January 19, 2023
By J.R. Jackson
Here in the Northeast, ice fishing is almost a way of life for the Carhartt-clad lumberjacks who emerge from the woods each winter dragging their sleds and knuckles across the ice. It could also be a fun way to kill time between the Isonychias of late autumn and the spring Hendrickson hatch. But how on earth could catching fish in ice-covered water compare to the excitement of presenting a Quill Gordon to a rising trout on a warm spring day? To quote the great Norman Maclean, “Nobody who doesn’t know how to fish should be allowed to disgrace a fish by catching him.” Dropping a minnow into a frozen hole and waiting for nature to take its course would make Norman sick.
I came into my first ice-fishing experience cold, damp, and hungry. It was the best I’d feel all day. My wife’s uncle is an experienced Adirondack outdoorsman who generously invited me to fish with him and a group he called “the boys.” When we arrived at the remote pond, the air temperature was 15 below, and I swear it kept getting colder. A casual question about where we’d be setting our shanty was met by blank stares.
“Cold’s not that bad if you dressed for it. If you do get cold, just drill a hole with the hand auger—that’ll warm ya up!” I drilled so many holes, it’s a wonder we had any ice left to fish on.
Fly fishing is a genteel world where Orvis-esque anglers wait in a queue to make graceful casts on a rippled pool; ice fishing is ape-men dropping baited hooks into holes, eating half-frozen hot dogs, drinking canned beers with bait-tainted hands, and passing enough natural gas to heat a small city. When a tip-up flag tripped, a collective yell would arise, followed by a rumbling sprint across the ice and ending in a violent collision of bodies, denim, and flannel at the flag. Despite the cold and the carnage, they were having tremendous fun.
I admit that the way they welcomed me to their sport was a refreshing change from the arrogance displayed on most dry-fly water. Still, Maclean’s adage played in my mind. If I applied my knowledge of fish and bait behavior to ice fishing, I could do a great service to these woodland warriors. Within a season or two I’d have us all catching fish under the ice in a manner even ol’ Norman would approve.
After that first trip, I resolved to stop fishing live bait, effective immediately. No one old enough to vote should be caught dead putting anything alive on the end of their own hook. I’d tried to be a good sport, but fishing live bait felt dirty. Hell, it was dirty. A container of maggots spilled in my coat pocket. They fermented for a week before I discovered the putrid glob that stuck to my fingers almost as long as the smell did. My wife was irate.
Back at home, I spent late nights perusing the dark recesses of the Internet. Ice-fishing blogs described things I’d never heard of going into holes I had no idea existed. There were Buckshot Jigs tipped with minnows and Rattle Baits tipped with—please excuse the vulgar term—worms. I could feel my mind beginning to warp, yet I couldn’t look away. I clicked deeper and deeper into the mire until I’d found something so twisted only a handful of people would even attempt, and even fewer would admit: fishing flies, and flies alone, through the ice.
Only three people claimed to be catching iced-over lake trout on flies. Even worse, one of them appeared to have died in 2007. Nonetheless, I nixed my Swedish Pimples like a Stockholm teenager on prom night and prayed I’d never see another treble hook. Several flies appeared to work, particularly Balanced Leeches, and scud patterns resembling the Mysis shrimp that hatch in weed beds year-round. After tying several of each, I cleared my browser history and returned to the ice. The lousy bait-fishing cheaters outfished me six-to-one, but I managed to jig up a lone lake trout on one of my Balanced Leeches. I had a great view of their trophy catches from my vantage point on the moral high road.
Catching the laker on a fly was fun, but I was still using spinning gear, and spinning gear was designed to chuck hot dogs under a Spider-Man bobber. I missed feeling the fish take line right out of my hand with no damned mechanical interference. Real hand-to-fin combat. Furthermore, the aesthetic of a well-machined fly reel blows any loathsome spinning reel out of the water—or off the ice—by comparison.
A light 3-weight reel intended for bamboo also turned out to be a perfect fit for my ice-fishing rod. The drag was set to its minimum, and when I flicked the handle, the reel zinged out a childlike whine like it was begging to go back to its bamboo home. Or at the very least, far away from this 2-foot (fish) hooker it was so crudely inserted in.
To the reel, I attached 75 yards of backing and 90 feet of the heaviest sinking fly line I could find. Seemed like a waste to use an $80 fly line for dropping flies through a hole, but feeling a 10-pound laker rip that line out of my hand would be worth it. Even a fast-sinking fly line would take a little over 2½ minutes to get through 80 feet of water. A couple oversized split-shot, an egg sinker, and tandem tungsten-beaded flies would fix that.
Back on the ice the next weekend, I was surprised my fly reel/ice rod composite didn’t draw a single strange look. Finally, one of the lumberjacks pointed a thick, callused finger my way and asked, “That a fly reel?” I nodded, ready to die on my hill arguing the virtue of aesthetics. To my surprise, he nodded expectingly. “I got a buddy that uses fly reels for ice fishin’ too. Cuts down on line twist. Even uses tip-up line on the reel like you’re doin’. Only got a 1:1 crank ratio on those reels, so it’s easier to do a hand retrieve.”
I started to correct him about the sinking fly line, then realized tip-up line would’ve been 70 bucks cheaper and worked just as well. This lumberjack’s backwoods buddy had gotten to the same rig I did, using less money and more logic. As it turned out, the redneck rig was in fact the superior option. The first time I set the hook on a fish, the combined weight of the sinking line, sinkers, flies, and fish snapped my rod in half. I retrieved the whole ensemble by hand, released the fish in disgust, and headed back to the drawing board. Damn perch.
While shopping for a replacement rod the following weekend, I casually threw a spool of tip-up line in the shopping cart. I immediately happened across several bulky fly-tying materials that conveniently obscured the tip-up line from view. It was like carting a brick of cocaine under a stack of Bibles. I made it out of the store without getting narced on and promised myself never to do it again.
Next season, I think I’ll try a floating line with split-shot attached every 6 inches to make it sink. The split-shot will take the fly down, and the floating line won’t strain the rod on hook-sets. If you’re not using a floating line, should you even call it fly fishing? It might even be fun to catch a fish through the ice on a dry fly. A Stimulator landing on the hole with a resounding splat could be enough to get a fish’s attention. If that doesn’t work, I could always weight the Stimulator to fish it off the bottom. Still counts as a dry fly.
However I fish through the ice next season, I know I’ve come a long way from where I started. My bait-dropping brethren haven’t shown much interest in taking on my method yet, but I’m certain they’ll come around after seeing just one laker take a dry fly. Granted, it might only happen once, but I’m sure it will. Still, I’d rather suffer a thousand stinking sunken Stimulator skunkings than catch a single salmonid on salted sardines. I’ll bet those bait fishers can’t say that six times fast. I pity the poor bastards; they don’t know what they’re missing.
J.R. Jackson resides in Albany, New York with his wife Vanessa and their dog Caddis. A transplant from Ohio, he enjoys spending his free time exploring mountain streams in the Catskills, Adirondacks, and Berkshires.