Safe Ice for Ice Fishing

 Safe ice is a relative term, just because you see someone on the ice do not assume the whole lake is frozen solid.

Safe Ice

I have seen a ton of posts online lately where people are looking for safe ice. Reality is no ice is safe ice. There is always inherent danger when fishing on ice. I know the intent of the people posting the question isn’t so they would get a response and just head out all gung-ho to fish the body of water mentioned, at least I would hope it wasn’t. I’m sure it is more of a question as to where someone has found “safe” ice, and where they should start looking for their safe ice to fish on.

Safe ice is a relative term. What one would consider safe ice another may not. I grew up skating and playing hockey. I did a lot of swamp/pond skating in my day. I look back on how we determined if the ice was safe and think what were we thinking? Lucky for us if we did fall in the swamp/ponds were very shallow and not as life threatening as some bodies of water would have been. Once the pond had skimmed we would first get on the edge of the ice and see if we could see bubbles frozen into the ice and then estimate how far down they were. We would make our way out further listening for cracks and signs of weakness in the ice. These swamps/ponds generally froze up evenly so we were usually good to go.Weeds frozen in the ice will absorb heat energy from the sun and create soft spots in the ice. The only weak spots would be around weed clumps. Ask me how I know that….OK I’ll tell you. Rushing to the pond one morning I decided to take a short cut out to the area where we set up to play hockey. In the middle of winter this wasn’t a problem however this was early on and as stated the bushed areas had not frozen enough to support me. I went through up to my thighs. As I thrashed along breaking more ice and eventually ended up on one of the clumps of weeds. At that point I was able to jump from clump to clump eventually finding safe ice. Then the cold walk home to change clothes and get back to the ice before I lost too much skating time. Oh to be a kid again. When it came to larger lakes and ponds we generally waited to see older kids or adults out there before we would venture out.

Beaver Dams, food piles, and lodges are another place to avoid when traveling over the ice..I’d like to think thru the years that I learned a bit about what safe ice looks like both at the beginning of the season and at the end. Those years skating was just the start of my learning about ice. My early ice fishing adventures consisted of my father and one of his work buddies out on the lake down the road from our house. I can’t say I remember too much about it other than building a fire on the ice, eating Keilbasa and beans and playing around. If my memory is correct my father would fish a few times a year (usually early ice as he only had a spud) and was far from hard core. At some point and I don’t remember when I decided I’d take up ice fishing using my father’s gear. Seeing as I had already established a pattern of wait and see for larger bodies of water this is what I also used when ice fishing. I can’t stress enough how valuable a spud is to early ice fishing. Early on I always chipped as I went. I’d chip a hole determine the ice thickness and move a short distance chip another and so on until I reached the area I wanted to fish. Back then 2 ½” of ice was good for me, today I am older and wiser (heavier too) so I prefer 3 ½” to 4” of ice. Early on only having a spud also meant my fishing season was only as long as I was willing to chip holes, usually somewhere between 8 and 12″ of ice thickness. Since I also skated the abbreviated fishing season wasn’t a big deal to me and I’d just switch over to playing more hockey. There is also another result of ice fishing like that that is best avoided. If you sweat first you will get colder faster. Believe me I know. Six holes at 8″ of ice thickness will make you sweat. No shelter and cold temps you will get cold. OK back to ice thickness.

The next stage of my ice experience came when I decided to go all in and buy a hand auger. Early ice I would drill the holeAt first ice there will often be areas of open water to beware of. and soon realized that the act of drilling the hole required me to stand close to the area I wanted to check and probably wasn’t a great idea if the ice was not safe. I went back to the spud for checking the thickness. I also through the years learned what the “good” ice sounded like when I hit it with my spud. So I now walk slamming the spud/chipper into the ice in front of me as I walk along. I still stop every so often to verify thickness.

Another word of caution and this applies to early as well as any time of the ice season. Just because you see someone in one spot on the ice do not assume the whole lake is frozen solid. My early observations told me the larger bodies of water did not always just instantly have safe ice everywhere. Since I was usually one of the first anglers out on ponds I learned to read my local waters and the patterns of how they would typically freeze. I say typically because every year can be different and if you intend on being an early ice angler you should observe the lake you want to fish prior to it freezing solid. You will see what areas catch first and what areas didn’t, an indicator as to areas where caution should be taken. My first experience with this was while fishing Canobie Lake in Windham NH. I often fished alone due to the fact that all my buddies thought I was crazy to ice fish, too boring for them. I knew the north end by the boat ramp always froze first. One day I was setting up traps and I always made note of the stress cracks or just general difference in the appearance of the ice. I had three traps set and was about to step on some of that different looking ice when I said go back get the spud and check it first. I am thankful to this day that I did that as the spud went through the ice with little effort. One side of that line in the ice had 3″ of good black ice, the other less than an inch. Another lesson learned that day.

