Lou Reuter
Michael Hyde Jr. of Tupper Lake proudly displays one of two tagged salmon caught during the 26th annual Colby Classic ice fishing derby in Saranac Lake last year.
Joe Hackett
Clockwise from the center, this display of ice fishing gear includes: 1. A packbasket full of tip-ups nestled in a small plastic sled; 2. A 5-gallon bucket topped with a wooden tip-up; 3. A hand auger; 4. A metal ice skimmer; 5. A small tackle box with jigs and lures; 6. A pair of neoprene gloves topped with ice picks; and 7. An ice fishing rod in a rod holder and a plastic tip-up.
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Ice fishing, aka hardwater angling, is a popular pastime practiced primarily along the ice belt, a cold-weather zone located north of the 41st parallel that spans the globe. In the United States, the pursuit is enjoyed from the far northwest through the Great Lakes and into New England.

Although ice fishing is primarily a consumptive activity intended to put food on the table, it remains a popular social activity that is regularly enjoyed by anglers of all ages and abilities.

In the Adirondacks, the ice fishing season begins at a time when days grow short, the air gets cold and the boredom seems endless. For folks who don’t ski, skate or ride a sled, ice fishing may be the best way to enjoy the notoriously long, cold and dreary North Country winters.

Historically, after the region’s lakes cover over with ice, shanty towns sprout up as hardwater anglers begin to haul their ice shacks onto the ice. In some Adirondack communities, such as Port Henry on Lake Champlain, shanties can be rented by the day, with taxi services to get you on the ice and deliver everything from fresh bait to a warm lunch or a legal beverage.

Ice fishing differs from open water angling primarily due to the fact that there is no casting or trolling involved. It does require similar elements of patience while waiting for fish to strike. It can also be a very labor-intensive pursuit. It requires plenty of walking, often through deep snow while dragging a load of gear. Anglers must also drill numerous holes through the hard ice and expend thousands of calories in the effort to fend off the cold.

It isn’t always easy, but it sure can be fun.

Early ice provides some of the most productive angling opportunities of the hardwater season for a variety of fish, including perch, northern pike, bass and salmon. 

         Fish are more often on the feed in the early season since they have been unhampered by anglers for several months. They are not as wary as they will become later in the season.

When a lake is completely frozen, the warmest water will be 39.2 degrees and it will be found near the bottom of the water column since it is denser.

As a result, warm water fish — including bass, pike and perch — will be more active near the bottom, where warmer water is found. Occasionally, northern pike will be looking up, so setting a minnow just 2 to 3 feet below the ice can be particularly productive.

Cold water species, such as trout and salmon are commonly found much higher in the water column, often less than a foot or so under the ice.

Ice fishing is not always about the size of the prize. Many anglers simply appreciate the peace and solitude of spending a snowy winter day secluded in a warm hut on a desolate lake. There are also the naturally entertaining events provided by otters, bald eagles and the ever-present ravens. Birds and otters are often waiting for an opportunity to pilfer a free meal.

The basics

In order to get involved, anglers need some basic equipment, a current New York fishing license and fundamental knowledge about where fish can be found during the winter months. It is also helpful to have plenty of warm clothes and knowledge of how to stay warm in winter weather.

Caution is advisable with early- and late-season ice. Anglers should avoid areas around inlets and outlets, where there is current under the ice or run-off coming into the lake. Such areas can be dangerous.

You will also need an ice auger to drill through the ice. The choices include a hand-operated auger, which is relatively inexpensive and lightweight, or a gas-powered auger, which is rather expensive and considerably heavier. Avid anglers prefer gas augers. With either option, it is very important to keep the blades sharp and rust free.

Ice spuds, which were traditionally used to chop a hole through the ice, are rarely used anymore, especially in the Adirondacks where the ice forms very thick. 

Method to the madness

There are two basic methods for fishing through the ice. One involves jigging a lure with a short rod and small reel, while the other requires the use of a tip up, a static device with a spool of line that is set over a hole. Current New York fishing regulations permit anglers to utilize up to five tip ups and two hand lines.

Tip ups come in a variety of sizes and shapes, both wooden and plastic. Typically baited with live baitfish, when a fish strikes, the device triggers a small flag that “tips up” to indicate a hit. Then the fun begins.

Most anglers set tip ups and also utilize a small jigging rod. Ice rods come in many different types and models, and are usually spooled with an 8- to 10-pound test, braided ice-fishing line or flyline backing.

Monofilament line is not often used since it becomes stiff and tangles easily when cold. If jigging rods are left unattended, they are usually placed in a light and stable metal rod holder and set up with live bait.

Additional equipment needs include a 5-gallon bucket for carrying baitfish, which doubles as a seat. An old sheet rock compound container will work well.

Other gear needed will include a small tackle box with an assortment of small jigs, spoons, hooks and split shot, as well as a skimmer to clear ice chips from the hole.

The shanty

It’s also very helpful to have a fishing shanty outfitted with a stove or portable heater for shelter from the wind and cold. In recent years, portable fishing shanties or clam shelters have become very popular.  These are lightweight and easy to set up, allowing anglers to change locations easily.

Portable pop-up hunting blinds make an excellent alternative shanty. They are lightweight, easily transported, quick to set up and do not have a floor. It helps to use a piece of carpet or a foam pad for insulation, especially when there is no snow cover.

Shanties must be anchored with ice screws or lag screws, so they don’t blow away. It’s also wise to support a shanty on 4” x 4” timbers to prevent it from freezing into the ice. It is important to note that New York state regulations require shanties to be clearly marked with the owner’s name and address in 3-inch letters. Shanties must be removed from the ice by March 15. Tip ups must also be marked with the owner’s name and address.

