Ice anglers anticipate early ice and of course anglers are excited to kick off a new season. Before you step foot on early ice however, make sure you are equipped with not only the right equipment but also sometimes… the right mentality. Early ice can demand some adjustments in how we fish. Because safety is the biggest priority, we also want to make sure we have the essentials.
Some ice anglers will walk out on two inches of ice. Most people recommend a solid three inches of ice for walking. I don’t recommend testing the strength of questionable ice with your life. Three inches will hold an adult walking on foot but consider the variables. There is no room for error. If three inches turns into an inch because of current or perhaps a piece of ice froze at a later time, you can walk right into disaster. Warming trends at early ice can also weaken the ice. So, yes, three inches is safe but there is no room for compromise. This is why I don’t recommend walking on an inch and a half or two inches of ice. I have had an inch and a half of ice hold me up but the next step can be less than an inch where muskrats kept the ice from forming at the same rate.
For checking ice, nothing beats a spud bar. A spud bar allows you to swing and poke or chip at the ice and this tool allows you to see how hard the ice is and also enables you to check the thickness of the ice as you walk. Hit the ice in front of you as you walk. I recommend a heavy enough spud bar that will chip at least a couple of inches of ice with a hard smack. If water comes up or if the ice gets wet, you don’t have enough ice in front of you. Never assume it’s safe just because you see other anglers on the ice. Use a spud bar and check the ice as you walk.
Because we are walking out on early ice, our gear is often kept to a minimum because we have to haul our gear typically with a sled. Use a long tow rope on your sled. I like to connect the tow rope to the sled with clasps onto eye bolts. This is a simple modification you can do to any sled. The longer rope allows you to drag your gear easier by throwing the rope over your shoulder but you can also unhook the rope from the eye bolts with the clasp if you need a rope to help somebody.
Early ice is all about walking on ice and early ice can be incredibly slippery. Ice cleats are mandatory. If you follow safety precautions and use a spud bar, falling through the ice is very unlikely and that is the goal. The reality is that you are much more likely to get seriously hurt by slipping and falling on the ice. Ice cleats keep you upright. There are times when the noise of ice cleats along with dragging a sled can really spook fish under thin ice but we will go over those adjustments later in this blog.
Besides a sled with long tow rope, ice cleats and spud bar, other items to have include ice picks and a float suit. If you don’t have a float suit or ice pics, a simple life jacket and screwdriver in your pocket is peace of mind. Again the entire focus is not falling through the ice but having the necessary equipment if you ever do.
Early Ice Gear – Safety Checklist:
- Spud Bar
- Ice Cleats
- Ice Picks: Floating Ice Picks
- Float Suit: Clam Rise Float Parka and Bibs; Clam Ascent Float Parka and Bibs
- Rope (ideally, this could be a long removable tow rope on your sled)
Early Ice Fishing Adjustments
Early ice is sometimes heralded by anglers as this coveted time of good fishing but early ice isn’t always easy. Usually we are focusing on smaller lakes, many of these lakes fish well right away before getting tougher in midwinter. Something that can make this time frame difficult and frustrating is that you have to move to find fish but you also can spook fish as you move. Three inches of clear ice with several feet of clear water below the ice is difficult. As you walk over or near these fish, these fish often seem to be running for their lives. The biggest lesson I have had to learn is to simply slow down in what I believe to be good spots. Sometimes it takes a half hour for a spot to settle down and for fish to cycle back underneath you. I sometimes take my cleats off when I reach my fishing location and try to stay over holes a little bit longer and simply slow down. You can definitely fish and move too aggressively this time of year. I have also seen where sleds or flip over shelters spooked fish at early ice where the fish wouldn’t swim underneath the shadow under thin clear ice. Often, sunrise and sunset with low light was the key. Once you do get spots figured out, drill your holes early all at once ahead of the bite window if possible. There are also times when using longer rods can be a big advantage especially over shallow water because you can simply stand back further from the hole. Watch your noise, try to watch and listen how your feet touch the ice when you walk and wait out fish in good spots. Run traffic whenever you can.