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Back 40: Adventures in ice fishing

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By John Hall EBS Contributor

Imagine walking into what looks like a very large meadow blanketed in snow. You pick a random spot, drill a hole and drop a fishing line down. After a likely wait and fight with the rod, you catch a vibrant, multicolored, feisty fish that was swimming beneath you just moments prior.

Fishing out on a lake in the middle of winter without a boat is a surreal experience. What had been a rippling, emerald-green lake in summer has been transformed into a frozen field of possibility. The majestic beauty of the snow-covered landscape in southwest Montana is especially enjoyable when sitting atop the ice in the company of friends, sipping on the beverage of your choice, and anticipating the exhilaration of a twitching rod tip.

To experience the rewards of ice fishing, there is some essential equipment and attire you will need to be successful.

An ice auger is an essential tool for the ice fisher, and come in a variety of styles for drilling holes in the ice.

   Ice auger – Ice augers come in hand, gas, propane and electric-powered varieties. Hand augers are the least expensive and can efficiently drill a few holes at a time with some effort. To speed up the process and be able to drill more holes in a day, go with a powered option. Gas and propane augers work great, but electric powered augers are quickly gaining popularity because they are lighter, fumeless and quieter.

Ice fishing rods – One bonus of ice fishing is the rods are relatively inexpensive compared to other types of fishing rods. More expensive brands and styles exist, but basic rod, reel and line combos go for $15-$20. They come in different lengths and actions, “action” referring to the rod’s stiffness. Generally, shorter rods have a lighter action or more flex, and are used to catch smaller species of fish, while the mid-to-heavy action rods are for larger fish. Always pack at least a few rods so you can fish multiple holes at a time, up to the rod limit per person.

Terminal tackle, lures and bait – Terminal tackle is what is tied to the line and can include hooks, leaders, swivels, sinkers, floats and any kind of snaps or connectors to attach lures and/or bait. The most common ice fishing lures are jigs, spoons and swimming lures. You can add bait to increase the odds of attracting a fish. Bait types in this area include nightcrawlers, meal worms and maggots. Be sure to check fishing regulations for the body of water you are fishing.

Accessories – An ice skimmer is needed to clear the slush and ice from your holes. Five-gallon buckets are useful to hold your skimmer, rods and the catch-of-the-day. It’s also nice to have a few chairs and rod holders. A sled is handy for hauling your gear onto the ice. For added comfort, some ice fishers bring a pop-up ice shanty and a small propane heater to protect them from the elements.

Warm clothing – This is most critical because clothing can make or break your day. Though pricey, ice fishing suits are very warm—and float, to boot—however ski pants and jacket will do if you layer up. Tall, insulated, waterproof boots with warm wool socks will keep your feet comfortable. Finally, ice cleats allow you to move over the ice with confidence.

Some popular ice fishing destinations in southwestern Montana include Hebgen Lake, Hyalite Reservoir, Ruby Reservoir, Canyon Ferry, Clark Canyon Reservoir and Georgetown Lake. Depending on which lake you fish, you can catch trout, perch, walleye and any other species you can target. Don’t pass up smaller local, public ponds as they are a great option too.

It’s extremely important to be sure that the ice is safe. Sporting goods stores will often post an ice fishing report on the thickness of the ice on area lakes. A good rule of thumb is ice must be 3 inches thick to safely walk on it. Ask a local or observe what others are doing (or not doing) on the ice. Features of ice to avoid include pressure ridges, areas with current under it, and spots where warm springs are entering the lake. Always take a partner and if you feel unsure, don’t risk it.

John Hall is a local fishing outfitter and owner of Reel Life Montana Adventures in southwestern Montana. He has been guiding fly fisherman for over 20 years. Ice fishing adventures have recently become an exciting seasonal option. Visit for more information.








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