When the ice is clear and smooth, I wear ice cleats on my boots for traction. I carry both a throw rope, and a set of ice picks for safety. Ice picks are headwater PFD’s that are worn around the neck. If you go through, the picks can be stabbed into the ice to pull yourself out. 

In order to haul all the gear onto the ice, most anglers use some sort of sled. Although many prefer to design their own sleds, a plastic kid’s sled offers an inexpensive alternative that works quite well.

Where to go and what to do

With equipment in tow, it helps to know where to go. If you are just starting out, walk around the lake and look for groups of other anglers. Don’t be afraid to ask for advice. In general, hardwater anglers are a friendly group and most will be happy to help you out. Often, the guys with power augers will even be willing to drill a few holes to help you get started.

Portable depth finders/fish locators can help to locate the structure where fish can be found. They can read right through the ice.

If a location gets too crowded or if the fishing slows, move away from the group and fish near the edges of the activity. Often, activity or commotion above will cause fish to move a short distance away. This is when fishing the edges can really pay off.

Don’t be afraid to share information with others. You don’t need to give them exact locations, but share depth, lure styles and angling techniques. Your courtesy will be returned many times over.

Ice fishing requires patience, as does any angling activity. However, if you don’t find any activity in the first hour of fishing, be prepared to move to another location. Don’t sit and wait, go mobile.  

Possibly the most important piece of ice fishing equipment is your gloves, which must be light enough to detect strikes or handle small hooks and minnows, yet warm enough to keep your fingers from going numb. Pair them with heavy mittens that can be slipped on and off easily. I prefer lightweight neoprene gloves or SealSkins brand, which are waterproof and have a warm lining.

Don’t forget sunglasses, which can prevent the agony of a blinding “squint headache,” and sunscreen, which can protect against sunburn that is still possible after spending a bright sunny day on the white lake ice.

On extremely cold or on warm days, ice becomes very elastic and the regular booming, rumbling and cracking will take some getting used to. Often, you have to override the instinct to run, but with two feet of solid ice under foot, there’s little reason to worry.

Tricks of the trade

Productive anglers begin their season well before the ice sets up. They know where weed beds are located and where structures such as shoals, sunken timber and drop-offs can be found. They know where the fish will school up.

So, before setting out, determine where you want to fish and what time you expect the bite to start, and get there early. Fish early and late in low light conditions and concentrate on the best spots during a steady or falling barometer.

Often, there will be a flurry of activity for an hour or so, as the sun comes up and again before the sun sets. It’s best to have holes drilled and your tip-ups set, at least one hour before the prime time.

It’s also very important to keep noise and motion to a minimum, especially when targeting panfish, which are often found in fairly shallow waters of 10 feet or less.

Remember, ice is transparent and fish are instinctively nervous of shadows, since birds are their primary predators. If possible, set up in an area of ice that has snow cover, which will help muffle noises and hide movement.

Be aware of vibrations from augers, snowmobiles and 4-wheelers. These unnatural sounds will cause fish to move away quickly, or go off the bite. Don’t move around any more than necessary. Bring along a comfortable folding camp chair to help you sit still.

When jigging, drop your lure to the bottom and raise it up two times and then let the lure float back down. Fish will often strike on the drop. It takes a while to get used to their light hits.

Vary the presentation. Sometimes fish want more action, other days they want the bait almost motionless. Use the lightest line possible for more lifelike presentations. This is especially true in the clear water conditions. When the fishing gets real slow, downsize your lures and bait. 

Possibly the most popular jigging lures are the Swedish Pimple and the Jigging Rapala, which come in sizes ranging from about 1.5- to 3.5-feet long. The Jigging Rapala is a fish imitation that darts horizontally when it is jigged.

However, metal spoons and feathered jigs can also be very productive, especially when tipped or “sweetened” with a grub, a perch eye, or a maggot. Increasingly, imitation grubs such as Berkely Power Wigglers, or a small slice of a Gary Yamamoto Senko, have become popular. When jigging, keep jigs really close to the bottom.

Some anglers prefer to use small weighted “ice flies,” which are tiny weighted jigs with rubber legs or hair. Often tipped with a small grub, the flies can be paired with a tiny bobber to help to identify nibbles when panfish become picky.

Larger baitfish such as shiners, creek chubs or suckers are preferred for catching bigger fish, such as northern pike. Smaller live baits — 2 to 3 inches — work well for walleye, bass and perch. 

Cutting the lips off a sucker will keep it from burrowing into the lake bottom for protection. Slicing the tail or fins of minnows will cause them to swim erratically and a fish in distress will attract predatory fish. 

Anglers should be aware of current angling restrictions on the use and possession of baitfish.

Live baitfish are often used with tip-ups — and occasionally with a rod — when fish are finicky. Tip-ups can be very useful in helping to locate where fish suspend in the water column. When using a tip-up, after your bait hits the bottom, take in 6 to 8 inches of line to keep the bait off the bottom. Be sure to mark the line at the reel with a small twist-tie at the water line. After catching a fish, or checking your bait, you won’t have to waste time finding the bottom again. You can simply unspool line until the marker, and your bait will be at the exact depth where the fish were feeding.

When fishing for pike or lake trout, anglers must allow a fish to run with the bait and wait for them to stop, turn the bait, and move again before setting the hook. It helps to use a wire leader when targeting pike.

Introduce others to the sport and share the experience by bringing along a friend, or a kid. Many times, when pan fish are in the shallows, you can actually look in the hole and see them take your bait. This is really fun stuff for kids.