Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
December 2010

The Many Spectrums of Ice Fishing

By Corey Schwanke
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Corey Schwanke with a 25 pound lake trout caught in late April through the ice.

When most people think of ice fishing, they picture a person sitting on a bucket slouched over a hole in the ice. Although ice fishers are typically confined to fishing vertically beneath a hole, within that confine lays an abundance of fishing diversity. There are over a dozen different species of fish to catch beneath the ice in Alaska, and there are many different ways to fish for them. There are many types of ice fishers in this state ranging from relatively inexperienced once-a-year types to the passionate die-hards who will spend 30 or more days a year actively ice fishing.

Most people in this state are not “die-hard” ice fishers. It is a rare breed that will fish for days and days trying to pull fish through a hole in the ice. Let’s be honest, ice fishing is typically not as fun as open water fishing in the summer. It is usually slower fishing, the fish are generally smaller, it is much colder out, and it can be boring at times. Most people who ice fish do it because it is the only fishing available at the time, and they are trying to make do with what they are dealt. After all, the “hard water” season lasts nearly six months in most of the state, and that is a long time for some people to go without fishing. As true as these statements are, ice fishing can be very rewarding, can be very fun, and is something kids and adults can do together.

Most ice fishers that I would classify as “die-hards” are reward driven. In other words, they want to catch a lot of fish and/or big fish. These people typically fit the introductory description of the perceptual ice fisher. I was one of these people for many years. I was obsessed with catching extremely large fish like lake trout and northern pike over 20 lbs. I would spend over 100 hours a winter hovering over a hole jigging relatively large lures such as 8 oz crocodile spoons, 6 inch wild-eye swim shads, large marabou or rubber grub-style jigs, and sometimes even a dead whitefish that weighed over a pound. Hooking and landing trophy caliber fish through the ice would make my heart race and my knees tremble with excitement. The best way to describe catching a 25-plus pound lake trout through the ice is to have someone imagine catching a king salmon through the ice. You need to be set up properly and you need patience as these fish are not that common. As far as equipment, you need heavy line (20 pound or heavier), a stout rod to ensure a good hook set and to keep pressure on the fish, along with good strong hooks, split rings and swivels because these fish will test the strength of your gear. An auger that drills ten inch holes is a must because fish of this caliber will not fit through a six or eight hole. This type of ice fishing is not for everyone, though. With most fish you can measure the amount of time needed to catch one with minutes or hours, but the amount of time needed to catch these adrenaline fish is often measured in days or weeks.

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Tip-up fishing for burbot with 3 families.

If it is not your forte’ to hover over a hole in the ice for days and days targeting trophy caliber fish, many other options are available. On the other end of the ice fishing spectrum is the convenient option of fishing stocked lakes. Everything is simpler for targeting these fish. Any size auger is fine and many sporting good stores have small combination rod and reel set-ups all ready to go. In fact, for most stocked lakes, a reel isn’t even necessary. An inexpensive reel-less ice fishing rod, a piece of dowel rod, or a stout willow stick is sufficient to pull in these smaller fish. Bait and/or lures are easy to choose since all you need is a plain hook and cocktail shrimp or salmon eggs, or any small jigging lure such as a spoon or lead-head jig. These fish are typically 14 inches or less, but their general cooperation makes up for their size. This fishing is very enjoyable itself and is great for kids because access is easy and the fishing is often good. All stocked lakes are listed in the Sport Fishing Regulations Summary booklets and lake specific stocking histories are available online at the ADF&G/Division of Sport Fish website.

Another very enjoyable ice fishing technique is the use of closely attended lines or tip-ups. A tip-up is a contraption with a spool of line and a spring-loaded flag that acts as a strike indicator. When set, the line is in the water with a baited hook on it and the flag is bent over, lightly secured to the frame of the tip-up; making it lie low next to the hole. When a fish takes the bait, the securing mechanism is tripped and the flag flips up letting you know a fish is taking the bait. Stationary bait works great for burbot and northern pike and, to a lesser degree, lake trout. This type of passive fishing is really easy and allows for other activities while out fishing. One of my favorite things to do is invite several families out to a lake with burbot or pike in it. We put out about a dozen tip-ups (the limit is from 2 to 5 tip-ups per person depending on where you are fishing and what fish you are targeting). We then build a large fire and create a comfortable situation for everyone, especially the kids. We often roast marshmallows and hot dogs and let the kids drink as much hot chocolate as their bellies will hold. This leisure is often interrupted when a flag comes up and the kids drop their roasting sticks and race to the flag to see who gets to pull in the fish. This is one of my family’s favorite activities when we get a nice stretch of weather in the winter.

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River ice fishing for Arctic grayling: Caden Schwanke’s smile says it all.

I have described three different ice fishing scenarios, all three of them quite different. There are a multitude of other opportunities and potential ice fishing possibilities. Alaska has thousands of lakes and rivers with quite a diversity of ice fishing opportunities. When most people think of ice fishing, they think of lakes. Very few people ice fish the rivers for resident species such as rainbow trout, Arctic grayling or Dolly Varden. Although this can be very difficult as the fish are typically sluggish, it can be a lot of fun when you find them. Look for slow deep stretches where fish tend to concentrate during winter. Remember, however, that river ice thickness can be variable depending on the underlying current, areas of upwelling, stream inlets and outlets, and periods of warmer weather. Use caution on all ice, but especially river ice.

There are many devices and gadgets out there that can make ice fishing a comfortable and enjoyable experience. Portable ice shanties are real affordable and along with a propane buddy heater, can make ice fishing in the most frigid conditions downright comfortable. GPS units make it easy to fish locations over and over, and fish finders not only help locate fish, but they also add an interesting element to ice fishing.

Ice fishing does not have to be a cold boring experience. It can be for anyone of any age and any level of experience. Whether you are going after 20-pound lake trout or you are trying to get your 3 year old kid to reel in his first fish, it can be very rewarding and a great way to spend a winter day.

Corey Schwanke is a Fisheries Biologist in the Glennallen office. He has been fishing since he could walk and with the help of his wife, Becky, is passing along the art of fishing to their son, Caden.

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