With New Jersey bathed in another round of frigid temperatures , local lakes should have a solid base of ice for the coming weeks. Ice anglers will be out in full force over the next few weekends probing the depths for perch, trout, bass, pike and other fish. For those who've never been ice fishing before, this is a perfect time to start and here are a few tips on how to do so.
Ice fishermen need two basic tools, one to cut holes in the ice and (of course) another to attract and catch fish. For the former an ax will work if the ice isn't too thick, however most hard water anglers use a “spud” or an auger.A spud is simply a large, iron chisel that can chop through inches of ice in a matter of minutes. An auger, which comes in power, or manual models, is more akin to a drill and can cut a perfectly round hole in the ice in short order.
To catch fish there are two basic tools available to ice fishermen, a jigging rod (essentially a mini fishing rod) or tip-ups ,which are devices that are set in the ice and signal when a fish has taken the bait, usually via a raised flag.
For someone who wants to try ice fishing and isn't ready to invest in tip-ups and an auger or spud, all that is required is a jigging rod, some jigging lures and something to sit on. Many ice anglers hit the local lakes with only that equipment and search for holes drilled by other ice fishermen who have either moved on to different spots, or called it quits for the day. This is an inexpensive and simple way to get started with ice fishing.
Some hard water anglers swear by jigging, while others prefer using tip-ups, but most combine the two and put out a few tip-ups, then set up next to a hole to jig.
Tip-ups can cost from $8 for the most basic models, to $40 and more for more elaborate devices. Your budget will dictate which type of tip-ups you choose, but many anglers do just fine with the cheap ones. Most tip-ups consist of a spool of line and a flag, with some sort of mechanism that causes the flag to pop up the moment a fish grabs the bait. Some of the more expensive ones cover the hole to prevent re-freezing, and there are models that accept a jigging rod and will set the hook in the fish when it bites.
Use braided line (some are designed specifically for ice fishing) to fill your tip-up’s spool. Be sure to completely fill your spool because a fish can run a long way before you get to your tip-up and you don’t want to run out of line. At the end of the braided line add about two to three feet of monofilament or fluorocarbon leader, using barrel swivel to attach the two. The strength of line depends on what type of fish you are hoping to catch. 12 to 20 lb. test should handle most New Jersey fish, though anglers who are targeting pike or muskie will use 30 lb test and upward. Some who fish for sharp toothed fish such as pickerel, pike and muskie will use a wire leader to prevent cut lines.
A #5 or #6 hook at the end of your leader should handle most of the fish you will catch in New Jersey. Add a split-shot just above the barrel swivel to get your bait down to your desired depth.
Most ice fishermen will set up their tip-ups so that the bait is two to three feet above the lake bottom, though some also like to set a tip-up or two with the bait running a foot or two under the ice or elsewhere in the water column. As far as bait, many of the baits you use in summer will work for ice fishing. Shiners, herring and fathead minnows are the most popular, though some ice anglers use nightcrawlers, mealworms, maggots (“spikes”) and “power baits”. The choice of baits largely depends on the species of fish you are targeting.
Once you've set your tip-ups all you need to do is take a seat and wait for a flag. Sometimes the flags come in quick succession, giving you little time to rest and on other days you can sit for hours and see nary a flag. When the flag goes up watch the spool as the fish peels off the line. Most fish will take the bait, then run with it for a while before they stop to swallow it. So wait until the spool stops spinning, then give the fish about 30 to 60 seconds to swallow the bait. If it starts to run again that usually means that the bait is swallowed. At that point very gently pull in any slack line until you can just start to feel the fish, then give it a quick tug to set the hook. Once the fish is on, pull the line in steadily until you have the fish on the ice. If you have a particularly large fish on you may have to use your hands as a "drag" and let the line slip slowly through them while the fish makes a run. For this reason it's a good idea to keep a glove on one hand when retrieving the fish.
There are many popular jigging lures and your choice will depend on what kind of fish you are targeting.
Jigging spoons such as the “Swedish Pimple" and "Lindy"” are popular among those who are angling for bass, walleye, trout and pike. "Blade baits" and "jigging Rapalas" are also popular among those targeting these species. Perch and panfish fishermen usually prefer smaller, lead head jigs, often tipped with a fathead minnow, a perch eye, mealworm or a “spike”.
To jig, drop your lure down to your desired level and move the rod tip up and down. You can vary the speed and length of movement to see what works. You can also “dead stick” a jig which means to let the lure sit there with no movement. This can be an amazingly productive way of fishing. When a fish hits your jig you set the hook and reel it in the same way you would with your regular fishing rod. An advantage of jigging is that it allows you to cover a lot of ground, because you can move easily from spot to spot and constantly vary your depth to search for fish.
Ice fishing has its own regulations. In New Jersey ice anglers may use five devices in total, which means five tip-ups or four tip-ups and a hand held jigging rod. Tip-ups may not be left unattended and you must have your name and address on each one. Otherwise other regulations apply with regards to limits.
Never assume the ice is safe, even if you see other fishermen out there. There may be weak spots that recently froze over, or areas above underwater springs or other moving water. Ice can also be thin around the edges, while drain holes up to a few feet wide can form after a heavy rain or a warm spell. So approach the ice with caution and for safety’s sake bring a whistle, a pair of hand spikes to provide grip if you do fall in and become familiar with how to self rescue from ice if necessary. There are Youtube videos that explain how. Wearing a PFD under your jacket, or a jacket with a built in PFD may save your life and the extra layer of a PFD will help keep you warm. Traction is a concern on ice so consider some sort of traction device for your boots. There are many on the market including Katoolah Micro Spikes, Stablicers and YakTrax.
There is a lot more to learn about ice fishing, though this is enough to get you started. The quickest way to learn the ropes is to find a friend who is a veteran ice angler and accompany him or her.