Ice fishing is a popular pastime throughout the northern United States and Canada where wintertime temperatures plunge below freezing long enough for thick ice to form, which extended over a very wide area this year. Because of the Polar Vortex, this has been one of the coldest winters on record with more than 95% of Lake Superior iced over and record-setting lows throughout much of North America as far south as Texas.
Despite the extreme forecast, I followed through with plans to go on my first ice fishing trip while in Minneapolis on business, which happened to fall at the same time the bitter cold first hit hard. We were experiencing temperatures in the negative 20s with wind chills in the negative 40s, so I was very glad to be staying in the comfort of a heated ice shack on Lake Mille Lacs. When we headed outside, the Frabill ice fishing suit I borrowed kept me very warm, but it was truly unsafe to be outdoors for more than a few minutes. The ice shacks themselves were surprisingly comfortable, with multiple built-in bunk-beds, a table and chairs, a camp stove and even a portable toilet that is serviced daily. Just bring your own food, gear and bedding and you’re good to go. Eight openings in the floor allow access to the ice holes. A wall-mounted rattle reel is available to be used, or you can use your ice fishing rod. The rattle reel concept is so simple that it’s pretty clever. If a fish should bite during the middle of the night, the rattling sound will wake you so you can quickly spring into action and reel in the fish. We were using minnows as bait suspended about a foot off the bottom. Other than a hearty exchange of fishing stories and boisterous chatter about favorite Berkley baits, the cabins were all quiet, meaning the bells didn’t sound and, sadly, no fish were caught that day.
Where we stayed - yes, you can rent ice shacks - safety is of prime importance. The resort owner regularly drills holes in the ice to monitor the thickness. On the wall of the resort office, a Navionics map was marked up with ice shack locations in relation to the bathymetric details of the lake which showed them around a drop off from about 18 to 25 feet. With a dozen or so ice shacks already set up, ice roads were labeled to help us find the ones reserved for our party. Driving a big truck out on the ice can be more than a little unnerving. Even on thick ice, the weight of the vehicle causes the ice to creak and groan. Speeding can trigger water movement that can put stress beneath the ice, causing unsafe conditions so keeping below the posted limit is important.
I didn’t know much about ice fishing before this trip, and still have a lot to learn, but I did learn a few things from my companions who were all very experienced fishermen, both on ice and in open water. Whether in an ice shack for a day or two, or spending a few hours with an auger, a bucket of minnows or your favorite lures and a supply of tip-ups and other basic ice fishing tackle, or heading out on snowmobiles with a portable ice tent to hit up some prime spots on your favorite lake, having access to good equipment, proper clothing, shelter, tackle and electronics can make the experience a lot of fun. Had the weather been just a little bit milder, we would have taken to the ice and put our Navionics charts to use in identifying structure we could relocate to that may have improved our success rate.
A growing number of ice anglers who drive their trucks or use snowmobiles or 4-wheelers either bring along their boat GPS, or use a portable unit from Lowrance or Humminbird. And why not? Just because the lake is covered with ice doesn’t mean the bottom has changed significantly. These tools are helpful in finding areas where you want to fish and marking areas that have yielded fish in the past. Another growing trend is the use of smartphones with GPS capabilities and useful apps like Navionics Boating. The same mapping available for open water fishing can save time on ice too, allowing for advance planning before hitting the ice and marking of productive areas or making notes for future trips. Other specialty ice fishing electronics, geared for portability and extreme temperatures, are available to make time on the ice more productive, such as flashers and underwater cameras that can help you understand what’s happening below the ice, where you might not be able to see. I can only imagine the thrill of pulling a big walleye or perch through the ice and cooking it up for dinner.
There’s really something special about being out in the elements on a snow covered lake with clear blue skies and cold winds blowing. With the unseasonably cold and unrelenting weather Minnesota and other northern areas have experienced this year, I’m sure many ice anglers have had more productive days than I did. But I’d do it again.
Rochelle Chouinard, Navionics Team
Navionics products for use with the most popular GPS chartplotters include Navionics+, Navionics Updates, Platinum+, HotMaps Platinum, Gold and HotMaps Premium. Navionics mobile apps for iPhone, iPad, Android handset and tablet are available on iTunes and Google Play or view charts online via WebApp.