The technological revolution that swept through open-water fishing circles during the past decade has now reached the frozen surfaces of lakes across the ice belt. Tapping into the high-tech ice fishing movement may cost you a couple bucks on the front end, but doing so will make you more informed about the water beneath you, more mobile on the ice, and ultimately more successful on every trip. Here are 10 contemporary innovations that will enhance every part of your ice fishing experience this winter.
When I first started ice fishing almost 30 years ago, I limped through a couple of seasons with a hand auger and then pooled cash with buddies to invest in a two-stroke, gas-powered ice drill. We felt like we had finally arrived as we pulled the rope—and pulled and pulled and pulled—until the auger roared to life, belching a cloud of blue smoke accompanied by the rumble of its internal combustion engine. Carrying a red container of mixed gas, and dealing with spills and smells on gear, clothes, and vehicles became the costs of doing business on the ice. With time, however, the hassle of the gas auger lost its appeal. Fortunately, modern ice anglers have two excellent alternatives to a gas drill.
Full-sized, battery-powered augers have the familiar look and feel of a traditional gas drill—and they may even use the same cutting blades—but they use powerful Lithium-Ion batteries instead of an engine to cut more holes than you’d ever use in a full day of fishing. Gone are the days of repeatedly pull-starting a cold-blooded gas engine. With an electric auger, you can cut holes with the push of a button without the noise, smoke, and mess. Extreme cold can affect battery life, however, so most Lithium auger fans carry a spare battery someplace warm just in case. Capable of cutting standard 8-inch and apex-predator-sized 10-inch holes, a battery-powered auger like the Ion G2 auger may be the last ice drill you’ll ever need.
Auger Attachments for Cordless Drills
You probably have a high-quality, battery-powered, ½-inch drill down on your workbench, and now that tool can pull double duty by helping you to power through lake ice. Substantially lighter and far less expensive than a complete auger, cordless drill attachments like the K-Drill Ice Auger System can cut 6- or 8-inch holes and are outstanding choices for panfish outings all winter long.
Clothing and Shelter
After graduating from sitting on a bucket in the snow and wind, my ice fishing adventures were made slightly more palatable by hunkering within a makeshift “shelter” that was realistically little more than a plastic tarp stretched over a metal frame. This offered some respite from the wind, but ultimately the multiple layers of canvas and cotton that I wore did an excellent job of trapping perspiration (remember, I was hand-drilling holes), which ultimately made me cold much faster than I had hoped. Today’s ice shelters and apparel offer significant advantages.
Portable shelters with quilted, thermal insulation represent the gold standard in staying warm and dry on the ice. Contemporary thermal shelters, like those from Otter, couple heat-trapping insulation with breathable fabrics to retain warmth while allowing condensation to escape. Available in both flip-over and hub configurations, you’ll be surprised how often you’ll be removing layers of outerwear while cranking in fish, even as the wind blows and the snow flies beyond the walls of your toasty thermal shelter.
Breathable floatation apparel enhances your mobility while providing a measure of survivability should you go through the ice. Technologically-advanced ice suits, like those manufactured by Striker, combine durable yet flexible exteriors with lightweight, buoyant insulation and interiors crafted from breathable fabrics to transport moisture away from your body. The result is weatherproof apparel that keeps you warm and dry, and also allows you to remain afloat should the ice give way underfoot. Floatation apparel is an excellent choice for season-long use and is must-have equipment.
Eyes Under The Ice
The depth-finder of bygone ice fishing seasons was little more than a lead weight molded around a toothy pinch clamp. With it, you might be able to answer the age-old, “how deep is the water,” question, and maybe even place a bait near the strike zone. This is fine if your goal for the day is to hang out on the ice with your buddies, but if you plan to land some fish, your catch rates will soar by leveraging the power of modern marine electronics, adapted for use on the ice.
