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Family Ice Fishing - A Beginners Guide

Family Ice Fishing - A Beginners Guide

Regardless of the realms of Global Warming winters in Canada are here to stay! And, despite a global economic downturn that has not eluded residents of our great country - people here still love to have fun - summer or winter! Families in particular are often seeking an activity they can all enjoy together that won't cost them an arm and a leg. “Something that will get the kids outdoors and away from those darned computer games!” Well look no further moms and dads - brothers and sisters we have the answer to your dilemma - ICE FISHING!

The great thing about ice fishing is that it can be as much fun for a five year old as it is for an 85 year old. “We have a group from New York that stays with us several times every winter to fish from out huts,” says Jerry Kucharchuk owner of Peninsula Resort and Pefferlaw Ice Huts on Lake Simcoe. One of the guys is 92 years old - and although he has a few health problems he can still out fish most guys half his age and has so much fun out there that his eyes just light up with anticipation every time we're heading out to the huts. He's just like a big kid out there and I swear it's what keeps him so young at heart,” Kucharchuk said.

The winter version of Ontario's Family Fishing Weekend began in 2008 and its goal is to help introduce families to ice fishing. No fishing licences are required for Canadian residents between 18-65 during this weekend (Conservation limits apply) which always takes place during the Saturday, Sunday and the Monday of the Family Day Holliday.

Several family ice fishing events are hosted by local community groups across the province where families can come out and borrow ice fishing gear and receive basic instruction from volunteer anglers. “These events are really catching on and every year we see more of them being offered”, said Mark Cousins of the Ontario Federation of Anglers and Hunters who administers the provincial MNR program. “At some events, there are great prizes, free hot chocolate, hotdogs and live bait supplied all to help kids and their parents have a good time fishing. The best part is seeing kids catch their first fish through the ice and hearing them urge their parents to take them again next weekend. That's exactly what we want to accomplish - getting kids hooked on fishing, is what it's all about,” concluded Cousins.

Fishing Kids

Here ice angler Matt Mitchell and his two daughters Taylor (left) and Makenzy (right), enjoy a break from the fishing action and cook up some lunch.


Matt and his two daughters

If you are interested in introducing your family to ice fishing this winter here's a brief rundown of what's involved to help you out.

Ice Safety:

Ice Fishing is one of the safest forms of winter recreation but any time you're walking on water, there's an inherent risk that can be minimized with a little knowledge and common sense. For all those venturing out onto the open ice keep in mind that ice hut operators or local tackle shops are still the experts to call to find out about local conditions. The Ministry of Natural Resources always recommends that people contact a local expert closest to where they want to access the lake to check on ice thickness etc.

As a general guideline for clear blue ice, 3 ½ -4 inches is required for a person on foot, eight inches for a snowmobile or ATV and a foot or more for a light vehicle. Double the thickness if the ice is white or opaque and not consistently clear blue throughout.

Ice never freezes uniformly either so testing it with a spud bar or auger frequently when unsure is standard practice on your way out. Ice that has formed over flowing water, springs, pressure cracks, old ice holes or around the mouths of rivers and streams can be weaker than surrounding ice. Carrying a set of ice pics is good insurance and having a compass to rely on should you experience snowy or whiteout conditions is an absolute must-have item. Finally - let someone know where you are accessing the lake and when you plan on returning home.

Starting Out:

If you're not going to participate in a Family Fishing Weekend Ice Fishing event, you may want to consider hiring the services of a professional ice hut operator. There are more than a dozen around Lake Simcoe alone and a comprehensive list from across Ontario can be found at: http://www.ontariooutofdoors.com/icefishing/list

Upon request, most operators can supply all you need - including bait, tackle and your basic tip up stick. The latter may be a throw-back to yesteryear but are still a common ‘ice rod' for many beginners and veteran ice anglers alike. Basically, they consist of a foot long piece of wood, not unlike a ruler, with two notched ends on either side. Here about 50 metres of 6-10 pound test monofilament line is wrapped. Of course hut operators also supply warm cozy ice huts and the transportation on the ice (often by historic bombardiers) to get you to the hut and back. Kids and adults alike will get a real thrill from riding in these ‘retro' on ice marvels. Rental huts come equipped with pre-drilled holes, a propane heater, outhouses nearby and benches to sit on.


A typical Bombardier like this has been used safely by ice hut operators on Lake Simcoe for generations

To keep kids busy in between bites consider bringing out a football to toss around on the ice and lots of munchies for back inside the hut. Most huts have propane heaters that also allow you to reheat meals like chilli, stew or spaghetti - so a warm lunch is always a treat. Finding an operator specializing in plentiful panfish like yellow perch or sunfish - helps ensure more fish-biting action. As much as ice fishing doesn't have to be all about catching fish it sure does help kids get hooked on the sport- when they get bit.

Once you have experienced the rental hut route you might be anxious to try the sport on your own - possibly even out on the open ice. If you do chose to forgo the rental hut route all-together, it is recommended that you try to go out with an experienced ice angler the first couple of times. He/she will not only be able to pass-on basic safety precautions associated with the sport but help fast track your learning curve in terms of setting up your equipment on the ice, and help maximize your chances of ‘getting bit'.

Many veterans now wear floater suits but to start out just make sure you have good winter boots and dress in layers with a good outer winter coat. If you are walking out - avoid the temptation to bundle up too tightly. The walk out should keep you warm and any extra perspiration cools quickly when you reach your destination. Leave a coat partially open so that you don't overheat. Once you settle down to fishing you can zip up.


