For most Northern Missouri anglers, frozen lakes and ponds symbolize the end of the fishing season. For some, however, the “hard water” season in Missouri is the beginning of one of the best fishing periods of the year.
Anglers who brave the colder temperatures quickly realize the great opportunity to extend their fishing season. It shouldn’t be a surprise that the number of ice anglers is on the rise in our state. Missouri has great fishing for panfish. The numerous small lakes and ponds in Missouri, many of them public, offer exceptional bluegill and crappie angling for both numbers and size, and ice fishing is one of the cheapest and simplest types of angling. There are no boats or expensive gear requirements, and great fishing is accessible for anyone who is willing to walk, sometimes even just a few strides from shore. Also, the fish are reasonably easy to catch and, taken from very cold water, fish fillets of any species taste as good as they ever will.
If you have ever thought about trying ice fishing, but didn’t know where to start, here are the basics.
“Is the ice safe yet?” is the first question to ask, and the most important consideration. It is impossible to determine if ice will hold you just by the appearance from the bank. Ice strength is determined by such factors as ice thickness, daily temperature, snow cover, depth of water under the ice, size of the lake, wind, current, and wildlife activity.
Wait to walk onto the ice until local high temperatures have been well below freezing (32 degrees) for several days. With your fishing buddy (never ice fish alone), go out 3 or 4 feet from the bank and make a hole. If there is at least 4 inches of ice, continue another 10 or 15 feet and make another hole. If everything is still safe and you feel comfortable, keep going, opening holes every 50 feet to make sure ice thickness hasn’t changed.
Remember: ice rarely forms in uniform thickness. It can be 6 inches in one spot, and 2 inches just a few feet away. An example is areas that have been kept open by ducks and geese. Always be aware of the type of ice you are drilling through, and distinguish between ice and snow. Snow on top of ice does not help ice freeze faster, rather it insulates it, shielding the surface of the lake from cold temperatures. The best ice is hard, clear ice you can see through.
When cold temperatures do come, the first thing an ice angler needs is something to make a hole in the ice. Augers, axes, and ice picks can all do the job of making a 6- to 8-inch diameter hole. Making a larger hole might seem like a good idea, but I would advise against it since wider holes have the tendency to attract the boots of anglers’ feet, and wet feet in the winter time will ruin a fishing trip rather quickly. Six- to 8-inch holes are plenty wide enough to fit even the biggest of Missouri’s panfish. Although expensive power augers are available from many retailers, affordable hand-held augers are all that are necessary in Missouri since ice thickness rarely gets more than 12 inches, even in the harshest of winters in the northern part of the state.
The most common ice fishing tackle includes a small, 2- to 3-foot jigging stick with an ultra-light reel, very light line, and small 1/64-ounce jigs. Ice fishing poles can be homemade setups assembled from broken gear, cheaper plastic ice fishing rod and reels, or more expensive rod and reel combos. Check all your usual outdoor catalogs for the latest.
Throw your rods in that extra 5-gallon bucket you have in the garage, and you have yourself a gear transporter, a place to throw your fish, and a seat — all in one.
For bait, most successful anglers use live bait, such as wax worms, which are the small white larvae of the greater wax moth, and small minnows like fatheads and shiners. Wax worms can be hard to find some years because the ice-fishing season varies in duration from year to year. However, bait shops can order them for you, or there are many online stores. Adventurous anglers can also raise their own wax worms at home. Wax worms are hardy creatures and may last you into the spring if care is taken. Leftovers will work during the spring just as well as on the ice. Other popular bait options are Berkley power bait nibbles, Gulp! scented products, jigging spoons, jigging Rapalas, or very small plastics. Always keep in mind that using the smallest presentation possible with the lightest line you can find gives you the best shot at being successful.
The most popular and active species during the winter months are bluegill and crappie. Many ice anglers are also surprised that largemouth bass and channel catfish are active during the winter. I know many anglers who throw back 8-inch bluegills in the summer while they are fishing for other species. Those same anglers, however, after getting introduced to the tug of a large bluegill on a light, 2-foot-long ultralight fishing rod, will now walk a mile through snow drifts to ice fish a pond full of eater-sized bluegills. There is something almost addictive about feeling that light tap, setting the hook, and pulling a fish through a 6-inch hole at your feet. If the sporting fight of a large, circling bluegill below the ice doesn’t turn you into an ice angler, the fresh fried bluegill dinner when you get home will seal the deal.
