Get ready for first-ice action

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By Tyler French

The combination of colder temperatures and longer nights means we are deep into fall and each day brings us closer to another dark and frozen winter.

Some people head south. Some choose bear-like routines of burrowing in with hot tea and Netflix. Yet, there are others who welcome the crisp air, crunch of the snow and frozen temperatures. After all, the dark and frozen winter is the only time of the year you can be an ice fisherman.

It may seem strange that people look forward to spending bitter, cold days on a sheet of ice. But for many, ice fishing has become a pastime, a passion and a reason to look forward to the cold months.

And the best part? Fishable ice will be here before you know it, which means now is the time to start preparing for first ice, early ice and the rest of the season.

First steps

Some of the first preparations I make happen before I even get my ice gear out. Scouting areas that should hold fish at first and early ice starts by looking back at fishing successes and failures from previous years.

Keeping fishing logs, jotting down short notes or even compiling a collection of photos will help you remember what you learned, how you caught fish and what you would do different the next time out. Those notes really come in handy a year or two later when preparing to do it again.

If you are fishing new lakes and don’t have previous results to help you, remember that first and early ice is the most predictable time to catch fish through the ice. At this time, fish are still in their fall patterns and relating to shallow structure and cover. This works out well for ice fishermen, considering that ice freezes from the shoreline out and shallow water often has the thickest ice early on.

All shallow water is not considered equal, however. While preparing for first ice, think shallow and think weeds — green weeds.

From panfish to pike to walleyes to trout, early ice patterns involve weed edges, drop offs near weeds or holes within weeds. Just because weeds were thick and green in the summer, however, doesn’t mean they held up through fall turnover.

The best way to find good, healthy weeds that will last into early ice is to take the boat out one last time before ice grips the region. Use your GPS locator or handheld to mark the edges of any healthy looking weeds you mark from a boat.

Focus on finding areas within the weeds that are different. Is there any areas of scattered timber? Are there holes or clearings in the weed beds? Are any rocky drop offs nearby?

Quite often the best spots on the spot have a combination of features that makes it different than the rest of the weedy shorelines of the lake.

If the boat is already put away for the winter, it’s time to do some online homework, and Google Earth has been a huge part of my scouting routine.

Not only can it help you find the right turnoff and parking areas, but it can also tell you almost everything about the shoreline, point tapers and nearby cover. After all, the structure and cover you see along the shoreline is often a sign of what extends underwater.

Bathometric maps are another set of study materials ice anglers should study. Contour maps will help you quickly locate fishy looking features without even visiting the lake or drilling holes.

The South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department has maps of many of the lakes around the state. Many can also be found online at

Navionics, the company that makes GPS map chips that can be loaded on handheld GPS units, also has an online version and smartphone application that includes almost every body of water. These are two very inexpensive ways that allow you to study a body of water without actually being on the lake or river.

Gear choices

Preparing your gear is the next step. Take advantage of the last warm days of fall to locate your gear and unpack it.

Make sure your summer gear is put away, and put your hunting gear away as soon as you are done so you can get your garage or storage area prepared for ice-fishing season.

In a perfect world, we would have all of our gear perfectly stowed and ready to go from a good spring pack-up routine. If you are like me, though, things are never perfect, as gear is often stashed here, there and everywhere in between. Take the time to gather it all and start preparing it for the ice season before it’s time to fish.

Take inventory of reels that need new line. Check over tip-ups and their rigging. Check if your favorite jigging spoons need new hooks. Your buckets most certainly need organization. Charge up your flashers and start up your auger after mixing fresh gas. Take the time now to do it right, and you will be ready to hit the ice running.

First ice and safety preparation go hand in hand. You don’t have to be foolish to fish first ice. In fact, there are several safety items we should all have ready for first ice.

A good, sharp spud bar, often called an ice chisel, is the most important tool for first-ice safety. Before ever stepping foot on the ice, hit the ice along the shore with the spud bar, and then hit the ice in front of you as you slowly move out from shore. If the spud doesn’t shoot straight through the ice with one or two hits, it should be safe to walk on.

A sharp spud will chip a hole in just a few hits so measure the ice thickness every so often. Three inches will hold you, but 4-5 inches is recommended for foot travel. Always use your spud bar while heading to new spots, as ice thickness can vary.

The buddy system is a must for first-ice forays. Having a long rope available will help in case one of you gets into trouble. Wearing life jackets or having some type of floatation device on your person is a great idea, as well.

If you are in the market for a new ice suit this year, look into Striker Ice and their line of floating fishing suits. They have several options from lightweight run-and-gun suits to a heavy one with zip-out liners. These suits are built with all the right features and fit to be on the ice all day, and the added floatation is a serious bonus.

As the ice gets thicker and we move from first ice to early ice, safety should still be a priority. Just because ATVs are cruising around the lake doesn’t mean that every area is safe. Proceed with caution, and drill test holes as you go. Floating suits, ice picks and rope are never bad additions to any ice fishing trip.

Prepare for ice this season. Scout your spots, prep your gear and think ice safety to start this season off right. Hard water is just around the corner, so get ready for another awesome, frosty winter!

About the author: Tyler French is a water resources engineer and freelance writer who grew up in South Dakota and now resides in Wyoming.

Lake maps, Google earth and journal records from past fishing trips can all help you plan for your next ice-fishing adventure. Photo by Tyler French
First ice is here to stay it seems, and it’s a great time to target fish that are still holding to predictable, fall-like patterns. Still, ice anglers should proceed with caution and use a spud bar to check ice thickness for safety reasons. Photo by Tyler French