Ice Fishing Ethics

Okay, I admit it: I have become a snobby fly fisherman. Not only do I try to limit myself to fly fishing whenever possible, but I have even begun to look down on the “bait-slinging hogs” (Lou Zambello’s words, not mine). Because of this new obsessiveness to the upper class of the sport, I have started to brainstorm ways to use flies while ice fishing. Some may say I’m crazy, and believe me, I know, but what I’ve developed may actually have some potential.

Of course, this won’t be ice fishing in the truest sense. Purists will scoff at what I call a fly: rubber legs and krystal flash tied to spin fishing jigs with thread covered in gaudy ice dub. In addition, I obviously won’t be able to use a fly rod or line. For many, it is the antithesis of what fly fishing really is. However, if you can come up with a better way fly fish on hard water, then maybe you’ll be the one writing a post next week. Honestly, for me this isn’t as much about always fly fishing as it is making ice fishing as ethical as possible. I’m not looking to reinvent one of America’s favorite winter pastimes, but I am trying to at least make it fair for the fish. Anyone who’s ever ice fished knows that the health and safety of the fish are in no way the top priority, but hopefully we can change that.

I want you to picture a typical ice fishing scene. Maybe you see a bunch of guys obliterating a Yeti cooler full of beers, or even a yahoo ripping across the lake in a snowmobile strewn with tip-ups. Whatever the case, it is often not a wader-footed fly fisher quietly stalking a spooky trout. We all know that ice fishing is not a game for those looking to enjoy a peaceful day spent admiring nature, but what is it about the sport that makes it that way?

I would say one of the largest reasons for concern of fish safety during the winter is the use of tip-ups. For those who don’t know, tip-ups are essentially a spool of line attached to a wooden post with a flag. Usually, a live minnow or piece of cutbait is threaded onto a hook with a small split-shot weight above it, and dropped to or near the bottom. The flag is then bent over and clipped into a trigger. When a fish eats the bait and starts pulling line, the trigger is released and the flag pops up. On a typical day, anglers will use anywhere from two to five tip-ups spread in a pattern around a central jigging spot. The big problem with these devices is that they are often left unattended. When the flag pops up, the angler is slow to get to the device and set the hook. Unfortunately, this often leads to fish getting gut or gill hooked. According to a study done by Persons and Hirsch in 1994, lake trout caught with dead bait (cutbait) through the ice had a mortality rate of 32% when released and reexamined 12 days later. On the other hand, lake trout caught on lures only had a mortality rate of 9% in the same scenario. According to a study done three years earlier by Dextrase and Ball, of the fish that died after release, every single one of them had been hooked in critical areas such as the back of the mouth, stomach, or gills. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that fish will often eat real bait longer and have a greater chance of swallowing it than they do with artificial lures. This, mixed with the long times between the fish eating the bait and the hook set when using a tip-up are exactly what cause the high rate-of-death for fish caught with bait.

So how do we fix this problem? Don’t use real bait! In the challenge to use flies whenever possible, I have come up with two “flies” that simply smash the fish during the winter. The first, a standby for me last winter, is a white marabou jig with a black chenille body and pink head. This lure caught bass when no other lure would. In fact, it completely outfished my normal tip-ups last year. It works on its own, but if you’re looking to give yourself an edge, add a minnow head or small live minnow on the hook. Just be sure to always keep the rod in your hands, so that if a fish does eat, you’ll be prepared to set the hook immediately. You’d be surprised at how effective this is at reducing gut-hooking situations.

The second fly I’ve designed is a painfish killer. This little jig is tied with a black rubber leg tail, purple ice dub body, and white and black rubber legs. Tie a scud off the back of this, and you’ve got yourself an unbeatable two-fly combo. If you encounter some finicky fish that don’t want to eat the lure straight-up, add some spikes or waxies. The name of the game here is not necessarily match-the-hatch so much as it is to attract the fish with a flashy, in-your-face meal.

A small black and purple jig fly can be exceedingly effective for catching panfish and trout.

Another way to decrease the mortality rate of these fish is to pay special attention to the times that you are handling fish. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: fish handling is the number-one most important aspect when it comes to fish survival. We all get cold hands during the winter, but the simple act of taking off your gloves when touching a fish will do wonders to protect that fish for years to come. You can also use rubber gloves, which aren’t quite as good as wet bare hands, but are less harsh on the slime coating than porous winter gloves and mittens are. Or, cut the act of handling the fish out altogether, and simply use barbless hooks. With barbless hooks, all that is necessary is to grab the hook with a pair of hemostats or pliers, and gently back it out while keeping the fish in the water. In this way, the fish never has to face the harsh environment of the freezing air and snow, both of which can be detrimental to the health of a fish’s internal organs, gills, and eyes.

So, with all this, is it even still ice fishing? Absolutely! Gone are the days when a 30-fish stringer and slimy gloves signify a good day of fishing. Now, we can be happy when the environment and fellow anglers can’t even tell we were ever there. There is no doubt that I will occasionally continue to use live bait and the like while on the ice, but by significantly reducing the number of lines I have in the water, I know I will be able to get to the fish before it takes the hook too deep. And while the flies I designed obviously weren’t flies by any means, it was still fun to spend a little bit of time behind the vice.

Ice this thin should never be attempted to walk on: wait until there is at least three inches of clear, black ice.

As our lakes and ponds begin to freeze around my area, I am starting to get giddy about this upcoming ice season. Last year, the affects of global warming were obvious, as we barely had safe ice all season long, but hopefully this year will be different. Use good judgement when going out right now, as a day at home without fishing is much better than one spent in the hospital recovering from hypothermia.

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