Ice Fishing in Extreme Conditions - Part One

As much as we all like to ice-fish on those ‘mild’ winter days, we all end up waking up to some ‘rude’ weather from time to time. Rather than give in and stay home (especially if ‘home’ is a motel or cabin, like it is for me much of the winter), here are some tips for getting the most out of a day on the ice in extreme weather conditions.

Psyche yourself up for it. Fishing through the ice on a really cold day with whipping winds becomes a powerful struggle with your desire to be warm. You obviously have to dress for it, but you also have to get psyched up ahead of time. You know it’s going to be cold, but if you drill one hole and sit there staring at a blank Vexilar screen all afternoon, you might as well stay home. Talk yourself into drilling enough holes, and making enough moves, until you are at least catching fish, even if they’re not monsters.

Sometimes you have to force yourself to get back outside and make a move, because it will eventually lead to catching fish. Set your goal at ‘catching fish,’ and it helps keep your mind on track.

Back to dressing for the conditions… We are fortunate to have the best cold-weather clothing we’ve ever had. Manufacturers are making great long underwear, layering pieces of fleece, and wind-blocking outerwear like IceArmor by Clam Corp. It’s critical to be wearing an outer layer that’s wind- and water-resistant, if not ‘proof.’ If the wind can’t get at you, and you have the right layers underneath, it’s amazing how comfortable you are, even in extremely cold weather. You do have to protect all areas of exposed skin, so find something you like in a hat/neck/face protector, and wear it.

I also have two pairs of ice-fishing boots, one of which I pull out under extreme conditions. I couldn’t return kickoffs wearing my cold-weather boots, but my feet are warm.

I have this suspicion that most people still bring way too much stuff every time they hit the ice. I’m basing this on random inspections of Fish Traps that I see out on the ice. Most people still fill the sled to overflowing, and you don’t need all that stuff every time. Especially on a ‘rude’ weather day, tackle down.

Bring a small sampling of your favorite lures for your target species, and a few things that could catch other species. Rods and reels are fairly light, so I still do bring maybe three pre-rigged outfits for the species I’m after. This is partly because it’s more difficult to tie knots and rig things up on a cold day, so if I break off or want to experiment with different ice jigs, it’s easier to grab another one that’s ready to go.

Which brings up another important point regarding equipment. It’s tempting to leave all your stuff out in the garage or back of your truck overnight, then take off for the lake the next morning. Especially on this type of day, that’s a big mistake. Your reels will often be so stiff that they don’t even work. Your propane bottles are so cold they don’t allow the heater to put out enough heat. Things are frozen and stuck together from last time, and it’s psychologically hard on you to start a project, with a heater that’s underachieving, using fingers that don’t work well. I force myself to bring everything in the house, and check each item so I know it’s working. It’s way easier to do things while you’re sitting at the kitchen table in a t-shirt the night before. (An important and overlooked equipment tip, that really can apply to all winter, is to wipe off the heavy grease most reels have on their gears and replace it with a lighter weight reel oil. You want the gears to have lubrication, but if you lighten the thickness of that lubrication, it will work much better at cold temperatures.)

When you get ready to go fishing, load your warm and well-maintained gear (which has been carefully selected to keep overall weight to a minimum) into the truck and head to the lake. You will be happy at how well everything performs, even in the cold.

Choose your fishing spot with the weather in mind. This is not the day to tackle a new lake, unless you are traveling and have no choice. If you can, go to a proven spot. Go to your best spot first, rather than saving it for later like you might do on a nicer day. Plan to make ’small moves’ on the proven spot until you find a concentration of fish, rather than running all over the lake and drilling a few holes at each spot. If you are fishing an unfamiliar body of water, either go to a cluster of permanent houses and fish the fringes of it, or use your contour map to find the best-looking area, protected from the wind if possible. You will last longer, and fish better, if you don’t have to fight the teeth of the wind. You’re not trying to prove that you’re tough, you’re trying to catch fish and have as much fun as possible.

Well, that takes us right up to the point where we’re ready to hit the ice. Next time, the fine points of fishing as well as you can under extreme weather conditions.

First published December 2005

Winter Fishing Systems, Inc 2019