Hard Water Angling – Ice Fishing Basics

As I sit on the frozen lake, double checking to make sure that we have just the right amount of tip-ups out, I’m drawn to a sight I’ve seen countless times. The Osprey nest in the same dead tree in the middle of the lake that it has been in since I began driving by the lake many years ago. Its twigs intertwined perfectly to create a nest so big that a picture can do it no justice. That’s my favorite time of year and in my favorite spot to be. Shaggers Inn Lake near Goshen PA. I’ve finally made it to my spot. 

 Tis The Season

The Pennsylvania rifle season has come to an end. It’s the second Saturday in December and Christmas is right around the corner. My phone rings. It’s my best friend, hunting and fishing partner, Dylan. 

He focuses my attention to the freezing temps outside. We note how a good week of temps in the teens will provide us just the right amount of ice to get on any of our smaller lakes. 4 inches are what is recommended and what we normally look for if we are going in bigger groups but, when it’s just the two of us, three inches will suffice. 

I hang up with Dylan and not much longer, the phone rings again. It’s our good friend Ped. We were able to turn him on to hard water angling while in college just a few years before. He reminds me of the time that we ran out of bait because the fish were so active and one of us had to run for more. He tells the story of being on Lake Rowena in Ebensburg and calling up the local Pizza Hut and the delivery guy meeting us at the edge of the lake, of course we tipped him well. Just like Dylan, he too is excited for the upcoming hard water season. Just before hanging up, we both agree that we better get our tip-ups ready for the upcoming season. 

What To Bring

Apparel    

While it goes without saying, the proper apparel makes any outing that much more successful. If you are dressed properly, you will stay warm and dry. While each person has their own preference on what to wear for ice fishing, you are about to read a few of the suggestions from the author.

In terms of footwear, I always recommend a well-insulated rubber boot. These not only keep your feet dry, but warm as well. While we are on footwear, I will make a mention of socks as well. I have no specific brand or type of sock to pair with the boots I wear for ice fishing (muck boots) but I do recommend wearing a thick pair of socks that you may use for any outdoor hunting or hiking excursion. 

Long johns, or a good base layer are next. Again, this is all a personal preference and weather dependent. I generally wear an Under Armor base layer and if temps are cool enough, I will wear a second, fleece base layer. Layering up is crucial as you can always shed a layer if necessary. The classic saying, I’d rather have it and not need it then need it and not have it, plays into effect here. 

The next layer can vary from trip to trip. On the cool temp, into the teens, days, you may want to wear your snow gear. For me, this is a thick pair of camo coveralls. Again, if I need to, I can always shed a layer or even leave the zipper down to help regulate my temperature. 

On warmer days, I have been able to wear my base layer underneath a pair of blue jeans, sweatshirt and quite often my brown Carhartt jacket. Those sunny days when the temps are in the low 30s, they are the days that feel rather warm on the frozen lake as the sun will reflect back up from the lake as well. Again, layering is key to staying warm. 

The last two articles are personal preference. I always take a warm beanie as well as a good pair of gloves. The trick with gloves is to keep them dry. Either take an extra pair of gloves, use waterproof gloves or remove them while working in the water. Hand warmers are always a welcome accessory on the lake as well. 

Angling

We have developed a lot over the years in terms of the gear that we take with us now but, I will mention just the necessities to get you started. 

The first and possibly most important tool is an auger. We have used many sizes of augers over the years but have had just as much success using a six inch auger as our now eight inch auger. Sharp blades are key to successful and stress free drilling. I would recommend having them sharpened once a year. 

An ice scoop is next. You’ll need a good scoop to clear the ice chips and snow from the freshly drilled hole. I always put it off to the side of the hole far enough that it won’t fall back into the hole later. 

Tip-ups or jigging poles are next. A tip-up is a set up that does the fishing for you. Generally they are placed in the hole and the bait is placed a distance below. A flag or indicator of some sort usually raises to let you know you have a bite. There is special braided line on the tip-up followed by an ice line attached to a leader for best results after. Then depending on your bait, you will want either a single hook or treble hook. 

One heavy sinker about 4 inches above your bait will suffice and a mark of some sort (we use buttons or small split shot) to mark the depth of your preference after a fish bites so you can get it to the same depth each time. 

A jigging pole works similar to how you would jig if fishing from a boat or dock. These poles are generally less than 24 inches in size and have a very light action, allowing each fish to feel as though it’s a monster. Grab an ice jig and use the bait of your choice or jig a spoon. Patience is a must but each fish just a rewarding as the last. 

One more piece of equipment that will ensure a successful trip is a sled or a bucket to help haul your gear. I have seen everything from and old trapping backpack to a five gallon bucket to the “kids” old sled used for this. While there are many options available at many different hunting and fishing outfitters, there’s no need to spend the money when you have cheaper options at your disposal. 

Bait

    One final thing that makes for a successful trip is having the right bait. This is something that each angler has a different preference on but, over the years of ice fishing, my group and I have found that fat head minnows are key. They are extremely versatile and catch many different types of fish. If you are going to a lake and just looking to catch fish, I recommend minnows. We have taken wax worms, meal worms, night crawlers and shiners as well. All of these have produced fish for us but, not to the extent of minnows. 

Weight was mentioned above but it won’t hurt to have it mentioned again. You’ll want both a larger and smaller size split shot. The larger size will be used just above your bait to keep it down. The smaller size can be used as a marker for your tip-ups to ensure that you get your line to the same depth after each catch. One more weight that is useful is a depth finder. These often have a clip and clip right on to your hook. Let the depth finder hit the bottom. From there, we normally pull the bait off the bottom between 12 and 24 inches and put a small split shot to keep our depth each time.

Lastly, hooks. Since we normally fish minnows, we often use a size 12 or 14 treble hook. Hooking the minnow in the back so that it still swims naturally below the ice. If using worms of any kind, a size 10 single hook seems to do the trick. 

As with most outings, it’s important to take plenty of extras of everything just in case you would happen to lose anything down a hole. 

Closing Remarks

While just like most sports, ice fishing is all in what you make of it. It is fishing and not catching by any means. One day may be more successful than the next. I always recommend checking the ice conditions and having the proper safety devices handy in the case that a break through may happen. Always let someone know where you will be fishing and an idea of when you may be home so that they can be watching for you. Never ice fish alone. Having a buddy fish with you will be key in safety. Also, having someone to enjoy the day with is always more fun. Take some of your favorite snacks with you. You’ll want them for the slower times. And lastly, just go to have fun. I’ve seen people build a snowman, make snow angels, have snowball fights and so much more. Make the most of it and have fun!

Adam Uncapher Ice Fishing

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About Adam Uncapher

Small town Pennsylvania school teacher with a love of the outdoors.