Hard Water Fishin' - Missouri Style

By Doug Rainey | December 2, 2003
From Missouri Conservationist: Dec 2003

In early December, the little town of Memphis, Missouri, is abuzz with coffee shop discussions about frozen ponds and fresh fish fillets.

After a week of below freezing temperatures, and having observed Corky at the coffee shop already telling big fish stories, I finally muster the courage to test the "hard-water fishing" opportunities available in Scotland County farm ponds. The ice is a good 4 inches thick and clear as glass. That means safe ice and, usually, hungry fish that need catchin'.

I'm not sure what part of ice fishing appeals to me the most. For starters, it's a great way to relax. Or maybe it's drilling all those holes in the ice with an auger to find fish, or trying to avoid being blown across the lake by bone-chilling winds while trying to erect a shelter. Perhaps it's the chance to pull a 6-pound channel cat through a 6-inch hole on 2-pound test line.

Yeah, catching the catfish would have to be my favorite part!

Ice fishing is a very simple sport, and you can generally get started with only a minimal investment. Before you even think about venturing onto the ice, make sure you wear warm clothes and dress in layers. Insulated boots are essential to keep your feet warm while resting for many hours on ice. I even use electric socks when it's especially cold.

Next you need an ice auger to drill holes. Augers 6-8 inches in diameter are commonly used in north Missouri, depending on the size fish you anticipate catching. Bigger is better, but it takes more work to drill bigger holes. Just make sure you drill a hole wider than the fish you plan to catch. You'll also need a plastic scoop to clean the ice chips out of your hole after drilling, as well as a 5-gallon bucket to sit on and to carry your gear.

An ultra-light ice-rod with a reel loaded with 4-pound test line is a good all-round ice- fishing rig. Some nylon or Manila rope is always good to have in case of an emergency. You'll need an assortment of ice-fishing jigs and some live bait, such as waxworms, maggots or minnows, to tip your jigs. Bring along some high-energy food. An ice-fishing shelter might make the day much more comfortable.

Early ice is the best time for fishing. Fish are more aggressive early, but as the season progresses, fish activity usually slows down, as does the catching. You can expect to catch bluegill, largemouth bass, crappie, walleye and channel catfish, depending on what has been stocked in the ponds you are fishing. You can fish the large lakes, but they often take much longer to freeze than ponds.

Finding fish can be the biggest challenge of this sport. They can be almost anywhere, and at any depth. A portable depth finder will make your search for fish easier. If you don't have one, start searching in the deepest area of the pond first. Usually about a foot off the bottom is best. Work your way slowly from the bottom of the water column to the top, very slowing searching for some activity. If you don't have any action in about 15 minutes, move on and try another location. Often, moving only a few feet in any direction can make a big difference in whether you catch fish or not.

Remember, fish don't move around much this time of year. You must find them, instead of them finding you. For this, anticipate drilling 20 to 30 holes a day.

Don't be discouraged if you don't catch fish right away. During the winter, fish generally feed for shorter periods of time, usually early or late in the day. Many anglers consider the last hour of the day to be the most productive.

Ice-fishing may not be for everybody, but for the really true northern "hard water angler," it is a wintertime activity that can't be beat. In Memphis, we really look forward to it each year. When the ice is safe, try it. I'll bet you'll think ice fishing is cool, too.


  • Three inches of solid ice is generally considered safe for walking,skating or fishing.Make sure the ice is 4-inches thick if you're with a group.
  • Drill test holes as you move out from shore to make sure the ice is thick enough. Stay off ice that sags when you walk on it.
  • Stay away from springs and areas with current. Thick snow cover will slow down ice formation and can weaken already-formed ice by forcing it underwater.
  • Ice may also be weaker near trees, rocks or other items that absorb heat. Always avoid slushy, honeycombed or dark, late-season ice.


  • Wear a life preserver or bring along a PFD cushion.
  • Keep a couple of large nails in the pocket of your coat.They can help you get a "bite" on the slippery ice in case you fall in.Many ice anglers make ice awls consisting of spike points protruding from easy-to-grab wooden handles.
  • If you fall in, try to pull yourself out in the direction you came from. You know that ice supported you. It helps to kick your feet while trying to pull yourself up onto the unbroken ice or when someone is pulling you free.
  • When you reach unbroken ice, don't try to get up.Roll or pull yourself well away from the hole you made falling through.
  • Don't approach too closely to someone who has fallen through the ice. Carefully extend a rope, branch or ladder to the victim, and mostly let the victim pull and kick himself onto the ice.

This Issue's Staff

Editor - Tom Cwynar
Managing Editor - Bryan Hendricks
Art Director - Ara Clark
Artist - Dave Besenger
Artist - Mark Raithel
Photographer - Jim Rathert
Photographer - Cliff White
Staff Writer - Jim Low
Staff Writer - Joan McKee
Circulation - Laura Scheuler