Not a winter fan? That won’t last long! You’ll quickly fall in love with this amazing season after your very first ice fishing experience. It’s a sport that truly helps you live the many pleasures of winter despite the cold. So, how does it work? And why do so many people swear by this activity? To answer some of the most frequently-asked questions concerning this pastime, we reached out to Wil Wegman, Canadian Ice Fishing champion, seasoned fisherman, angling educator, and Rapala Pro Staff. See what Wil had to say below to make your first trip out on the ice a success!
1. What is ice fishing and what are the differences between this sport and summer fishing?
Well, to begin, the name says it all! Most of the time, when you’re fishing in open water, you’re able to get around more easily. For ice fishing, you’re stationed in one spot. The advantage here is that you don’t need to paddle. On the other hand, “assuming you’re in a boat for instance, it’s fairly unencumbered, so if you want to fish on one side of the lake, travel 10 miles away, or fish a lake the size of Lake Simcoe – my home lake – at 722 square kilometers, you can fish all over the place in a boat. When you’re ice fishing, you’re relegated to a fairly small area, especially if you’re just walking. That area can be increased if you’re using a snowmobile or an ATV. So, you don’t cover as much territory as you would in soft water,” explains Wil.
Luckily, cabins and heated portable ice shelters have really allowed for this winter sport to become even more accessible and become more popular than ever. The advancements in gear – ice rods, tackle, sonar, GPS mapping, underwater cameras, portable huts and specialty heaters have all helped bring the sport of ice fishing to a whole new level.
The other big difference is that when you’re open water fishing, you’re casting out horizontally. For ice fishing, you drill a hole and drop your line down into it. “The positioning of your line and lure is completely vertical. The approach is different because the area where you’re fishing is fairly confined,” he adds.
Finally, the species of fish vary per region – trout, brook trout, perch, etc. – and the gear must be adapted to ice fishing. One thing’s for sure: the pleasure of fishing remains the same, whether it be in summer or winter.
2. Can this activity be done alone?
Yes, with the condition that you’ve acquired a sufficient amount of experience and basic knowledge of the conditions in order to avoid any possible danger. Of course there are exceptions; like in some remote regions, or at first and last ice when it’s highly recommended you fish with a buddy.
For your first few outings, it’s strongly recommended “to go with someone who is experienced and is confident in reading the ice conditions in order to make sure you don’t fall through,” advises Wil. This will also help you find safe spots at which to fish, how to rig your rods and tackle, drill holes and search for fish.
There are also all-inclusive packages from ice hut operations that include a fishing permit licence, basic gear (which consists of an ice fishing rod, basic tackle, live bait, and transportation to your heated ice hut where holes are pre drilled for you.
It’s also a great activity to introduce children to at a young age, as they will be impressed to lift fish to the surface from below the ice! They’ll surely love to see how a sonar works if you bring one along.
3. What are the steps to follow to get ready for a fishing session out on the ice?
Your ice fishing trip will be perfect if you follow these guidelines:
- Pick someone experienced to accompany you.
- If not 100% certain of ice conditions, make sure the ice is safe while you are travelling out. If unsure, test it frequently with a spud bar or auger. “Make sure that the blue ice is at least 10 cm (4 inches) thick. That’s the necessary thickness to safely walk on,” shares Wil. Get a valid fishing permit (see below).
- Prepare your gear the night before and make sure to tighten everything on the sled with rope or straps. It’s easier to set up your line with your hands nice and warm in the comfort of your own home than outdoors in the frigid temperatures the day of your trip.
- Drill a hole in the ice.
- Install your shelter once you’ve drilled your hole. It may be installed above the hole itself or near the hole.
- Install your gear.
- Fish and enjoy the outdoors!
4. What should you bring with you?
First of all, it’s important to know that ice fishing is prohibited without an ice fishing permit. As for other types of fishing that are done throughout the year, you need to have a fishing permit (valid with an Outdoors Card for the entire calendar year in Ontario and in Quebec from April 1st until March 31st ) in order to head out onto a frozen lake, whether you’re in Quebec or Ontario. You may get a fishing permit at SAIL, at some parks, or other places that offer permits.
As for the rest, it’s important to dress warmly and opt for layering: baselayers, a good winter coat, snow pants, merino wool socks, a tuque and warm gloves or mitts.
