have a couple newbies heading onto the ice at Lake John this week, Rick and Alan, prompting me to put a few ideas together on how they might want to get started in this sport of ice fishing.
Now I would modestly say I am close to the best ice angler in the club -- but only in the sense that I try to stand close to Norm Engelbrecht when we fish together. Norm is pretty darned good at this, but I would add that Dave Harem was probably even better. (The rascal up and died on us). Norm and Dave shared one – no, two -- common traits that made them pretty good companions on the ice: a willingness to get out there when it’s cold and windy without whining about it too much; and a willingness to try different things to see what works on that particular day on that particular body of water.
When you’re just starting out, resist the temptation to visit Jax or Sportsman’s ice fishing shelves. You may find you're better off waiting until gentle, warm days and spring wildflowers. Just be sure to wear warm, windproof clothes and borrow whatever else you need, including hand warmers. I’m bad enough when it comes to having excessive equipment, but Merle for one could start a used tackle store.
If you do decide to plunge in and invest, and you already have a good ultralight spinning reel, you may want to use that reel rather than pay for an ice fishing combo. Put your money into as sensitive a rod as your spouse thinks you can afford. You’ll get better equipment for your buck. Just switch your line to about 4- or even 2-pound fluorocarbon or braid designed to stay flexible when it’s really cold outside. (If you use braid, add a short fluorocarbon leader under a small, size 10 or so, barrel swivel. (Tying really fine braid to really fine fluoro under winter conditions can be a bitch. You'll find a swivel is easier to work with, and reduces line twist.)
Anyway, for now, just get your hands on one or two ice rods.
They generally run from 24 to 33 inches long. You’ll want one with a ridiculously flexible tip section and stout backbone. (It’s harder to explain how to play fish with this kind of rig than it is to just laugh at you the first time or two you hook one of decent size. You’ll eventually figure it out. Again, you want something that helps you detect the most subtle bites you can envision. Lake trout/walleye type rods have a place in ice fishing, but they’re kind of the equivalent of a medium-heavy casting rod, and not as much fun landing a fish through a tiny hole in the ice. You want something with a really sensitive tip section, to help you detect and react to the subtle bites that can make this type of fishing such a challenge.
You begin with a hole in the ice. The trick here is to fish with someone with an auger, and bribe them with possibly unwarranted praise and an occasional cup of coffee. As winter progresses, and the ice gets thicker, you can’t beat a power auger. But early on you can get along just fine with a less expensive hand auger, by outfits like Strikemaster or Eskimo. An increasing number in the club are going to a hand auger powered by an 18-volt drill. I’ve seen them work well, and have one, but I really need a more powerful drill to make it work right. So I stick to drilling by hand, or telling the guy with a power auger how strong and good looking he is.
For Lake John, known for fast-growing, husky trout, you’ll basically use the same techniques we try on Front Range stockers: a tiny (1/16, 1/32 oz. jig, preferably tungsten, preferably glow in the dark, with a 12- to 14-size hook. They come in all sorts of bright colors, which may attract fishermen more than fish, but hey, you never know. Sometimes changing colors really seems to help. I like hot pink, yellow/chartreuse and sometimes white. Besides the little jigs, you should try a tiny tube jig, like the Berkley Powerbait Atomic Teaser. Pink's good. You can also jig up and down with something like a Rapala Jigging Rap, which I like, or small spoons like the Kastmaster, in gold or silver.
Whatever, we generally tip the hook with one or two live wax worm or meal worms, sometimes pieces of nightcrawler or frozen raw shrimp. If the fishing's slow, go to a fresh worm every 15 minutes or so. In the past year or so, I’ve mostly migrated to Gulp Alive! or other tiny, scented plastics that have come onto the market recently, and seem to change about once a month. If those work well the day you’re fishing, you’ll find them less messy and tedious to work with. But keep wax worms handy.
Also, if you have a second rod stamp, and most of us do, you can fish in two holes about 18 to 24 inches apart. In one you can jig it up and down like a marionette, which sometimes serves as an attractant to aggressive trout, or wiggle it ever so gently to trick the suspicious ones. In the other hole, I generally dead stick a bait – 6 to 12 inches of the bottom under a bobber. Not infrequently that’s where you get a bite, after jigging your arm off. I suspect the movement in one hole draws wary fish within range of the second, for an easy meal.
Lake John is really clear, with visibility usually 8-10 feet or more this time of year. If you lay down on the ice and cover your head and the hole, you can generally see all the way to the bottom. Myself, I have a one-man hut, and a Vexilar fish finder, which works even better for spying on our prey. They've helped me learn that I probably get twice as many trout come really close to my bait than ever commit to a bite. They’ll often pull up close to your lure, just look and look and look, and then swim away. Sometimes, rather than bite, they’ll just swat your best offering with their tails, and then swim away.
It’s one of the reasons ice fishing can be so addictive.