Snow on the ice, yes snow on the ice greatly hinders your ability to read the differences in the ice appearance, so extra caution should be taken. Snow will actually insulate the ice and slow down the formation of ice below it. Snow can also make or break a season as well. With little ice  a snow storm can actually increase ice thickness. The weight of the snow on the ice forces water up through the cracks in the ice saturating the snow and when it re freezes we have what is called snow ice. Not nearly as strong as black ice but is better than nothing. The past couple weeks we were fishing on half and half ice, half snow and half black ice.

You can learn to read the story in the ice. Here is a boundary where the ice on the right froze earlier and is thicker than the fresh black ice on the left. Large lakes and stress cracks or pressure ridges: Ice expands when it freezes and as it gets thicker and expands more the ice has to go somewhere. Smaller ponds the edges push up. On larger lakes where ice masses meet each other they also push up against each other creating weak areas in the ice. Sometimes they push up breaking ice on each side then settle back where it looks like there is no ridge at all yet the ice on either side has been broken into chunks creating danger zones. To this day I give stress cracks/pressure ridges the utmost respect.

I hope this has helped someone when it comes to ice safety. There are so many factors involved they are all hard to capture in a post. I hope I have done a decent job here and hopefully opened some eyes as to what to look out for and to always check for yourself for your “safe” ice.

Be safe out there. Mother Nature is very unforgiving.

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More Ice Fishing Safety Info:
PA Fish & Boat Commission

New York State Department of Environmental Conservation
New Hampshire fish and Game

White Perch Ice Fishing

Ice fishing for White Perch

Ice fishing for white perchIce fishing for white perch is one of my favorite things to do. They are easy to catch and will take a variety of baits. Best times to fish for these fish are dawn and dusk. The schools of fish will tend to head to the shoreline or surface at these times. I am not a big fish eater but these are by far my favorite fresh water fish to eat. Below is some information that I have gathered through the years and is not intended to be an “all inclusive guide” for White perch ice fishing. It is merely what has worked for me.

In New Hampshire I typically fish three lakes for white perch. Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Opechee are two lakes with crystal clear waters that hold White perch. I prefer eating fish out of “cleaner” looking lakes. That being said I also fish Great pond in Kingston for white perch and no one ever complained about the fish from there that I have given away. While the water is clear in Great pond the bottom tends to be on the muddy side, making Great pond what most consider a “dark” lake. OK so let’s focus on Lake Winnipesaukee and Lake Opechee pond first.

My first experience ice fishing for white perch was on Lake Opechee. It was early season and I had the itch to fish. I headed up to the lakes region in search of safe ice and after a stop at a local bait store I was pointed in the direction of Opechee. I set up with my typical tip up spread and managed to catch a bunch of big yellow perch. Looking across the lake I saw a couple guys fishing and since my action had slowed I decided to venture over to see how they were doing. This is one of the best decisions I ever made in my life. Not only did I see firsthand these guys landing white perch on jig rods but I also made a lifelong friend. The fish they were catching were not large at all in fact they were only about the size of the palm of your hand. I was told they were the best eating size white perch, and to this day I have to agree. After seeing the fish hit the ice I went back and pulled my spread and head over where they were. Upon my arrival the two anglers were packing it up. All I had was my tip up and a couple small jigs. I was given some worms from the anglers and I tried to catch a fish hand lining. I was unable to succeed and quickly realized I was not outfitted correctly. The next week I returned with a jig rod and some more jigs bought at the local tackle store. One of the anglers was there again. He introduced himself as Dana and is now one of my best friends. So it took me a while but I was able to start landing fish (note strike indicator or experience is very important). I was nowhere near the numbers of Dana but I was hooked! After taking fish home and eating them I was sold on White perch fishing. Since those days I have taken many of my friends to the same waters where they too now enjoy white perch fishing.

Enough about how I discovered white perch fishing you should hear about the technique we use to catch them. Ok here goes, from personal experience only again, I find that the larger white perch on any lake will hit just about anything in their face while these Opechee whites were more selective. Dana swears you need to cover the entire hook with bait or the fish wouldn’t hit. That works for him but thru the yrs I found that a “tail” works best for me. What I do is take a piece of dillie and hook it leaving a short tail off the end of the hook. Color of jig is also important. Early on pink , red and an orange/chartreuse combination worked very well. Thru the yrs we have found some other choices that work well too. I’ll elaborate on those at the end of the article. When we started out we were without Vexilars or sounders of any type so we would drop to the bottom and then come up 2-1/2 to 3 full cranks depending on your reel. You want to target 3-5 ft off the bottom for the aggressive feeding fish. If you’re catching yellow perch your lure is too deep. If you’re not getting bit and someone else is change your bait, lure color to match those getting bit or change up your cadence (how you’re jigging). I like to just barely move my rod tip creating and rythmatic bounce. When you see your rod tip “dance” change you have been bitten. With the smaller whites detecting the bite is the hardest part which is why I prefer a spring bobber of some sort (real light rods this is not needed). There are some videos on my u-tube page showing white perch fishing and how we move the rod. Sometimes the fish want it bounced and stopped, then another time a constant bounce and yet something totally different another time. Figuring all that out is what makes it challenging.

