Ice-Fishing Prep Work

    Do the work now so you can play on the ice later.


    By Cory Richardt

    At my house in Watertown, S.D., a multitude of events are set in motion when the leaves begin to change colors. My wife begins to change the entire landscape of our house, and in the span of a few hours, the pictures and decorations that I rarely notice disappear and are replaced with home décor that mirrors the colors of the dying leaves outside. A new aroma from what seems like hundreds of cinnamon and pumpkin-spice candles overwhelms the house and nearly makes my eyes water.

    This time of year can only mean one thing — first-ice is a mere few weeks away, and preparations need to be made!

    Shack Maintenance

    Even though my neighbors look at me like an idiot when I set up all of my shacks in the backyard and fire up my ice auger in early October, preparation is a necessity to ensure a great ice season. Crazy things happen between April and October while ice-fishing equipment is stored away. Mice and spiders can make cozy homes in your shelters, and the fuel left in an ice auger forms an odd goo in those narrow tubes of the power head.

    I leave the shacks set up in the yard for an entire sunny, breezy day. During the day, I look for new holes in the canvas, rust or gunk on the extender poles, and anything that I may have forgotten from the previous winter. After all, most ice anglers have been wary of opening the dreaded bait puck that fell out of a side pocket the first time a shack is set up on the ice for the year.

    One thing I have learned over the years is to put some kind of lubricant on each portable shack’s extender poles. Even though newer shacks are made with aluminum poles, I still find value in this simple step.

    I lube up the smaller pole with either WD-40 or the same marine-grade grease that I use for the hubs on my boat trailer. This prevents water from getting in there and icing up while you are fishing, as well as allowing for free movement in and out. Think of that one cold windy night from last season that you were trying to fold up your flip shack and the poles would not slide together — that is what this preseason step saves you from.

    In the hub-style shacks, I examine every pole. I put on a fabric glove or wrap up my hand with an old t-shirt before rubbing each fiberglass pole to check for splintering. The fabric keeps the splinters from entering your skin, but they still allow you to identify even the smallest splinters as they catch on the smallest break in the fibers.

    These poles are cheap and easy to replace, and every company sells replacement poles on their websites. I am telling you from experience that this is easier done in the fall than in the winter, because when these poles break, they shatter and create a massive mess on the ice.

    If you ever find some mold beginning to grow in some damp areas of your shack, spray a generous amount of Lysol to the area. This typically kills the mold, and it’s also why it is very important to leave your shacks set up for an extended period on a sunny, breezy, warm day.

    Rod and Reel Prep

    While my shack is airing out, I get my ice-fishing rods out and go over them. While the obvious thing to do is simply replace the line, there is more a person should do.

    I do not use the $15 rod-and-reel ice-fishing combo that you can buy anywhere. I have used nearly every rod on the market today, as well as most reels, and the old cliché that you get what you pay for is 100 percent accurate. That being said, I have more money invested than I’d admit to my wife in my rods and reels because I need to have full confidence in their ability to help me detect bites and muscle fish into submission.

    If you are not confident in your gear, you will not catch fish. Confidence plays a role in your attitude on the ice, and your attitude affects your presentation. Therefore, I am meticulous in my rod and reel prep.

    Each fall I take my reels off the rods, disassemble them and shoot a bit of lube into the gears and bearings. I do this more as a means of repelling moisture than lubricating the reels. Too often our reels accumulate moisture as they get dropped into slush, fall into a puddle or build up condensation as they go from cold to warm to cold again throughout the course of a day.

    I examine my rods and eyelets much like I do the poles in a hub shack. The main difference is that I use a microfiber cloth to rub the rod down. This allows me to identify the tiniest splinter beginning in the rod.

    I also slide the cloth over the eyelets to see if anything happened to the eyelets that would catch the line and potentially fray it. If you find any damage to your rods or eyelets and you purchased your rod from a custom rod manufacturer, more often than not you can send it to them for repairs that can be free or, at most, a fraction the price of even a cheap “Walmart special” rod.

    If you are looking for an outstanding custom rod with tested performance and exceptional customer service, check out Glacial Lakes Outdoors ( from right here in South Dakota. I have owned numerous custom rods and have found that GLO produces the cream of the crop.

    Line selection and replacement could be the topic of a multi-page article, but for simplicity’s sake I’ll just say that I outfit different reels with different line. To simplify things even more, I use castration rings to attach my reels to rods and replace the rings every year. These rings allow me to switch out reels with ease.