Most ice-fishing opportunities in Missouri are on small lakes or farm ponds, but good fishing can be also be found on city lakes, where allowed (be sure to check regulations first). I would try your favorite farm pond first. Many farm ponds are in need of some harvest to help balance the fishery. Whether the pond has a stockpiled bass population, or bluegill aren’t harvested often, fishing is a key management tool for a healthy pond fish population.
Ask your friend or relative if taking a few fish out of their pond is ok, then find the deepest part of the pond, easily located adjacent to the pond dam. During winter, fish stage in deep water over mud bottoms, gorging themselves on small aquatic organisms living in the mud.
Start by placing your bait 6 to 12 inches off the bottom, and keep the bait moving with very subtle twitches of the rod tip. If a fish is close, they will bite. If you fail to find fish in the deep end of your pond, check a little shallower, or drill a hole next to your favorite brush pile. Although not a requirement, modern flashers like the Vexilar and portable LCD fish finders allow anglers to easily check the depth and find concentrations of fish, eliminating the guess work that comes along with any type of fishing. Use these same guidelines to find fish in small- to medium-sized public lakes.
Next time you have cabin fever in midwinter, and you are pining for the spring fishing season to start, get out there and give ice fishing a try. Not much compares with bringing a nice fish up through a small hole in the ice, and absolutely nothing beats a meal of freshly caught winter panfish. Pick a comfortable sunny day on a pond or lake with safe ice and an abundant population of bluegill or crappie, and you will be hooked on ice fishing. And if you can, bring a kid along. Christmas break offers the perfect time to spend some quality time. Ice fishing provides the fast and furious action needed to keep a young angler interested, and you may just make a fishing partner for life.
“Memories Make the Best Presents, but They Are Hard to Wrap!”
By Phillip Pitts
If you have a few years under your belt, think back to your special memories of mom and dad. Or think about the most fun days you had with your brothers, sisters, cousins, and friends. I’ll bet one of those memories is of a fishing trip where everything went great. Or, perhaps where everything went so wrong, all you could do was laugh. I’ll wager there is no amount of money you’d exchange for that picture in the family album of the proud, smiling faces with the catch of that day long ago.
Since 1990, the Missouri Department of Conservation, often in cooperation with the local city government, has been providing an opportunity to make one of those priceless memories with its winter trout fishing areas at 28 lakes throughout the state.
Each year, around the first of November, the Department stocks rainbow trout in five lakes in the Kansas City area and 16 lakes in the St. Louis area, as well as lakes in Jefferson City, Mexico, Sedalia, Kirksville, Columbia, Jackson, and St. Joseph. The Kansas City lakes and some of the lakes in St. Louis are stocked several times throughout the winter. Most of the stocked trout are about 12 inches long and weigh three-fourths of a pound, but a few of the trout stocked in each lake are lunkers (about 4 pounds) that have served as brood stock at Department hatcheries for several years.
The trout is a cold-water fish and provides excellent fishing in the winter when other fishing possibilities are more challenging. For a couple of weeks after the trout are first stocked, they have not learned to be wary of anglers and hooks. The trout are hungry and readily bite any lure that passes within reach. Catching lots of fish in a short time is pretty common right after stocking.
Fourteen of the lakes have a catch-and-release season for about three months prior to Jan. 31. During the catch-and-release season, only unscented, artificial lures can be used for bait. Beginning Feb. 1, anglers can use live worms, cheese bait, crickets, etc. After a few months in a lake crowded with lots of other fish, the trout are very hungry and cooperative. Once again, the fishing in these lakes is great for a short while and, if you have a trout permit, you can keep up to four tasty trout, too.
So, think about it. Have you made one of those memories for a child in your family yet? Now is the time! Get your rods and reels in shape. Buy some small hooks and trout bait. If you plan on ice fishing, check if it is allowed at your local lake. Get your fishing license and trout permit and don’t forget your camera. Years from now, as your loved ones look at the picture from that special day, they will smile and recall it fondly. They might think that day just happened, but you’ll know you made it happen. You gave them a special, priceless gift worth more than any fancy electronic toy or the latest fashion — and made some great memories for yourself, too.