Every time I think of ice fishing, I’m reminded of my favorite scene from the movie “Grumpy Old Men.”
“The Green Hornet has caught more fish than you’ve lied about, Gustafson!” Max Goldman roars at his fishing rival, defending the virtue of his trusty ice fishing rod.
Many anglers’ familiarity with ice fishing is gleaned directly from “Grumpy Old Men” — it’s a novelty of the upper Midwest, enjoyed mostly by old-timers who drink whiskey, watch hockey on black-and-white TVs and curse at each other from their ice shanties.
Fortunately, this perception is not accurate. Ice fishing is a fun, social and unique wintertime activity that can be enjoyed by anglers of all ages. It provides a good excuse to get out of the house and a challenging twist on traditional fishing. So don’t let the long wait for spring turn you into a grumpy old man (or woman) — grab your boots, bundle up and hit the ice.
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Ice fishing requires at least 4 inches of solid ice. If there aren’t other anglers out on the lake, drill test holes as you go to make sure it’s safe. Never fish alone.
As the ice thickens to 8 to 12 inches, some anglers take snowmobiles or four-wheelers on the ice. It’s a pretty big disaster if vehicles fall through, though, so always exercise caution and play it safe.
In Idaho, trout and perch are the primary target species. Lures such as Swedish Pimples, Hali Jigs, Salmo Chubby Darters and Rapala Jigging Raps are the go-to choices for both fish. Many anglers tip their lures with night crawlers, mealworms, corn or marshmallows. Most sporting goods stores have specific ice fishing sections.
The most common method of fishing is sinking a lure to the bottom, reeling up a couple feet while occasionally jigging (jerking the lure up and down) to catch fishes’ attention. If the fish aren’t biting, experiment with different lures and depths or move to a new spot.
The gear required to go ice fishing is a big obstacle in the minds of many anglers. Truth be told, the only essentials you might not already own are an auger, an ice scoop and a sled.
An auger is the key. Hand-crank models are a lot of work, and power models start at about $300, so try to find an experienced ice angler to join you on your first excursion or two. Or, if you’re determined to get into ice fishing, bite the bullet and put an auger on your Christmas list.
Once you have an auger — or at least a friend with an auger — the rest quickly falls into place. Sleds, ice scoops and lures are fairly inexpensive. Short ice fishing poles are recommended, but I’ve seen plenty of fish caught on traditional rod and reel setups. Ice fishing combos start about $15, so it won’t break the bank to build a small collection. Keep in mind that Idaho allows five ice rods per angler on most lakes.
Other recommended gear includes ice cleats, a five-gallon bucket (to carry your poles and to sit on), a compact camp chair and rod holders.
Clothing-wise, wear lots of layers and come prepared for rain, snow and the bright light that reflects off the ice. Full ski gear with an extra base layer and some hand and foot warmers will keep you comfortable.
WORK HARD, HAVE FUN
Ice fishing is a lot of work. Once you arrive at the lake, you have to pack your gear out to your location, drill and scoop your holes, set up your poles and constantly move around to monitor and jig your lines, re-bait your hooks and de-ice your holes. The good news is all the activity will help keep you warm.
Some days, the fish cooperate and it’s an absolute blast. On others, it seems they’ve all gone down for a long winter’s nap. This can be frustrating, but it comes with the territory — you’re fishing through 8-inch holes and it’s a big undertaking every time you move, so even your best efforts can come up short.
The key to enjoying ice fishing is knowing what you’ve signed up for. There are more variables outside your control than during open-water season, so set reasonable expectations. Chat with other fishing parties (you’ll find most of them aren’t grumpy old men) and see if you can learn some new tricks. And, like anything else, the more you go, the more confident you’ll become and the better your odds will be of hitting that perfect day when the fish are practically jumping through the ice.
WHERE TO GO
Distance from Boise: 78 miles
Target species: Rainbow trout, perch
The scoop: The lake is known for its jumbo-sized perch — the state record has been broken multiple times in recent years. In fact, Tia Wiese’s 2-pound, 11.68-ounce fish caught in 2015 is a world record for tip-up ice fishing. Cascade has big rainbow trout, too. Most anglers use a combination of worms, marshmallows, mealworms and jigs.
Contact: Tackle Tom’s, 208-382-4367.
Distance from Boise: 145 miles
Target species: Rainbow trout, perch
The scoop: Magic offers similar fishing opportunities to Cascade and is a good option when the former is slow. The perch in Magic aren’t jumbos, but there are some keepers and the trout fishing is comparable. Local anglers swear by the “Magic Sandwich” a chunk of worm, corn and marshmallow on each of the three prongs of a treble hook.
Contact: West Magic Resort at 208-487-2571.
Distance from Boise: 104 miles
Target species: Rainbow trout, mackinaw trout
The scoop: Warm Lake is all about trout. Anglers can catch good-sized rainbows, big mackinaws and even a few brook trout through the ice. Jigs tipped with night crawlers, mealworms, corn or marshmallows will work on rainbows, while mackinaws are usually caught on bigger jigs, tubes or spoons.
Contact: North Shore Lodge 208-632-2000.
Distance from Boise: 109 miles
Target species: Mackinaw trout, rainbow trout
The scoop: Payette Lake is a popular spot for hunting monster mackinaw trout. Anglers using tubes, jigs and spoons have a chance to battle with fish in excess of 10 pounds. There are rainbows and kokanee salmon, too, and Payette’s proximity to McCall makes it a fun weekend getaway.