I’ve always been a big fan of fishing, and when the temperature drops and the lakes freeze over it’s the perfect time to try your hand at ice fishing. You can catch almost all the same fish as you’ll find in the lake during summer, and if you’re stuck and looking for protein in a survival situation it’s a reliable food source when everything else looks like an icy wasteland.
But I also want to give a word of warning. Walking out onto a frozen lake to fish can be dangerous, especially if the ice isn’t thick enough. Falling into the water will send your body into shock as hypothermia hits, and if you’re out there alone it can be a death sentence if you’re not able to get out of the water. Always go fishing with a buddy, and never walk on ice that’s less than four inches thick. Any weird colors, cracks or ridges should be avoided as these are telltale signs the ice is breaking up and isn’t safe to be out on.
Don’t go without gear
And when I say gear, you’re going to need warm, winter clothing that’s a little thicker than what you’d usually wear in the same conditions on a hike or in the outdoors. Because you’re going to be sitting on the ice without moving around all that much, and you will get cold fast. Fishing isn’t fun when you’re freezing, so bring the right gear to keep yourself warm, wear thick socks and boots that won’t let your toes get cold. And throw in a few Mylar survival blankets just in case. Layering works best for me, because I can add (or remove) items as the temperature changes throughout the day. Getting too warm will cause you to sweat and then you’ll get the chills.
Make a hole in the ice
It’s easier to select the best fishing spots if it’s a lake you know, and once you have a specific spot in mind that you want to fish, you need to make a hole in the ice. Scrape off the top layers of snow and ice with a small shovel, and then use either an ice pick, a chisel or an auger to cut out a hole to fish. My cousin swears that a chainsaw is actually the easiest of all, and having seen it in action last winter I’m inclined to agree (if a little dangerous). You’ll need to cut through the ice to reveal the unfrozen lake beneath, and clear out any ice debris in the hole that you’ve just made. A shovel works well for this.
Consider a shelter
We don’t go ice fishing enough to warrant building a permanent shelter and dragging it out onto the ice, but having a small pop-up version is a good alternative. It’s quick to assemble when you get out on the lake, and once it’s up over the spot you want to fish it makes the whole experience a lot more enjoyable, especially if you’re bringing your family with you. Look for one that keeps the rain off, and is strong enough to withstand the gusts on the lake to cut the wind chill factor down. I also find the holes don’t re-freeze as quickly when we’ve got a shelter up around them which is nice too.
Drop your lines in
Ice fishing is pretty easy fishing. You’ve got a little rod with a lure or a jig, that you drop into the hole, and start jigging. If there are fish nearby they’ll get attracted to the movements and come take a bite, and once they’re hooked you can just reel them in and pull them up and through the hole to land your fish. But for me, I’ve always found that baiting my hooks gives me a better hit rate, so don’t rely on lures alone. You’ll want to use worms, mealworms or even cut bait from an earlier catch. These all stay on the hooks well and adds a stronger scent that will attract in fish from a wider area to your fishing hole.
Don’t forget a tip up
If you’re wanting to increase your chances of getting a hit, you’ll need to invest in a set of tip ups. A fishing device that functions a little like a trap, in that you can bait and set your lines at a variety of different holes you’ve cut in the ice, and if one of the baits gets taken the flag tips up, so you can clearly see there’s a fish on the line. Spools on the line are left open so the fish doesn’t get spooked, and once you notice you can head over and retrieve your catch. Personally, I’m a fan of these as they maximize your chances of bringing home dinner, which in a survival situation could be the difference between going hungry or not.
Remember your safety
We touched on the importance of not straying onto thin ice, but you should also consider having the tools on you that will allow you to quickly get out of the water if you do fall in. Ice picks on your belt or wrists, as well as a dry change of clothes (undergarments at least), and everything you need to rapidly get a fire going to get warmed up. Firestarter and tinder is difficult to find during winter, but once you’ve got a small flame going the smaller tinder you’ll find will dry and catch rather quickly if you’re carefully building a teepee with it all.
Just because it’s winter it doesn’t mean you can get out in the great outdoors for a fish, and there are plenty there for the catching. You just need the right approach, the right gear, and the right attitude to get out fishing once the lake has frozen over and you’ll be surprised at the life that’s still there, under the ice. My kids are always amazed at the fish they catch through the ice, and I know you will be too.