Typically the whites will feed hard from sun up to around 8:30. Then they tend to disperse and go deeper in the water column. This is a general reference and every day can be different. The next feeding frenzy occurs later in the day at dusk. I have never stayed much past dusk so I can’t answer about after dark. For depth we target 15-25’ ft (an average for most waters). We do see them suspended over much deeper waters on the larger lakes but those schools are moving and staying on top of them can be difficult. It helps to have more than one angler fishing. A hooked fish helps keep the school around. One old timer told me while open water fishing to let the first fish you catch go with a bobber attached to him. He will swim back to the school indicating their position. I tried this a couple times but was unsuccessful. We usually drill several holes next to each other so if we do find fish there we do not spook the school by drilling holes when if they show up. Ok so fishing the deeper water how can you get your bait back into the zone quickly? I like to do this with a small egg sinker. I use a small swivel with a short leader. The egg sinker goes between your rod tip and the swivel. The length of the leader off the swivel is important. The leader needs to be long enough not to spook fish. Yet not so long that your lure tangles when dropping to your desired depth. That length can vary depending on the lure you tie on. A heavy lure will fall quickly and likely not tangle with the main line when dropping quickly, just the opposite with lighter jigs. I personally have found 8” as a nice compromise length. I have also fished leaders as short as 6” due to retying lures. Sometimes I eliminate the egg sinker and just use the heavier jig to get me down fast enough.

As for how we pick specific spots, again a lot is just from having a slow day at one spot and punching holes to look for fish. If you find them that will become a spot to head to the next time your first spot is dry. Also area’s you find them in open water should be spots you target on the ice as well.

Lake Winnipesaukee is probably one of the best lakes in our area for catching large white perch.
Since I prefer eating smaller whites I do not target the whites on Winni as much. I do prefer the fight of these perch and will target them on occasion. On Winni I have found whites just about everywhere. Bays will tend to hold fish and are easier to target in them than over the vast deeper waters. Humps will also attract schools of fish, but I find the schools in bays easier to catch just because they aren’t on the move as much. I rely on my open water observations as well for selecting ice fishing spots not in bays. On Winni smelt is the bait of choice. We take a piece of smelt and tip various jigs. I prefer the Swedish pimple for larger whites. Dillies also work well too. Again early morning and dusk are prime times. Traps set up with smelt can also help you locate fish fishing 4’ off bottom as your target zone. When the fish turn off you can still get a few lookers to bite by changing up your presentation. Usually by 10 am it is over. I say usually because there is always that one day to prove that statement wrong.

Great pond is the closest lake to me to catch White perch. The size of the fish here is decent, and with the mix of Crappie makes this a great fishery. Here I find the Whites in 15-24’ of water and generally closer to the bottom near a contour break just outside of a weed bed. The fish here are always on the move and thus your action will come and go. Since crappie also reside here and in the same zone you can target both at the same time to keep the action going. For this lake hands down pink is the color for whites. I have also had a lot of luck using Hildebrandt flicker spinner but pink would be my color of choice if I could only pick one. Tipped with spikes they are deadly.

Rod set up for ice fishing for white perch.

Rod set up with spring bobber, small swivel and fluorocarbon leader I use 4lb main line and go to as light as 2lb for my leaders.

So there you have the basics. As I said we have been constantly changing our presentations and have upgraded our gear and techniques thru the years. The biggest help has been the addition of the flasher. This alone will increase your catch rate significantly. You can see how the fish are reacting to your cadence and adjust accordingly. You can also see when there are no fish below you and move to a hole that is showing fish. Keep in mind Whites do move and if you had them there once they are likely to return again so sometimes waiting out a hole for a little bit helps. Of course we will drill a pattern of holes covering an area so you can jump around hoping to locate the fish if they move off of where you had them. The addition of artificial plastic baits has also added to our success. The only one I feel 100% confident in naming is the Berkley gulp 1” minnow in various colors. I love these baits and will use them over dillies or spikes on many occasions. The bait lasts longer which equals more fish between re-baiting. Other plasics worth mentioning is the Maki plastic Jamai (or something like that) It has legs that extend out and the fish love tails so they get bit. Problem is they are not very durable and need replacing every few fish. I still like a spring bobber except on my really light action rods where the rod itself is like a spring bobber.

White Perch Lures

White perch will take most lures at one time or another. Here are some favorites on the waters I fish.

Starting from the left, Clam tungsten jig, Expedition Outdoors jig, Flicker spinner, Forget the name of the next jig but it used to be my favorite on Opechee. The company went out of business and they are no longer made. Next is a forage minnow, another no-name orange/chartreuse jig (used to be a hot color on Opechee), Swedish pimple size 0, Jiggin rap (smallest size) and the Hali-jig (very good on Winni).




Video showing the various set ups and cadence used on that day:

Tim Moore Outdoors