    If you take anything away from me concerning line, it should be that less is more when it comes to break test. I have landed northern pike well over 20 pounds on line as light as 4-pound test on multiple outings. If you invest in quality rods and reels, you can use 4- or 6-pound-test line for supreme sensitivity in nearly every ice-fishing application.

    Manufacturers and product reviews will often advertise that what you sacrifice in “this” you will gain in “that.” I don’t agree with this give-and-take philosophy. I don’t want to sacrifice anything, so by using the best rods and reels I am able to use the best line with the smallest diameter to allow for the best performance.

    This isn’t merely my opinion. After three years of running the SODAK Ice Fishing League and competing with the best ice anglers that the region has to offer, I have heard this same advice from numerous successful anglers.

    Give Yourself Options

    Once your ice-fishing gear is ready, you shouldn’t simply wait around for safe, fishable ice to arrive. I find it essential to pre-plan which lakes I want to target for the season, and I come up with three different lists for early, middle and late stages of the ice-fishing season.

    They don’t need to be extensive lists, with maybe three lakes on each, for example, and you should think of them as a wish list or a fall-back list. For example, say it’s a Thursday in mid-January and you’re at work trying to think of a lake to go to that weekend because every ice angler in the four-state region has been pounding Lake X. In this case you need to be able to have a Lake Y or Lake Z option to go to and be confident in your ability to find fish there.

    I have multiple methods to locate these lakes. The first is to simply be aware of spring, summer and fall fishing reports.

    Let’s use yellow perch as an example, as that’s what we’ve targeted over the last three years in the SODAK Ice Fishing League. Each spring when ice leaves and the first boats hit the water, I hear of some great bites for some humpback, big-belly perch getting ready to spawn. While I typically won’t go and fish these locations because I want those perch to lay their eggs, I do remember where those bites occur and write them down.

    More often than not, these spots become great late-ice spots for the following ice-fishing season.

    Likewise, in the late fall before ice forms I pay keen attention to where big perch are being caught, and I write it down or mark it on my GPS. These spots are great starting spots for first-ice forays.

    The dreaded middle portion of the ice season, as seasoned ice anglers know all too well, can be as frustrating as a bad day at work. The pre-season work that I put in to choosing bodies of water and specific areas of that water to fish consists of going over past stocking reports and surveys as well as map reading.

    The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department website contains a wealth of information in terms of past lake stockings and surveys. Using these reports, I can usually get a good idea of some lakes that should produce good numbers of perch in the upper year-class. While this can be a trial-and-error system, it usually leads to more success than failure in terms of locating perch.

    What the website cannot tell you, however, is if there was a winterkill or level of vegetation and food the body of water contains. When looking at the stocking reports, it is important to keep in mind that the life cycle of perch is typically 7 years, give or take a year depending on the habitat in the lake.

    Once you have a few bodies of water identified, then comes the task of selecting some areas to target. In my experience, perch will try to find some of the deepest parts of the lake come midwinter, so I will look through my GPS with LakeMaster chip and mark those spots. If that body of water is not on the chip, then I will search that area on Google Earth on a computer. Once I see the lake or slough, I will trace its timeline back a number of years to when the water was much lower or not even there.

    If I cannot find anything using this tool, then I research in the United States Geological Survey website for satellite imagery of the area from as far back as the 1970s. (If you want to really have your mind blown by how the landscape has changed in northeastern South Dakota, find images from back in the late 1970s and 80s of the land where Bitter Lake now sits.)

    What I am looking for from Google Earth and USGS maps are old stock dams, roads, culverts, creeks, depressions and hills. If you find these, chances are that some of those features are still relatable under the ice.

    The valleys and stock dams are most likely the deepest spots, so those are the spots I target during mid-ice. You can easily get the GPS grid coordinates from these maps and plug them right into your GPS. After a few years of performing this type of research, you will find patterns and discover new spots to try when all else seems lost.

    Do the Work Now

    Nothing can be more frustrating than driving up to your spot and seeing an encampment of ice anglers around your coveted honey hole. Do the work now and give yourself plenty of options so you can save yourself the headache later.

    Ice fishing is supposed to be enjoyable, and as long as you head out onto the ice with confidence in your gear and confidence in your spots, then you will not only enjoy the fishing, but you will also enjoy a tasty meal the next day. If you put in the proper work before ice arrives, you will be more successful when it’s finally time to drill some holes.

    About the Author: Cory Richardt is an avid ice fisherman and freelance writer from Watertown, S.D. He founded the SODAK Ice Fishing League, which is a winter tournament series in northeastern South Dakota devoted to perch fishing.