It was a nice day on Lake Hopatcong, but the fish did not want to cooperate. Brian had one small perch, but that was about it despite our best efforts. It was 25 degrees with a 5 mph wind coming from the South. We fished the River Styx, weren't the only ones out there, but weren't the only people not catching fish. It was a nice day anyway. It's always a pleasure to get outside.
To many people, even many fishermen, the proposition of standing on a frozen lake over a little hole for hours on end in the middle of Winter doesn't seem very enticing, but to me it is. The first time that I went Ice Fishing was out of sheer desperation. I was determined to find a way to shake off the Winter Blues, so I decided to give it a whirl. Over the years, I've learned a thing or two about Ice Fishing, and now genuinely enjoy it and look forward to it every year. However, it would have been a lot easier for me to start fishing through the ice if I had only known a few simple things.
Where to Go:
I live in Northern New Jersey, so I fish the lakes in Northern New Jersey. My favorite destination for Ice Fishing is Lake Hopatcong for its proximity, bait shops and abundance and variety of fish. Other excellent Northern NJ lakes include Swartswood Lake and Lake Musconetcong in Sussex County, Monksville Reservoir in Passaic County and Furnace Lake in Warren County. Any body of water that has no current and at least 5 inches of ice should be safe to fish. As for me, I don't go onto a lake that has less than 6 inches of ice or if I don't see anyone fishing on it already. Local bait shops and The Fisherman magazine can give you a good idea of Ice Fishing conditions. Keep in mind that a fishing license is required and there are State regulations that are listed in a free booklet found in every local tackle shop.
What to Wear:
Always keep in mind that it's going to be cold and that you will be standing on ice. Thermals, layers, multiple pairs of socks, wool hat, winter jacket and insulated boots are all a must. Snow pants are a plus. Air-activated hand, foot and body warmers never hurt.
What you Need:
Making a Hole-There are a few ways to make a hole in the ice. The simplest, cheapest and most tedious way to make holes in a frozen lake is the old-fashioned spear. A spear is a long piece of iron with a broad end that you pound into the ice. It takes some time and effort, but this is a tried and true way to get to the water. My preferred means of making a hole is a hand-auger. You can find hand augers and gas-powered augers at local tackle shops, or online at Cabelas, Bass Pro Shops or the Kittery Trading Post. Mora makes a hand auger that you can find for $40 or $50 and are available in stores, online or directly from Mora. I found this auger can get through the thickest ice in no more than a couple of minutes. Gas-powered augers can accomplish this quicker and with a lot less effort, but at a much higher price. You will have to periodically replace the blades on hand and gas-powered augers. You will also need a scoop to get the ice out of the hole once you have drilled it. These can be found anywhere you find ice-fishing gear.
Tip-Ups-Tip-Ups are a common Ice Fishing device. They are set and placed over a hole, and when a fish strikes, a flag is released. The fisherman then scurries over to the hole, tugging the line and retrieving the fish. There are several different types of Tip-Ups available at different price ranges. My preference is a Polar Tip-Up. I find these the quickest and easiest to set up at the best price. Bass Pro-Shops makes a great Tip-Up that costs about $9. In the state of New Jersey, you may only fish 5 devices at once, so if you are using a jigging rod, you may only have 4 Tip-Ups in the water at one time.
Jigging Rods-Jigging rods are made specifically for Ice Fishing and are only about 2 ft. long, give or take. This allows you to sit and fish directly over a hole. Smaller-sized reels that you would use on regular spinning rods work well on these smaller rods. I use a Shimano Stradic 2000 or a Shimano Sahara 2000, but any spinning reel that is suitable for 4-8 lb. test should be just fine.
Line-My line preference is 4lb. to 8lb. test monofilament for jigging rods and 20lb.-30lb. Dacron for Tip-Ups.
Lures/Bait-For jigging up Perch and Panfish, I use small, brightly colored painted jig-heads, and bait the hook with grubs, commonly referred to as "Mousies." For jigging up larger fish, I use Rapala Jigging Raps, Swedish Pimples and Got-Cha. On the Tip Ups, I use a number 4 hook with a shiner and a small split shot about 7 inches above hook to bring the shiner down. Keep in mind that the fish will tend to look for the warmest water, which will be the water closest to the bottom. Fish as close to the bottom as possible without getting hung up on it. If you don't know how deep the water is and don't have portable sonar, some twine with a bank sinker dropped into a hole will let you know how deep it is.
Misc. Gear-You will need a bucket to hold your shiners. A battery-powered aerator is also a worthy investment. You may also want to consider buying a plastic sled and attaching some rope for hauling your gear across the ice.
The best safety tip that I can give you is not to be a moron. Remember that the water is really cold below the ice, and if you fall through and stay in it for too long (which is not very long at all) you can get hypothermia, go into shock and die. DO NOT GO ONTO THE ICE UNLESS YOU ARE ABSOLUTELY SURE THAT IT IS SAFE. If you suspect that there is anything less than 5 inches of hard blue ice, you might want to stay off the ice. The surface of coves will freeze sooner and be thicker than the main lake, so although a cove may be safe to fish, the main lake may not. If you have any concerns about this, make sure that you ask someone who knows. Try not to fish alone, at night or where no one can see or hear you. Use your head and you should not have any problems.
That's about all one really needs to know to have success Ice Fishing. Always adhere to State size limits and creel limits and take home only what you intend to eat. Carry all of your trash off the Lake, properly dispose of it and make sure that none of it winds up in the water. Leave only your footprints and take only what you need.
With Peace and Love,