The Prairie Provinces, Canada – January 2002
Saskatchewan and Manitoba
Ice Fishing 101
Who knew a hole in the ice could be so much fun?
Winter on the Prairies is what you make of it. The majority of the population takes cover indoors, huddling under blankets and gorging on carbohydrates until the green grass pokes through in spring. The rest of us refuse to let the ice and snow win and take to the outdoors every chance we get, whether it be for a snowshoe hike, some fast-action tobogganing, or to stick a line through the ice and catch some fish.
When I first moved to this area the concept of ice fishing seemed, quite frankly, ludicrous. Really, who in their right mind goes out in thirty below to stand in the middle of a frozen lake hoping a fish may wander by? The first time I tried it was so I could thereafter knock it knowledgably – little did I know that I would be hooked (pardon the pun) in less than an hour.
What I discovered is that when the ice fishing is good, it is a fast and furious sport that makes you forget how cold the air around you is. It is a cheap and fun way to whittle away a frosty day, get some exercise and maybe your dinner as well. If you find yourself visiting the Prairies during the winter months you can try ice fishing with very little money; just make sure you have a lot of time in case you too get lured in (last fishing pun, I promise).
What you need
One of the best things about ice fishing is you need very little equipment to have a go at it. Some people hit the ice with a hut, gas auger, wood-burning stove and a picnic lunch. This is all very nice, but all you really need is some ice fishing line, bait and a hole or two to fish through. While an auger is handy you can get by without one; just approach some nice looking fellow fisher-people on the ice with a ‘this is my first time look’ and they’ll drill the holes for you. You’ll also need an ice strainer (a metal scoop that looks like a colander) to keep your hole clear, but if you look pathetic enough those nice folks who lent you their auger will probably give you one.
Most Prairie lakes have good ice fishing for walleye, perch and northern pike. Ask a local bait shop what is biting and they should be able to set you up with some minnows or maggots for next to nothing.
And to state the extremely obvious, dress warm. Sounds like a silly thing to say, I know, but almost every outing I see some poor sap huddled over a hole with no gloves or hat, turning blue around the edges. You don’t need to make a fashion statement while ice fishing: invariably everyone around you will look vaguely like a refugee, so break out the wool hat and keep your noggin warm.
How to do it
It’s a pretty simple sport. You bait your hook, drop it down the hole, and wait for the telltale tug at the end of your rod that tells you the fish are trying your treat. You’ll quickly learn how to time a tug on the line with a quick jerk upwards to hook the fish. When you get into a school you’ll barely be able to drop your hook down before you have another fish on the line.
I’ve found that it sometimes gets easier after a few shots of scotch (strictly to warm up, of course).
Where to go
You can ice fish in almost any lake that you can fish in the summer. Check the provincial regulations (links below) before you go to make sure you are fishing legally. Some of the more popular lakes include Blackstrap and Diefenbaker in Saskatchewan, and Lake Manitoba in, yes, Manitoba. Almost every town has an ice fishing lake within an easy travel distance, and the locals will usually be more than helpful in getting you out there and set up.
When to go
The ice fishing season is technically just an extension of the regular season, so you can go out whenever you want. Having said that, I never go out onto the ice before mid-December at the very earliest, as breaking through thin ice and getting hypothermia is not my idea of a good time. Ask the locals if the ice is safe to walk on, and make sure the water is really, really, really frozen before you attempt to drive a vehicle on the ice. Every year people die from trying to walk or drive on ice that is too thin: if you are the least bit unsure then don’t take the chance.
Fishing reports for Prairie lakes: