I still remember my first ice fishing trip, about four years ago on a small pond in the Adirondacks. My guide, a surly local named Gary, made it all look so easy, even when he chose to do it the hard way—he believed that heated ice shanties were only good for ice drinking, not ice fishing, and that anything invented in the last four decades was totally unnecessary, since his father had been catching fish just fine without it.
Gary taught me the basics: boring holes through the still-thin early January ice with a manual auger (a tool with a giant helical bit), clearing the ice around and inside the holes with a shovel and a skimmer, and installing tip-ups (little devices that let you have unsupervised fishing lines in the water and raise signal flags when fish takes the bait).
Before Gary's final tip-up was even set, the first flag went up and we ran to the hole. After checking that the fish was still biting, we pulled out the line, and I had my first trout. Then another. And another. Piece of cake! Gary sent me off to play with a fishing rod a bit further away, and there was immediately a school of yellow perch waiting for me. No need to learn casting here: ice fishing rods are short. You just drop your line, hit the bottom, and jig. Just like the fish, I was hooked.
Only when I bought my own gear and went on my first solo outing did reality start to sink in: Hardwater angling is actually … hard.
First, there's really no good weather for ice fishing. Blame the laws of physics. In order for your favorite lake to be covered with the (at least) three to four inches of ice necessary for your safety, it needs to be very cold for a long time, so be prepared to face polar temperatures, and probably snow.
Ice fishing in the snow is akin to shoveling your driveway. If your holes get snowed in, you can't drop your line and your tip-ups might not signal properly. If your tip-ups get buried, you can be pretty sure you'll lose them. So you spend your time going back and forth between holes just to clean everything up. After a few accumulated inches, you'll have to start the serious shoveling, whether you just want to drill a hole, or set up a tent for some of that ice drinking. Drag a sled loaded with heavy gear over half a mile through one foot of snow, and you can cancel your gym membership.
Clear and sunny skies, on the other hand, typically come with temperatures way below zero, which means that everything you bring with you will freeze. That may seem obvious, but you probably don't measure the consequences. With ice coverage reaching two feet thick, drilling holes a mano like Gary becomes an exercise in pure masochism. The line on your tip-ups and fishing reels will freeze, your holes will freeze, your bait bucket will freeze. Your fingers, of course, will freeze, since handling fishing line and tiny hooks with gloves is impossible, and you constantly end up getting your hands wet. As you quickly cover those wet hands again, your gloves will get soaking wet and freeze in turn. And don't expect that Thermos of hot chocolate to stay hot for very long. But things could be worse: it could be windy, too!
So let's say you've decided to brave the elements. You've left your urban abode, driven a few hours north, parked in some snow-covered designated parking area (hoping your car won't be stuck when it's time to leave), and unloaded all your gear. Hopefully you did all that before sunrise, because while some lucky fishermen catch fish at any hour of the day, the majority of us can only expect to catch something in the early morning or late evening, and just freeze our asses off during the day.
Now, where do you set up? It makes reasonable sense to stick with the pack. After all, a few of the other anglers you spy out there are bound to know what they're doing. It's just a matter of figuring out which ones. Beyond that, you're on your own. Fishing books can teach you lots of nice theories about thermoclines, fish habitat, the preferred depths of each species at different times of the season, humps, points, saddles, and inside corners. Except frozen lakes don't exactly come with depth contour lines spray-painted on them. That would be too easy. So you'll just have to bore a hole and measure depth yourself, which takes much longer if you're a Gary type than if you're a modern angler equipped with an electric auger and a sonar. As for thermoclines, do you have a depth thermometer? Yeah, that's what I thought.
The temptation to race for more equipment is always there: Would I catch more fish if I had an underwater camera? A heated box tip-up? A vibrating fishing lure?
But let's assume you've drawn a reasonable line between necessary gear and sex-toy-like gadgets. You've drilled a few holes to figure out the lay of the land, and you're waiting for that first bite. One of your tip-up flags goes up! Finally, a strike! Or so you think… There might not be a fish at the end of the line, but even if you don't feel anything, you're gonna have to reel in, check your bait, and put it back in. Or maybe there was a fish at the end of the line, before it swam away with your hook when one of your knots came undone. Because there are plenty of knots on a tip-up: one to tie the hook, two to attach a barrel swivel that prevents the line from getting tangled, one to tie the line to the reel … any of which can go wrong, leaving you with no fish, a semi-functional tip-up, and a free ticket to freeze your hands for ten minutes while fixing it. Note to fishing book authors: Whoever thinks that you can teach a knot with a stupid black and white image is wrong.
But let's pretend you've mastered the art of the blood knot and the improved clinch knot (you know there's something wrong with a knot when someone had to come up with an improved version of same), and the strike on your tip-up is the real deal. Now you have to bring the fish to the surface. I know, at this point it sounds trivial. Of course you can't really pull the line with your gloves on, so you'll have to take out those frostbitten fingers again, the line burning your palms as the hooked fish fights for its life. Hmm, pretty strong for a perch. Hmm, now that it's near the surface, it looks pretty big, too. In fact, it's not a perch at all; it's a large trout, way too large to fit through the small hole that you bored (augers come in various diameters). As its head hits the ice cap and your fishing line breaks, you bid farewell to the beautiful trout before it hurries back into the depths of the lake, never to take a chance at a minnow for the next three days.
Now let's imagine you got the fish out of the water. While I've never heard of anyone going ice fishing for the beauty of the sport, practicing catch and release like some idyllic Delaware River fly-fisherman, this isn't 100-percent finders-keepers, either. There are regulations. That beautiful 20" lake trout that you caught on Blue Mountain Lake? One inch too short (you brought a tape measure, right?). Back into the lake, quickly! And you can't keep more than two per day (not that you'll ever catch more than two). And anyway, because of mercury pollution, you're not supposed to eat all that much of it.
So why bother, you may ask? Well, what did YOU do all winter? Sit on the couch in your pajamas and watch House of Cards? Whine that you couldn't wait until spring? Drive a blue neon-lit car in Florida's suburbs? Go skiing on a few inches of slushy artificial snow on a hill that masquerades as a mountain?
Plus, ice fishing isn't always that bad, especially if you persevere and find the right people to teach you. Sure, I've met some who drill half a dozen holes, then sit in their shanty drinking coffee laced with cheap red wine, and merrily go home at the end of the day, their flasks as empty as their fish buckets. But at the other end of the spectrum, you've got guides like Captain Bill, who confidently orient themselves on the vast expanse of Lake Ontario, drill their first hole, and immediately start catching yellow perch two at a time (OK, maybe not every day).
Believe it or not, but some people, myself included, actually like snow and cold weather, and the middle of a frozen lake isn't a bad place to quietly enjoy winter in a secluded landscape.
Then there's the fish.
This post previously appeared on MUNCHIES in April, 2015.