Left: Wil's son Izaak when he was 10 with a BIG Lake Simcoe Jumbo Perch.
Right: Izaak when he's 21 with an average sized lake trout from Lake Simcoe - still enjoying the sport


Once you're ready, you'll need to get some very basic tackle. Keep in mind one of the real endearing qualities of this sport is that you can make it as expensive or inexpensive as you want. A limited budget does not preclude you from catching fish - or having a great time on the hard water. You should be able to grab some tackle right from your summer box. Lake trout love tubes jigs - so borrow a couple of the white ones for your winter box. If you have some spoons in your box - they should work through the ice.

Grab a bunch of different size jigs from your summer box as well or if you don't have them - they can be found at most tackle shops for a very reasonable price. A jig, tipped with either a live minnow, plastic or biodegradable bait like a Berkley Gulp! Minnow will literally catch any fish below the ice. Small 1/8 ounce HT football head or Alien Jigs are especially productive for yellow perch and sunfish and HT's larger Golden Nugget Series shines for walleye.

Perhaps buy a couple Blue Fox Krocodile spoons and some HT Chatter spoons for lake trout or whitefish. Jigging Rapalas - small sized for perch, black crappie and sunfish, and larger for trout, whitefish, walleye and pike are good bets. Lil Foxee minnows with little plastic grubs are especially productive for the bottom oriented whitefish.

The majority of ice anglers today have put their wooden jigging sticks in storage and opted for more convenient and fun to use ice fishing rods. For perch, sunfish and black crappie I prefer a medium light HT Polar Lite rod matched with their Avantis reel and 4 pound test line. For larger lake trout, whitefish, walleye and pike you'll want something a little beefier so a medium action HT Arctic Bay rod, Avantis reel and 6-8 lb test line will do the trick.

Setting Up

Drilling holes through the solid frozen water you're walking on doesn't need to be a daunting task. For many in southern Ontario, a hand auger is preferred because we rarely see the four plus feet of ice that lakes further north do. My all time favorite auger is a six inch Normark Fin Bore 3 as it is a great all round choice for the diversified fishing opportunities and species we have. When I'm specifically after panfish, I'll opt for a smaller 4 ½ inch Fin Bor that slices through ice like a hot knife through butter. With its offset blades Fin Bore 3's drill much quicker and with less effort than the older style flat straight-edge blades.

Heading out

Heading out for a fun day of ice fishing

A plastic scoop will clear the slush from your hole and a five gallon plastic pail to store your rods and tackle will also give you something to sit on. You may even wish to increase your success with a small portable sonar unit like the Lowrance Ice Machine. A sled like HT's Polar Sled will make hauling all your tackle out a breeze. If you just can't stand the idea of not having a warm place to fish from then HT makes a variety of portable ice huts ranging from small one man pop-ups to large roomy four person huts.

The two hole advantage:

In most of Ontario you're allowed to fish with two lines at the same time so utilizing the two hole approach is standard and productive procedure. In one, you can jig an artificial lure and the other can have a set line with live bait or a jig and soft plastic minnow. This set hole is perfect for a Polar or Windlass Tip Up. When a fish strikes, a bright orange flag flies up and you race to the hole to handline the fish in.

The fun and excitement begins as soon as the flag flies! I can still recall how much entertaining it was racing to the hole as a kid after a flag went up - trying to get that faster than my brothers or friends. It was a veritable free for all, but once the winner grabbed the line - everyone else would back off and cheer on the lucky angler who go there first to battle the fish!

Izaak Wegman

Wil' son Izaak when he was three a safety rope was tied to his snow suite buckle - just in case

All in all ice fishing in Ontario is a time honoured Canadian tradition that can be enjoyed by anglers of all ages and skill levels. It can be as simple or complex as you care to make it and whether you catch fish every time out or not… the times you do will have you coming back for more. Of course eating some of your catch is also an added bonus and important part of the ice fishing experience. Fresh fish caught from Ontario's cold clean lakes are healthy and nutritious and taste great. Details on fish consumption guidelines for lakes across Ontario can be found at the following site: www.ene.gov.on.ca/en/water/fishguide/index.php

Be sure you have an updated fishing licence and outdoor card and read over the general fishing regulations for the lake or area you are accessing. These can be found online at ontario.ca/fishing .

If you are interested in attending a 2010 Ontario Family Fishing Weekend event they are currently registered for the following communities: Bancroft, Cambridge, Cardiff, Espanola, Ennismore, Hearst, Honey Harbour, Marmora, New Liskeard, Ottawa, Pefferlaw, Trout Creek and Verona. Other family-friendly events may also be planned so check your local listings. Visit www.familyfishingweekend.com for details.

The Ontario Family Fishing Weekend (OFFW) program includes the winter weekend in February and summer family fishing events in July which run concurrent with National Fishing Week. The OFFW Steering Committee is comprised of the O.F.A.H., Ministry of Natural Resources, Fisheries and Oceans Canada, and the Canadian Sportfishing Industry Association.

Please don't dump leftover minnows down the hole so you to do your part to slow the spread of invasive species. Have a safe and great ice fishing season and please practice catch and release and selective harvest to help ensure a great fishery for future generations. The future of fishing is in your hands!

Author Wil Wegman

Wil Wegman

Author Wil Wegman is an avid ice angler and passionate about this winter sport. He taught ice fishing courses at Seneca College for 20 years and now offers seminars on the subject across Ontario. In 1991 he was part of Team Canada at the World Ice Fishing Championship and has had many successful finishes at the annual Canadian Ice Fishing Championships on Lake Simcoe. This small cisco from Lake of the Woods was caught while filming an episode of Bob Izumi's Real Fishing Show.

Last modified onMonday, 21 October 2013 14:37