When Shawn Norton purchased Jack Traps Ice Fishing Outfitters in 2019, he knew he wanted to own the iconic 40-year-old ice-trap factory after growing up ice fishing on nearby China Lake.
But Norton could not anticipate how the coronavirus pandemic would nearly double his business when hordes of Mainers rushed outside to ice fish last winter. Based on all the new faces in his factory store and the novice questions he fielded on the phone, Norton said many customers last winter clearly were new to the sport.
“Last year, there was no safe ice in December or early January. It didn’t make a bit of difference. After Christmas we stayed straight out right through March,” Norton said.
In Windham at Sebago Bait, it was the same story. Owner Wayne Berzinis, a Maine ice fisherman of 40 years, saw his business, situated smack in the Sebago Lakes region, double.
“It was amazing, and really nice to see. There were a lot of families going out together,” Berzinis said.
To all those who wanted to try ice fishing last winter but didn’t, here’s a basic guide from the experts on how to approach the coming outdoor season.
“Ice fishing can be very simple,” Norton assured. “Give me a hole in the ice, and some bait. It all depends on how much money you’re looking to invest.”
The first thing you’ll need before you leave your home is to buy a fishing license ($25 for residents and $64 for non-residents), and then a basic understanding of state fishing laws – or how to find them online.
Next on your list is either a jig line or a fishing trap, also called a tip-up. The general fishing law in Maine allows five traps, although it’s always best to check the law for the water you fish. Jig lines are a more minimalist approach. But we’ll get to that in a second.
For the end of your line, be sure to pick up fishing line, hooks and swivels, the device between the line from the trap and the line to the hook. All of these run around $10.
Finally, the last big essential item is something to cut the hole – either a hand chisel (about $20) or an auger – either the primitive hand auger ($50 to $150), the old-school gasoline augers ($250 to $500), or the newer, lighter and quieter electric versions (about $300 to $700).
Berzinis said more and more people are buying a hand auger, removing the handle and attaching your basic drill like you use at home.
Whatever you decide on, you will need one of these tools to drill the holes, as well as a hand chisel to check the ice before walking over it. Make sure it’s at least 3 inches thick if you’re walking out with your friends. (The state has a guide for other situations.)
Other items that are handy, but not essential, are a sharp knife to gut the fish if you plan to keep it for dinner; a skimmer – which looks a lot like a ladle – for scooping out ice chunks from the hole; and creepers or ice spikes to walk on the ice should it be slick (all of the above run between $10 to $70).
DON’T WAIT FOR BAIT
Norton recommends a bait bucket to carry in your bait and a small aerator to keep it alive. The battery-operated ones run around $15 to $40.
You’ll need to check state laws about whether live bait is allowed in the pond or lake you’re fishing. When legal, Norton recommends using live bait to add that bit of movement at the end of the line, to entice the fish.
If you become hooked on ice fishing – you may want to go big: Put a large cooler in your garage with an equally large aerator to keep fresh bait at home, so you can sneak out at the crack of dawn without having to stop and buy some.
“There needs to be dissolved oxygen in the water. Depending on how many fish you have, they can use that up. So you need a big enough aerator,” Norton said.
A few other accessories can make the experience more enjoyable.
Ice shacks are an ice fishing tradition from Minnesota to Maine – but not necessary if you want a warm escape. Try a pop-up shack. They start around $150 and run upwards of $600. But in these portable huts you can fit camp chairs, a cooler, and small portable propane heater for warmth ($70 to $150).
Then to haul in your gear, best to have a pulk sled, which is similar to your basic plastic kids sled. But invest in the classic thick, wide, black ice fishing sleds found in hardware and sporting good stores – and you’ll be glad you did. They start around $50 but are rugged with nearly foot-high sides that assure they won’t flip as you pull them over the lake.
THE MINIMALIST APPROACH
Berzinis loves the early season on the smaller, stocked ponds that freeze first, walking in with a pack basket. And he likes to keep it simple – with a single line to jig and some worms in his pocket.
Often times, Berzinis said, you don’t even need to drill the hole. Just find some previously drilled holes and kick your foot in. He brings a chisel just in case – and also to check the ice as he goes.
For those on a strict budget, Berzinis said you can get out and have fun for under $150 with a chisel or hand auger ($20 to $100), a jig pole ($30), worms (under $10) and fishing line, hooks and swivels ($10). Throw it all in a backpack and hike in. Or, go with the old-time pack baskets for a really traditional approach, although those run another $100.
“I like to go with worms in my pocket, and a jig pole or a few traps and off you go,” Berzinis said.
One thing is certain – anyone picking up ice fishing has no shortage of mentors. Berzinis and Norton urge new ice fishermen to go online to ice fishing forums on social media (like Maine Ice Fishing on Facebook) – or even approach ice fishermen out fishing. The state also lists tips and the state stocking report on its website.
“The ice fishing community is very amenable to helping others,” Berzinis said. “If you reach out to people, ask for tips. I love to take people out and introduce them to the sport.”
Norton’s best advice: The best ice fishermen work at it. So checking the traps periodically increases success.
“If you just go around and pick up the traps 3 feet and set them back down – you wake up the bait and get it moving,” Norton said. “You might find a flag not long after.”