The leaves have long since vacated their perch upon the trees of the Upper Midwest and have now found themselves matted on the forest floor. The roofs of houses begin donning a thin white coat every morning, and the defrost on your truck becomes more useful as each day passes. Most importantly, water temps fall closer to the magic number that ice-anglers know all too well. However, before I sink new blades into fresh ice, there’s a method to my madness of pre-ice preparation.
What fall fishing I can do always has some portion of the trip dedicated to winter scouting. It starts with simply cruising across the lake with one-eye constantly on the graph, looking for tell-tale signs of differing bottom-hardness, contour changes, or un-marked structure. That said, scanning structure is only part of the equation, as fish should be near or already on their first-ice locations. Some of the best spots for ice-fishing I’ve found while in the boat, so don’t hesitate to drop a GPS waypoint on anything you see, and then circle back for further exploration. It’s far easier to scan multiple locations and depths from open water than from ice with auger in-hand.
One of the first things that gets attention is my shelter. I do this earlier than most folks, like October early. This gives me time to figure out what survived summer storage, and plan on replacement should mice or other critters have gotten into it. The same holds true for my ice auger. Again, I’ll need time to react should there be an issue. It’s a lot easier finding a place to get you a tune-up on your auger when there’s no ice on the lake, and everything from blades to engine oil is much easier to find early than late as well. Now that we’re talking about the heavy equipment, it’s not a bad time to make sure your on-ice transportation be up to snuff as well. Be it ATV, Snowmobile, or 4X4 truck, first ice is a bad time to be down your major method of transport.
From there, I open up my rod-boxes and dump out their contents. Everything in there gets my attention next, as these items can have lead-times also. I’m a big custom rods guy, and over the years have found them to specifically match presentations and fishing styles that fit me best. I say this knowing that my preferred manufacturers of custom rods are anywhere from 2 – 4 weeks out, so you’d better get moving if you have a hole in your lineup, or select a model that’s more common. Reels typically need little attention if you’ve invested in some quality ones, but it’s never a bad time to swap out or add to the fleet. Line is something that I religiously change on at least a yearly basis however. Small spools on 500 series reels are notorious for bringing out the worst in memory from your favorite line, and the longer it sits on that tiny spool, tightly coiled and ready to spring, the harder time you’re going to have feathering it down an ice-hole or detecting a strike. Whatever your line of choice, do yourself a favor and spool up fresh each year. The only caveat to that would be braid if you use it, as the advanced fibers in today’s woven lines tend to last a bit longer.
Lastly, and this is the fun part, gather all of your ice tackle in a single location, spread them out on the floor and admire how large the pile has become. Make sure to do so in the absence of your significant other, or you’ll likely be prevented from ever adding to it again. Go through old baits, replace hooks as needed and more than anything, take good inventory on what needs re-stocking. Be honest with yourself. This is a difficult task. Work new baits and lures into the rotation, but do so sparingly, and then, only in a few selected colors and sizes. Instead, focus on your staples, and make sure you have plenty multiples of them. The worst thing you can do when shopping for lures is to buy a smattering of one each in various lure types. Instead, do your research and know your fishing style, then make educated and targeted purchases in multiples of the colors and sizes of baits you know you’ll make use of this winter. While it can be more expensive, you’re far more likely to have what you need when using this system. I’ve more recently been a fan of shopping for these items online, mostly because I can order these multiples with greater ease, and typically the stock is virtually limitless. Still, whether online or in-store, supply can be sold thin if you wait too long. This is especially true for brand new lures and baits that get a good amount of press. Organize what you have into whatever system that works well for you, but put some thought into it. If you’re a hard-house only guy, you probably won’t need a smattering of tiny tackle boxes, but if you’re an incessant hole-hopper, you might want to select some boxes that easily fit in a jacket pocket for better mobility.
From here, you’re more prepared than the vast majority of your ice-fishing brethren, and for good reason, first ice can be the best fishing of the year. So fill your deer tags, get some fresh winter blend fuel in that ice auger, and wait until mother nature gives us the icy layer we need to walk on water.