CHIRP sonar has revolutionized the way that open-water anglers learn about the environment beneath them. In recent years it has begun to benefit hard water anglers, too. CHIRP is an acronym for Compressed High-Intensity Radiated Pulse, which is essentially a different way of transmitting the sonar beam into the water and processing the returns, or sonar echoes. The benefits of CHIRP include noise-free displays, enhanced target separation, and improved size discrimination. Advanced fish finders like the Humminbird ICE HELIX 7 CHIRP GPS G3 also leverage the power of CHIRP to virtually eliminate interference, or cross-talk, from nearby sonar units, which is critical when multiple anglers share a single shelter. Consider replacing the standard sealed lead-acid batteries that typically power a portable CHIRP sonar/GPS combo with a like-sized Lithium-Ion battery. Doing so will increase your run time and cut the weight by a significant amount.
High-definition underwater video helps you visualize both fish and structure with incredible clarity, color, and resolution. With help from underwater video, you can identify fish that are detected by your sonar unit before you ever drop a bait, and also quickly differentiate between rock, weed, and woody cover—a task that can be challenging using sonar data alone. Underwater optics have improved dramatically in recent years, providing distortion-free views and excellent performance even in turbid water or low-light conditions. Bright, easy-to-see displays on cameras like the Aqua-Vu HD7i Pro Gen 2 also make it possible to use HD underwater video as a powerful strike detection tool, so you can set the hook when you see a fish strike rather than waiting to feel the bite. Contemporary camera systems also allow you to export the video signal through an HDMI cable to an external monitor—like a big-screen TV in your permanent shelter—and even record the footage to share with family and friends.
Digital lake cartography represents the ultimate tool for locating productive ice fishing areas. Depth contour maps created with GPS precision allow you to identify drop-offs, flats, humps, and much more without any guesswork, which is important whether you’re traveling on foot or by snow machine. Digital lake maps are often provided on an SD card that can be read by your fishfinder/GPS combo unit. Some are even available in a format that can be displayed by your mobile device, which is perfect for using your phone or tablet to plan your next ice fishing adventure.
Rods, Line, and Jigs
Have you ever seen the ice fishing “rods” that anglers used to use? They were stiff blanks made of solid fiberglass, set into a wooden handle that featured two finishing nails used to wrap, coil, or otherwise hold the line—which was likely stiff monofilament, left over from filling open-water reels the previous spring. Not pretty, barely functional, and a significant impediment to catching fish and having fun on the ice. Luckily, we don’t need to settle for such rudimentary tackle today.
High-Tech Rod Blanks
You wouldn’t cast a spinnerbait for a largemouth with your ultra-light crappie rod, would you? The same rationale applies to ice fishing, where technique- and species-specific rods made from graphite, fiberglass, or blends of the two offer the perfect actions for sight fishing panfish in shallow water or jigging lake trout in extreme depths—and everything in-between. Expertly crafted rods like the Croix Custom Ice Rods from St. Croix Rod will make a big difference in your ice fishing success.
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Fluorocarbon lines and leaders, like Seaguar Blue Label, deliver significant advantages over monofilament and braided lines, including abrasion resistance, excellent knot and tensile strength, and near invisibility beneath the surface—a critical factor in cold, clear water. It’s important to pick a line based on your intended target. Panfish anglers should select 3- to 4-pound test, walleye anglers might choose 6- to 8-pound test fluorocarbon, and of course, go heavier for larger predators like pike and lake trout.
Tungsten Instead of Lead
Tungsten jigs have begun to dominate the terminal tackle market, especially for panfish, and for good reason. Because tungsten is denser than lead, manufacturers can mold the typical weights for panfish jigs into more compact profiles. A smaller tungsten jig that weighs the same as its lead counterpart will fall through the water column more quickly, catching the fishes’ attention—and hopefully triggering a strike—before the fish swims beyond the hole. In general, smaller baits are also accepted more readily than larger ones, especially beneath the ice. Finally, tungsten is more environmentally and biologically friendly than toxic lead tackle, so switching to tungsten for your ice fishing jigs is the right choice in the long run.