Breaking the Ice

When the cold really sets in, the hardy angler goes fishing

      Bitter cold is not enough to describe the single-digit temperatures that descended on Chesapeake Country in late December and early January.
     In Erie, Pennsylvania, where I grew up, this is what winter is like. This year the small city broke into the news (yet again) for not only low temperatures but also record Christmas snows: over five feet in four days. Weather like that is one of the reasons I moved to Maryland some 50 years ago. But for people thereabouts, it’s no big deal.
      Anglers in that neck of the woods simply make the transition to hard-water fishing. They are quite content to continue the pursuit of yellow perch, walleye, crappie, sunfish, pickerel and Northern pike throughout the winter.
     To do so, they equip themselves with ice augers, snow shovels, pop-up ice tents or small shacks on snow skids, space heaters, some tip-ups or ice rods, a slotted ice spoon for keeping the fish holes clear and some minnows or a handful of grubs or butter worms for bait. 
     Our recent temperatures have been low long enough to create safe ice (four inches or more) on many Maryland freshwater impoundments. Exclude brackish tributaries as the salt content lowers the freezing levels and the tidal currents make ice unsafe.
     Deep Creek, Smithville, Tuckahoe, Unicorn, Urieville and Waterford are among the hundred or so constructed lakes scattered throughout the state. Always keep in mind that sufficient ice is the essential requirement for safe angling. Check with Maryland Department of Natural Resources (www.almanac.com/content/ice-thickness-safety-chart) to be sure that the waters you’re interested in fishing are considered safe. 
     The basic equipment is simple, though, like my home-state ice-fishers, you can dress it up all you want. A boring auger, powered or manual, is a real help in making an ice-fishing hole, but I often used a steel spud or wrecking bar for chipping out access to the depths. Attach a rope to the bar and wrap the end around your arm so that when you break through the ice the tool doesn’t slip from your grasp and go shooting down to the bottom. 
     It is also a great advantage to have fished your chosen waters before they ice up, especially as you will have an idea of where the deeper areas lie. You’ll need at least eight feet of water to have a chance at getting fish. Avoid the areas, no matter how attractive, near any outflow as the moving water creates dangerous and unpredictable ice thicknesses. 
     An inverted five-gallon bucket with some kind of cushion makes a satisfactory seat, and a pop-up tent will break the wind — if you don’t mind cutting a hole in its floor. Space heaters can be a comfort if you are careful with the exhaust gases, always providing adequate ventilation.
    Small 18- to 24-inch rods (with appropriate reels) adapted for kids during the regular season are what you need for ice fishing. For bait, use small minnows, worms, grubs and similar trout baits, both real and synthetic. Add shad darts as an additional attractant. Small jigs and spoons will also work. Hooks up to No. 2 work well. You’ll only need a split shot or two for weight to get down near the bottom.
     Storing caught fish is simple. Dropping them outside on the ice freezes them up quickly. They are then easily handled and carried home in your bucket. The fish will generally resume activity as they thaw, so make allowances on the way to the cleaning table.