Nighttime temperatures are now falling into the teens, meaning that first ice and
the fast action that it brings are right around the corner for Metro Detroit. Plan ahead now and be ready to hit the hard water as soon as it’s thick enough to support your weight.
As with any ice fishing outting, your first (and biggest) concern should be the ice itself – how thick does it need to be? Generally speaking, first ice is considered the strongest of the year, as it forms during a few very cold nights. It tends to be clear, so clear in some cases that hooked fish can be seen fighting directly under your feet – this can be disconcerting for those who are ice-shy.
The thinnest ice I’ve fished on was just over three inches thick, first ice of the season a few years back (early December). It creaked and groaned as I walked, and if there hadn’t been people already on it, I wouldn’t have made it off the beach.
A good starting point is three to five inches of new, solid ice for fishing on foot. If you don’t trust the ice, use a spud to strike the surface heavily as you walk. If it passes completely through the ice, proceed with caution or take another route. Make sure your spud has a wrist strap or lanyard to prevent it from slipping out of your hand accidentally – they can disappear into the icy water in a blink if not secured to your wrist.
Have your gear ready to go before hitting the ice. A day or two before your trip, make sure that your leaders, bite tippets, hooks, marker bobbers and everything else are easy to get at and organized. Check your knots and retie any that seem to be old or frayed – there’s no point in losing a fish at the hole because a knot or leader fails. Double-check that your auger blades are razor-sharp and tightly bolted to the auger. If they are dull, replace them – sharpening these blades is an exacting art that must be practiced. Buy a new set of sharp blades, then practice sharpening the old ones. Finally, use the safety cover that came with your auger when it’s not being used. Not only does it protect the blades from getting dinged on the ice, it also protects your hands, legs or clothes from the razor-sharp blades should the two come into contact accidentally. Photos of these injuries, and the horrifying numbers of stitches required, can be found on the internet. Be warned and be careful.
Keep surface noise to a minimum – this means dragging sleds, dropping gear, starting gas augers, stomping around or even loud talking should be avoided. While it’s impossible to punch holes and fish without a little noise, remember that fish are most sensitive to vibrations that are transmitted through the water to their lateral lines (the sensory apparatus that runs lengthwise along the bodies of all gamefish). The equivalent of the human ear, this organ alerts the fish to any and all vibrations from above, below, etc. Much like deer or game that react to noise by shying away from the source, fish can do the same. Once you are comfortable with a body of water, it can pay big dividends to get out early (sunrise) and punch several holes right away. Then, things can settle down as you rig up and set lines for the morning bite.
First ice can mean that the fish are in shallow, as they go on a heavy feed afterthe ice sets up. There are many reasons given for why first ice causes fish to feed, but I have neither the time nor space to outline them all. Suffice to say that first and last ice cause the fish to feed heavily, and may be the best times to fish them. Predatory fish like pike and trout follow baitfish, starting in shallow areas around points and weedbeds, then moving out to deeper water as the winter grows longer. Focusing on these areas can help you pin down these fish, or even perch and crappie (panfish that feed on minnows).
Stick to your favorite methods when prospecting for fish. During my years of ice fishing for pike and steelhead, a few stand-by tactics have proven themselves time and again. For pike, I always bring a jigging rod with a chartreuse jigging Rapala, and a bag of supermarket smelt for my tip-ups. The heavy jigging lure draws many strikes, and I don’t know if it’s the color or action that triggers these. I always bait a tip-up or two with smelt (even when live shiners or suckers are available), and find these get hit as often, if not more, as live bait. Again, it could be the appearance of a deadbait, or the scent (I like smelt that are somewhat putrid) as smelt are very oily.
For steelhead, fresh minnows or spikes are a good bet to get hit. I’ve found that tipping a small jig with a spike (maggot-type larva with thick skin that resists being stripped from the hook) will get hit more than a bare jig or jig with rubber tail. My expertise on steelhead through the ice is mostly within harbors, and almost every fish I’ve hooked has come on a small jigging spoon baited with a spike or waxworm. Another important tip for steelhead is that your hooks must be sturdy enough to withstand the thrashing Mr. Onchorynchus dishes out. I’ve had single hooks straighten on these fish. I now stick to small trebles with short shanks as these seem more durable
If and when you try your hand at fishing first ice, think safety first. Use a spud on your way out, check the ice thoroughly as you walk, don’t push your luck if the ice is too thin to support your weight. No fish, no matter how big or how delicious, is worth going for an ice cold swim, hypothermia or worse. Tight lines!