What can you do to survive a prolonged, blustery Wyoming winter? Go south to a warmer clime? Take up cross-country or downhill skiing? Or try ice fishing? More and more people are opting for the latter.
“Ice fishing has always been popular in places like the Midwest,” claimed Wyoming Game and Fish Department Regional Fisheries Supervisor Bobby Compton. “Interest in ice fishing in Wyoming and the West has grown in the last few years. I think it’s being promoted more now at ice-fishing clinics and by sporting goods retailers. It’s also more comfortable now to get out on the ice with the better gear we have these days.”
Compton said people are also realizing it doesn’t require a big investment to get into the sport. “You can get into ice fishing for an investment of around $300,” Compton said. “You’re going to want to get a hand auger to start and a shelter or hut is a good idea. Other than that you’ll need some rods and reels and you’re in business.” If your first ice-fishing outing involves a spud or ice chisel and sitting on a bucket, you may never go again. But set up with the right equipment ice fishing can be fun and it can provide some tasty dividends besides making a Wyoming winter pass more quickly.
Wyomingites have a wide variety of species to target when ice fishing. “I would say the most popular are rainbow trout, lake trout, walleye and panfish in that order,” offered Compton. Panfish include yellow perch, crappies and bluegills. “A lot of guys are passionate about walleyes and they have a pretty strong following,” added Compton.
Many Wyoming reservoirs and lakes are what biologists call two-story fisheries. Cool-water species, like walleye, perch, crappie and pike, thrive in the shallower tepid water during the open-water months and trout favor the cold water found deeper in the reservoir, especially during the warm summer months. Come winter, water temperature are fairly uniform and species can intermingle producing some interesting smorgasbord catches. Compton pointed out that many ice anglers fish the shallows and structure early in the day targeting panfish, walleye or rainbow trout, move deeper to try their hand at lake trout, perch or burbot at mid-day, and then move back shallow for the hot evening bite. You’d think it’s dark under the ice 24/7 but during low-light times, particularly when there’s no snow on the ice, at dusk and dawn are prime time when ice fishing.
A shelter or hut is almost mandatory for ice fishing in Wyoming because of the extreme cold temperatures and the wind. Shelters come in flip-down versions, designed mainly for one to three anglers or hub-style pop ups that can accommodate six people or more. There are even newer versions that connect together so you can create an on-ice condo of sorts. Trends in hub-style shelters have been to make them bigger and better insulated. Some of the advantages of the flip downs are they have seats in them and provide a ready-made way of transporting your gear because they double as a sled. Flip downs also are available with a hitch assembly so you can connect them to your snowmobile or ATV.
A sled, like Shappel’s Jet Sled http://www.shappell.com/sleds.html, can come in handy for transporting gear to and from your shelter or for fishing on the open ice during moderate weather. You can customize the sled with rod holders and add partitions for separating fish, lunch and gear.
The wind is always a bugaboo in Wyoming, especially in the wide-open spaces of a reservoir. You need to take precautions to keep your hut or shelter from getting away and skating down the ice. One way is to use ice anchors, like those provided in Frabill’s
http://www.frabill.com/ice-fishing/ice-shelter-accessories/shelter-accessories/ice-shelter-anchor-kit.html Ice Shelter Anchor Kit to keep your shelter in place. Another alternative is to use a couple of 12- to 14-inch lengths of 2 x 4 and tie or drill a hole in the middle of the wood to secure a length of rope. Drill a hole off each upwind corner of the shelter, push the wood down the hole and turn it crossways so it spans the hole and then tie the ropes off tightly to your shelter.
You’re going to need someway of making a hole in the ice. Alternatives are a spud or ice chisel, a hand auger or a power auger. A chisel will work, especially on thin first ice, but most anglers quickly graduate to a hand auger. With a sharp hand auger and a little muscle, it’s possible to drill holes fairly quickly depending on the ice thickness. The advantage of the hand auger is they are lightweight and relatively inexpensive for those just getting started. A 4- to 6-inch auger will suffice for panfish, walleye and modest trout. Larger 8- to 10-inch versions are desired for lake trout, pike and big walleye. The larger the hole, the slower they are to freeze. Also, the larger the diameter the hole, the harder it is to cut with a hand auger. But, it’s better to have a hole that’s too big than to have a hole that’s not big enough to fit a trophy fish through.
Power augers come in electric, gas and propane versions. There are also augers that can be attached to powerful, ordinary 20-volt hand drills. That might be the best option for beginning ice anglers since most probably already have a hand drill. Electric auger versions are lightweight, cut well, especially in the smaller diameters, but there’s the issue of making sure batteries are charged and the fact that super cold weather and batteries don’t always get along.
Propane and electric augers are great if you’re going to drill holes in a shelter. You don’t have the issue of the gas smell and blue smoke. Gas augers are the choice of most serious ice anglers. I’ve had a StrikeMaster Lazer Mag gas auger http://www.rapala.com/strikemaster/power-ice-augers/gas-ice-augers for decades. The Lazer Mag auger fires up every winter, cuts with ease and makes cutting multiple holes and reopening holes a breeze.
On some Wyoming reservoirs you can use up to six rods per person when ice fishing. Cut that many holes with a hand auger and I’d be willing to bet that you’ll soon me making an investment in a power auger! An ice scoop is a handy and necessary tool for clearing ice and slush out of holes.
Rod and reel choices depend on how much you want to spend and the species you plan on targeting. Straight-line rod and reel combinations are ideal for panfish in shallower water. The newest designs of straight-line reels have flooded the ice-fishing market, but versions of them have been used for decades. The advantage of the straight-line reels is that you can use miniscule teardrops and tiny lures and not worry about line twist. Spinning reels, and the way the line wraps on the spool, inherently causes super light lures to spin madly when lowered down to a specific depth looking unnatural and dissuading fish. Straight-line reels eliminate line twist.
Spinning reels are perfect for jigging with spoons or other vertical baits and for fishing with live bait and slip bobbers. Smaller spinning reels loaded with 4- to 8-pound test line matched to a comparable weight/action and length of rod are ideal for most ice-fishing situations. Rod length is largely determined by whether you’re going to be fishing inside a hut or out. Shorter 18- to 30-inch rods are best in a shelter. The specie of fish you’ll be targeting determines the preferred rod action. Light-action rod/reel combos with a spring bobber are reasonably priced and are best for panfish species like crappie and bluegills. You can ditch the spring bobber if you opt for a high-quality graphite rod. Medium-action rods fill the bill for walleye, trout and deep-water perch. Stiffer action rods would be preferred for jigging for lake trout and pike. Bait-casting reels can be used for heavier line and for keeping tract of your depth by counting line passes.
Tip-ups are alternatives to conventional ice-fishing rods. Tip-ups come in inexpensive, rudimentary forms with wooden cross members to state-of-the art models like Frabill’s Calibrator Tip-Up that uses an LED to tell you how much line you have out, how much line the fish took out, when you had the last bite and more. Tip-ups help you cover water (ice) to locate active fish, improve your odds when fishing reservoirs that allow multiple lines and alert you when a fish bites by deploying a flag. One of the most exciting sounds when ice-fishing is when someone yells, “Flag’s Up!” Tip-ups work especially well for lake trout, rainbow trout, pike and light-biting walleyes. Be mindful of the Wyoming wind when fishing tip-ups and make sure they are anchored well by making a windbreak around the tip-up with snow and ice.
Once you have the right equipment and are nestled in your shanty with your favorite radio station on, the heater blasting and a hot cup of your preferred beverage in your hand you might find that this ice-fishing stuff isn’t so bad after all!