It’s also recommended to wear clothing made from materials that do not absorb moisture and to select an excellent pair of boots. Even if you already have a heated ice-fishing shelter, “it’s impossible to heat the ground, so make sure you have some good boots with a warm lining that you can remove to dry at the end of the day. You’ll be nice and dry for your next trip,” recommends Wil.
You can also bring along hand and foot warmers, but make sure that these don’t cause you to sweat too much, because it’s that perspiration that can make you cold later on.
Also, in terms of gear, here’s what you need:
- A sled for your gear
- A shelter that you can carry and set up easily. There are even sleds that double as ice fishing shelters once you arrive at the lake. “Remember to bring extra pegs so that the shelter is well secured on the ice,” offers Wil.
- Fuel and bring a small radiator to heat your portable hut
- An insulated bottle to bring soup or a warm beverage with you to stay warm
- A foldable chair
- A bucket for your catches
- A tackle box full of your basics: lures, fishing line, spoons, etc. “Opt for lures and spoons made for fishing vertically,” adds our expert.
- A fishing rod. “Instead of bringing many different rods when you first get into ice fishing, bring a medium action one of about 27 or 28 inches and have a medium-sized reel. You’ll be able to cover the basics and catch most types of fish,” shares Wil.
- A tip-up with a flag if you want to put up a set line away from your primary hole.
- A shovel to bank the sides of your portable hut and skimmer to clean up the slush and ice build-up in your ice holes over the course of the day
- A manual ice auger like the Rapala ones. “If you’re fishing for perch or crappie, get an ice auger that can drill a 12-15 cm (5-6 inch) hole, but for larger fish like walleye or trout you’ll need an 8”-10” hole” suggests Wil..
5. What are the best times of year to go ice fishing?
This depends on the region and the species of fish, but, “in several areas of Quebec and Ontario, ice begins to form around mid to end of December, sometimes only by January 1st or even later. Heated ice huts, such as those at Lake Simcoe in Ontario are usually available until March 15th. In other areas, the ice fishing season can last until the end of March. But the best time to go is when you can make the time to go” shares Wil. Take the time to select a date and to get well-prepared. Your outing will be a lot more fun if you’ve got everything you need from the get-go.
6. Where can you go to ice fish?
It all depends where you are and the experience you’re looking to have. You’ve got to know that you’ll be up early in the morning and getting ready will take you longer in the winter, so it’s a good idea to choose a place that’s relatively close to home or your cottage.
In Quebec, Sépaq Parks offers a list of suggestions for where to go, no matter where in the province you are!
In Southern Ontario, “Lake Simcoe is where most people go. More people fish there in winter than the other three seasons combined. There are more than 20 ice fishing cabin operators there,” states Wil. Lake Nipissing in North Bay may be Northern Ontario’s top ice fishing destination. With over one quarter million lakes in Ontario, there are so many options – so check your regional tourism bureaus to find out one that appeals to you.
7. Is there a specific technique to ice-fishing?
Even if this sport seems more static and less active than traditional fishing, winter fishing still requires you to move around to have the best tactical advantage and to find fish and get bit during the course of the day.
First time ice anglers may wish to use live bait- like minnows to increase their chances but as they progress they may realize there are so many productive artificial’ s that they don’t need the real thing. Try using different actions with your lures that will mimic injured or dying baitfish, or even ‘dead-sticking’ your presentation when that’s what the fish tell you what they want.
“Ice fishing can be as simple or complex, as mobile or stationary. Allow yourself the time to learn and gain experience, and be prepared to possibly not catch as many as you would have hoped the first few times out” encourages Rapala Pro Staffer, Wil Wegman.
And to be sure that you’re geared up to start your brand new activity, here’s where to go!Discover the Rapala brand
Article written in collaboration with Wil Wegman, Rapala Pro Staff.
Wil Wegman is an award-winning outdoor writer and seminar host who was inducted into the Canadian Angler Hall of Fame in 1997. He has won the Rick Morgan Professional Conservation Award and the National Recreational Fisheries Award. He is an avid ice tournament angler and was a member of Team Canada at the World Ice Fishing Championships in 199. He has also won the Perchin for MS Event and Perch Trap Attack on Lake Simcoe.