BY GORD ELLIS
As mind-boggling as it sounds (to me), I’ve been ice fishing almost 50 years. Yes, that’s a scary amount of time. When I was an infant, my dad used to place me over an ice hole he would grind out with a spud. It was my job to watch for the stick to move, signaling a bite. More often than not, we were fishing for brook trout. Those memories are misty ones, but I do remember the smell of wood smoke, the cold air, and the thrill of feeling a fish on the end of the line. The pleasures and challenges of ice fishing certainly got their hooks in early.
Ice fishing levels the playing field for many anglers because you don’t need a boat to access some of the best fishing spots. You can just grab a pull-sled, load an auger and a few lines, and walk right out to the good stuff. The walk may be a few hundred yards, or it may be a kilometre or more. Of course, many Ontario anglers prefer snowmobile, ATV, or even a truck to get to those same spots, but it really isn’t a requirement. A pair of good boots, or snowshoes will usually do the trick. That makes the pursuit great for everyone, and especially awesome for kids.
In my own youth, the only shelter we would use ice fishing was a tarp or other windbreak. Today, there are thousands of types of ice fishing shacks to protect anglers from the elements. Yet this type of ice fishing is not for everyone, and it really has never been for me. Many of us like to move around to follow a bite which makes setting up a shelter a bit trickier. Luckily, several companies, including Frabill, Otter, Rapala, and Clam, have portable shelter options that allow for mobility and warmth. Some of these tents are small enough to easily be pulled by hand, while others are large and require a snow machine or ATV to get them across the ice.
Terminal ice fishing gear has also made radical progress. Not that very long ago, the only fishing rod you would see on the ice would be the back half of a spinning set up, or some old style rig like the Normark Thrumming Rod. For most folks, a gad, spool of heavy monofilament line, and some flagging tape had you 90 per cent covered. But that was then. These days, almost every major tackle manufacturer has a large selection of ice fishing rods, and you can buy protective cases that keep these delicate wands from being pulverized within the unforgiving confines of your carrying pack. The lines are more cold friendly—and generally thinner—than what most of us used to rely on, too.
Perhaps the single most significant change to the ice fishing landscape is the use of electronics. The introduction to sonar use on ice was certainly a game changer. For me, it happened 25 years ago on Lake of the Woods. Some Minnesota anglers and a small group from Manitoba invited me along to fish crappie with them at Nestor Falls. I was the only angler without a flasher unit of some kind. It was a humbling experience. These guys could see the fish approaching the bait, reel up to the ones that were suspending, and tease them into striking. Fishing blind was not cutting the mustard. I returned to Thunder Bay and tracked down a four-colour flasher unit that a salmon angler had discarded from his boat. There were no ice fishing sonar units for sale back then. The unit proved amazingly versatile, and greatly improved my success, but I’ll never forget some acquaintances at the time telling me to “turn it off cause it’s scaring the fish.” Fast forward to 2013, and we have all sorts of sonar units designed exclusively for use on ice. It’s now rare to see a group of ice anglers without at least one sonar unit.
It will be fascinating to see where ice fishing goes from here. But it’s been a great ride so far.