Are you ready to go ice fishing?
It must be 20 years since Aroostook experienced three major snowstorms before Thanksgiving. It sure bid an early farewell to regional duck and goose hunting. Then came the rain and there went to snow cover. Now a new year is here and with it the opening of many popular regional lakes to ice fishing.
The big question for local sportsmen this early January is, are you ready to drill ice and drop lines? First off, it’s now 2019 and you need a new license. There’s good news on that front, even if it’s a night or weekend and the town office is closed, you can still buy your license online. Within 15 minutes a sportsman can fill in info, purchase and print a license off the computer and be headed out the door. Forgetfulness won’t cost you a spur of the moment, fun outing when a fishing buddy calls out of the blue.
Do you know where your ice fishing gear is, and is it all operational? If you’re still using a muscle-powered auger, be sure to sharpen the blade to ease drilling. Gas powered augers should be sharpened as well, and spark plugs changed, throttle adjusted and moving parts greased or oiled. If it still refuses to run smoothly, seek expert help from the nearest small engine repair shop. Wrestling a finicky, dull power auger through heavy slush and ice is no joy on a frigid day.
If you carry an ice chisel, put an edge on it now, while you’re inside and warm. I carry a lightweight shovel to move snow and clear a spot on the ice before drilling. If you don’t, perhaps you should. Check your ice scoops to be sure they are intact and functional. More than once I’ve seen cold fingers lose a scoop down a hole, so I carry two on every outing.
Locate your bait bucket and minnow net. If you don’t have a net or plastic scoop, pick one up at the local sporting goods store. On sub-zero days, dipping your hands into the bait bucket dozens of times and then exposing them to freezing air isn’t being tough, it’s being foolhardy. While you’re at the fishing shop, stock up on hooks, non-toxic sinkers and extra line. Look over the plastic sleds too, as a high-sided plastic toboggan will pull gear easier across snow than a sportsman can backpack and lug it.
Look over each tip-up and make sure the reels and drags work smoothly and the tension is set properly. Check every flag release mechanism and adjust when necessary. Replace any flag that is in disrepair. I tend to use larger size flags when attaching new ones and prefer orange or black to red material. A touch of silicone or graphite powder on the moving parts of traps will work better in the cold temperatures and freezing water than any oil or grease product.
Pull each line out and check for wear, nicks or weaknesses from ice edges or fish teeth, or just aging. Don’t use monofilament lines more than three years. I stretch each line to remove memory curls from being on the reel for several months. This helps the line and bait hang straight, especially monofilament. On some of my deep water tip ups, I use red fingernail polish or a permanent felt tip marker to make an easily seen mark every 10 feet. If fish are hitting at a specific depth I want to be able to return my bait to that exact level quickly and easily.
Smelt lines are the easiest to check over and fix up since they are the simplest ice fishing rigs. Handlines for smelting are generally 40-foot pieces of 6- to 8-pound monofilament, a hook and small sinker, all attached to a plastic spool or notched wooden holder. Carefully check the entire line for knots, kinks, or worn spots, and if possible, repair by shortening the line. If not, replace the entire smelt line since monofilament is inexpensive.
Make sure the smelt line is tied, tacked or stapled to a spool or small wooden keeper so it will float when nearly numb fingers fumble and drop the rig into the ice hole. It is bound to happen sooner or later. Replace the hooks if necessary. I like gold or red, and sharpen them well at the very least, then position and secure small, non-toxic split shot 8- to 10- inches above the hook. Just a few checks will have you ready to handle smelt as soon as ice and time are available.
A good-sized, sturdy pack basket with a waterproof cover, or one or two plastic five-gallon buckets work well for transporting tip ups and gear. Equipment stays together and is dry and easy to locate. A bucket can even be used as a seat if desired. I always add a few chemical hand warmers, a small thermos of hot water and some tea, cocoa, hot cider or soup mixes in packets. A set of long nosed pliers or forceps can be very useful for removing hooks from fish or fingers as well as field adjustments on traps and other gear.
Compiling and checking over ice fishing gear takes less than an hour in the warm comfort of home, while making repairs on the ice will be tougher, colder and definitely more frustrating. The only thing more agonizing is losing a trophy fish due to faulty gear, or spending time fixing equipment when you could be fishing. Winter fishing is at hand, it’s time to get prepared for that first outing.