Ice Gamblers – What you might not know about the frozen addiction

by Genevieve Ackley

Ice anglers are gamblers; they travel to a selected destination with gear in tow to bear frigid cold temperatures and hazardous ice conditions all in hopes of catching fish. To many this is a special form of torture; to the avid ice angler it’s an addiction and like a true addict it only takes one monster or that one unforgettable day of ice fishing to stay “hooked.”

Ice fishing has undergone copious technological improvements since its primitive beginning. From lines, rods, reels and ice huts to the innovation of the ice auger and fish finder, ice fishing has spawned from survival to sport.

Lining it up…

Fishing line is the simplest and most necessary prop in the fisherman’s bag of tricks. For many centuries anglers utilized braided horse hair, silk, or linen when available. All of these required rinsing and drying after every use, plus they frayed easily and were susceptible to UV damage. The demanding upkeep meant most people fished for subsistence, not leisure.

Modern fishing line is much more accommodating. Monofilament, a single strand complex synthetic nylon polymer, is ubiquitous, affordable, clear (fish are less skeptical) and it comes in several pound-tests (the amount of force needed to break the line). Other types of fishing line exist, yet monofilament is the big fish in the small pond of fishing lines.

It’s not about the size of the rod; it’s how you use it . . . Rods date back to 2000 B.C., originally called angles–this is where the term anglers derived from. Rudimentary at best, the first archetypes were constructed of bone, wood, or stone. In the 17th century anglers began adding an eye to the tip to facilitate bringing in or letting out line. By the18th century rods consisted of 4 to 5 eyes. Graphite rods soon replaced the popular split bamboo/cane rods in the early 1970s. Graphite rods are not only light, but most importantly allow for a variety of tapers that capitalize on different actions.

Action is a BIG deal, in order to imply the significance of action when fishing, I feel a bar analogy is necessary. Imagine three single dudes walk into a bar.  Dude 1 is light-hearted and easy going. Dude 2 is of medium build so as to not intimidate, but entice. Dude 3 is all power, no subtlety. Dude 1 attracts a small coquettish lady. Dude 2 attracts the assertive yet fleeting female.  Dude 3 attracts the fearless Amazon woman nobody else will dare talk to.

In fishing terms, blanks (the shaft or stick of the rod) can either bend just at the tip or throughout the length. If fishing for smaller fish, a light action blank that bends at the tip is necessary to identify faint bites (Dude 1). Medium action rods bend more throughout the blank and are ideal for jigging because they soften hard movements and cajole fish to bite (Dude 2). Slow action, stiff rods can’t detect lighter bites, but have the power to finagle larger fish (Dude 3).

When ice fishing, most anglers prefer shorter rods because they are easier to maneuver in small ice huts. Additionally because fish slow down in the winter they don’t strike as hard so the light action rods detect even the slightest of bites. Furthermore smaller rods offer more control to wrangle a fish through an 8-12 inch wide and 6-12 inch deep hole.

Time to reel it in…

The first mention of the reel is by the Chinese in 1195 AD and aesthetically resembles today’s fly reels. Reels weren’t introduced to the Western world until 1651 and these used a complicated three pulley system that allowed the middle pulley to be let down or brought up.

The first American baitcasting reel was invented by George Snyder in 1820. Today there are three basic types of reels: flycast which requires a person to strip the line with one hand and cast with the other; baitcasting which consists of a revolving spool and allows for anglers to broadcast their lines into farther waters; and last, spinning reels which are the same concept as baitcasting reels but can cast even lighter baits because of their less resistant design.

Breaking the ice… 

Prior to the invention of the ice auger in 1870 by William Clark, anglers were required to tediously chisel away at inches of ice until they finally hit water. The advantageous design of today’s ice augers make ice fishing more feasible for the hobby fisherman; what used to take hours now takes mere seconds with the right equipment. Ice augers work by pushing down through the ice like a flat screw while simultaneously excavating ice debris up out of the hole.

Speaking of breaking the ice…

Everyone has heard a story or two about the time a friend of a friend moronically decided to drive a vehicle on to what appeared to be a frozen lake, only to find it wasn’t frozen and subsequently the vehicle ended up in the lake rather than on it. Knowing a little bit about the ice can help clear that up.

The cold hard facts about ice: 4 inches of solid new ice is safe for foot activities, 5 inches is safe for snowmobiles and ATVs, 8-12 inches for cars and small pickups, and 12-15 for pickups. It is important to keep in mind that new ice is stronger, ice never freezes uniformly, snow slows down the freezing process, and white ice is half as strong as new ice.

It’s freezing out here! 

Eskimos and Indians realized the benefit of placing makeshift shelters on the ice to stay warm and block the sun, increasing the visibility to spear a fish as it swam by. Later people built small structures that remained fixed to the same spot until spring. Some really avid fishermen used to attach skis or a sled to cumbersome canvas tents. Modern ice huts are designed to be compact, light, wind blocking, and warm.

Literally a fish out of water…

Fish finders are probably one of the greatest tools a modern angler can invest in, the basics aside. In the early 1900s governments developed SONAR (SOund Navigation and Ranging) to locate foreign submarines. SONAR works by transmitting and receiving sound waves from the bottom of a body of water. The first consumer fathometers developed by Lowrance in 1957 were limited to displaying the depth and a flicker if a fish came near. Advancing technology has transformed fathometers to fish finders to mini computers.

Today fish finders are equipped with LCD displays, GPS, tracking, speed/temperature sensors, depth and fish alarms, the capability to change the sensitivity of sonar to better detect echoes from fish, adjust display depth (e.g. display 20-50 feet instead of 0-50 feet), and many are portable (use on a boat or on the ice).

What lies beneath the surface . . . So, how do fish survive such cold temperatures? Well, in the winter lakes undergo a topsy turvy phenomenon. Here’s how it works–in the winter as water cools the molecules pack tighter and tighter together increasing the density until the temperature reaches 39 degrees F at which point the water molecules become heavier than the molecules at the surface (32 degrees F) and sink, so that the greater the depth the warmer the water.

Additionally, fish are poikilotherms a.k.a. “cold blooded,” so they can acclimate their body temperature to their environment and slow down their metabolism to utilize energy reserves efficiently, a kind of fish super power. Certain fish stay closer to the bottom of lakes whereas others thrive in the cooler temps and are more likely to be found somewhere in the middle.

The only environmental factor that poses a real threat to fish survival is the lack of oxygen during winter, known as winter kill. Winter kill is when all or some of the fish die. Some winter kill is natural and beneficial because it allocates resources for surviving fish helping them grow bigger faster.

The world of ice fishing is not for the faint of heart below or above the ice. It is for those who understand the primal addiction of man vs. nature.

My addiction is the anxiety of waiting for the tip of the pole to dip down while wiggling my fingers and toes to stay warm.  What keeps me hooked is savoring a steaming sip of coffee, taking in cool crisp air, and gazing at white snow-capped mountains all the while trying to best my dad in the art of ice fishing.

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