Last Wednesday, Chad Frantz dragged his sled across Kinzua Dam Bay.
The ice had finally thickened enough to fish and he was eager to try his luck. He quickly drilled five 8-inch holes in the ice and baited with large 9-inch minnows attached to a large red treble hook tied to 60 lbs of fluorocarbon.
His target was a big pike or muskellunge, big bait for big fish. Adjusting his spikes to hold his offerings just above the bottom, he placed the flags; now there was nothing to do but wait.
Three hours passed when suddenly a flag jerked upright, the orange square swinging madly back and forth. Chad jumped to his feet and scooted over the tipper, carefully pulling the reel out of the water.
The line would regularly come unstuck from the spool as the fish ran. He caught it, and when the line tightened, he struck and felt an unyielding weight.
His heart was already pounding, but all that had his bait didn’t move and extra adrenaline raced through his body as the unseen opponent suddenly pulled out an extra line with unstoppable power.
Back and forth the battle raged, the line winning and then losing, as the fish moved away. Slowly Chad took advantage – then the leader appeared and a wide, dark shape shot under the hole, eliminating more line.
Chad gasped; it was a huge fish. After 10 long minutes, Chad had seen the big fish pass by the hole several times and knew it was a huge pike.
Finally, he was able to get that broad crocodile snout to start through the opening far enough to grab the gill lid and squeeze the fish up and out onto the ice. The 44 inch fish had a huge saggy belly, he couldn’t believe his girth and length. It was the pike he dreamed of, and there it was. Dreams come true.
Ice fishing can be as simple or as complex as you want it to be. An ice potato, chainsaw or ice auger can make one or five holes in the ice.
You can put tip-ups or use a short rod, jigging in a single hole. The choice is up to you and the type of fish you are looking for.
Where to fish is very similar to summer fishing, although you need a good memory to find a structure now hidden under snow and ice. Spikes, drop-offs, rocky bumps, deeper potholes, river sides, old roads, weed edges, and other fish habitats hold fish in the winter just as they did in the summer.
Many fish will be at depth, but immediately after the ice breaks there will be large numbers of fish in shallow waters, primarily in rocky, wooded areas and at the mouths of creeks.
Tip-ups are the most widely used method of ice fishing. Tip-ups consist of a base, a strike indicator flag and a spool of line held underwater to prevent it from freezing.
The base is set on the ice, the hook baited and lowered a foot or two off the bottom as the flag is bent and lightly set into a notch on the spool. When a fish grabs and pulls the line, the spool spins, releasing the metal flag which straightens up – quite exciting when this happens.
Minnows are the preferred bait this time of year if you can find them. Smaller minnows for crappie and perch, mealworms, earthworms and tiny baited and unbaited jigs for pumpkinseed, larger minnows for walleye and pike and very large minnows or suckers for big pike, walleye and big muskellunge.
The wind of ice fishing is your biggest enemy. Dress warmly in layers with a well-insulated pair of boots.
Many use tents and other popup shelters to escape the cold. These are often equipped with small propane heaters, chili and beverage warmers, and folding chairs.
A quick glance out the window or door shows if a flag is up and if it’s necessary to rush in and fight a fish. Some drill a hole or two inside the shelter.
Warm gloves and hats are also essential and don’t forget your sunglasses; the sheen of snow and ice is literally blinding. I love the little hand and foot warmers that you can slip into your gloves and boots; they make all the difference in your comfort level.
If big fish are possible, make sure you have a gaff handy. They are indispensable when it comes to pulling a heavy and angry pike or muskellunge through the ice.
If you carry your gear by hand, one of the six-foot-long orange sleds is ideal. The sleds have holes on the edges that you can attach bolts to. These allow you to attach the tent, chairs, auger, or whatever you drag across the ice. If your sled tips over, your equipment does not overflow the sled, a definite plus.
When hunting season is over and the lakes and rivers freeze over, you may want to hibernate, don’t. Grab a friend or family and hit the ice. It won’t just get you out of the house and into the fresh air, you’ll have a great time and might end up with a fresh fish dinner or a state record.
Dress warmly, take food and drink, be safe and enjoy the experience.