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    Ice Fishing and Stewardship

    By FishRecycler | January 2, 2010

    By: SAFE Angling Director Finn Horvath
    with Teeg Stouffer

    SAFE Angling On IceIn the northern part of the country, the landscape is covered in ice and snow.  For some anglers, relief only comes in the form of sports and outdoor expos, fishing TV shows or DVDs, hours at the fly tying bench or  and sorting, repairing, and modifying gear in anticipation of next season.

    For others, when the water gets hard, the hardcore get harder!

    A growing number of us simply cannot peacefully wait out the long months of winter, so we confront the winds and whiteouts. We defy the thick crust of ice that threatens to keep us from that mysterious underwater world.

    Our tools are augers and shacks, sonar and an array of rod combos, waxworms and jigs and severed minnow heads to impale on needle-sharp hooks.

    Safety on the ice brings to mind many things: fishing with a buddy, a spud to check ice thickness, warm clothes worn wisely, cleats to prevent slips and falls, a PFD for early and late ice. It’s essential – it is the starting point for our hardwater pursuits.

    The point of this little manifesto goes further. S.A.F.E. Angling is our acronym for “Sustaining Angling, Fish and Ecosystems.” Here is our guide for stewardship-minded practices and products as we pursue our quarry on hard water.


    Teeg Stouffer BluegillWe’ve covered in other SAFE Angling articles the various problems associated with lead fishing tackle. In brief, lead presents health threats to humans (especially our children) and both fish and wildlife in and around our lakes, streams, and seas. (For more on that, visit our SAFE Angling Kits section or Get The Lead Out! from MN PCA.)

    The very real concerns associated with lead are no less important when fishing through a hole in the ice.  Actually, it may prove more relevant – those of us who don’t usually fish tiny jigs and split-shot during the open water season do so in winter. Oddly enough, the smaller lead items pose the greatest risk to diving ducks and other  wildlife. Water birds inadvertently pick up lead jigs and weights while gathering pebbles to help grind their food. Just one jig or split shot can kill a bird. There are other scenarios as well, but this one has been the one most well-documented as an example of lead poisoning in wildlife.

    Fortunately, many ice fishing tackle manufacturers have caught on and are leading the way in production of more eco-friendly products. It’s a testimony to both these companies sense of respect for our waters, nature and health – and to the tremendous fishability of these other products.

    True, some waters and states prohibit and/or restrict the use of lead fishing gear, so it can be argued the change to lead alternatives is simply a business decision on their part.  But anglers, including those who work for tackle manufacturers, are also widely recognized as leading the conservation movement, in part due to the time we spend on the water observing the delicate balance in nature.

    Lead-free tackle, particularly tungsten, “fishes heavy.” In other words, it sinks very quickly and provides a tight jiggling motion when the ice rod is jigged or trembled. Tungsten is expensive, but in the small sizes associated with ice fishing tackle, the finished product is still reasonably priced and within reach for most anglers.

    Lead Loon - Recycled FishMany of the leading ice fishing tackle manufacturers offer both lead and non-lead ice fishing items, and there are also some that have abandoned lead altogether in their ice jig and spoon manufacturing processes.  Beyond just manufacturing non-lead fishing tackle, they go so far as to label and promote their products’ lead-free qualities, with “non-lead lures” stickers affixed to the front of the packaging, or “Eco-Safe” emblazoned on the back of the product’s cardstock.

    Some have covered up the lead warning label, as their newer products no longer contain lead, and therefore no longer need the warning.  Newer packaging, such as Bay de Noc’s Swedish Pimple spoons, still sports the old lead warning label, but also takes the opportunity to make known that the product contains “less than 1% lead.”  (California Proposition 65 says that any product that contains ½% lead or more must bear a lead warning label.  The federal EPA laws allow for a greater percentage than California law states.  Some brass, the metal which many fishing spoons are made from, contains substantially less than 5% lead, which is close to the current EPA standard allowance. California’s law makes it necessary to print lead warning labels on products that are generally considered still safe by current EPA laws.)

    Below are a few companies that have “gotten the lead out” of their ice fishing tackle, jigs, spoons, and split-shot.

    HT Enterprises (Hi-Tech Fishing)

    139 E. Sheboygan St.

    Campbellsport, WI   53010


    HT Enterprises includes such brands as:

    Force Lures

    Glow Grub Jigs

    Alien Jigs

    Rocker Jigs

    Predator Jigs

    Hot Bite Lures

    Darter Micro Jigs

    Slim Rat Jigs

    Lunar Micro Lures


    Hawger 2000 Jig

    Rocker Minnow Lazer

    Rattling Grub

    HT Enterprises

    Ultra Lights

    Ice Ants

    Note:  Although some of the packaging you might find on shelves may be older, many products will have a “Non-Lead Lures” peach-colored sticker on the package.  Some also have an HT informational sticker glued over the product’s old lead warning label.

    ACME Tackle Company

    P.O. Box 72771

    Providence, RI    02907




    Little Cleo

    K-O Wobbler

    Note:  Products do not bear any lead warning label at all, including their standard traditional non-ice fishing product line.

    Bay de Noc Lure Company

    P.O. Box 71

    Gladstone, MI    49837

    Swedish Pimple

    Note:  Along with the California Proposition 65 lead warning label, their products also have an imprint on the packaging stating, “This American-made brass product contains less than 1% lead.”



    Rapala Jigging Shad Rap

    Rattlin’ Rap lipless crankbait

    Note:  Not all of Rapala’s ice fishing products are non-lead, or do not make it positively known.  The more well-known Rapala Jigging Rap does have a lead warning label.  The newer “Rapala Jigging Shad Rap” does not have the lead warning label on the product.  As these are exceptionally popular ice fishing lures, this entry is included here.


    P.O. Box 973

    Brainerd, MN  56401


    Rattl’n Flyer Spoon

    Note:  Products do not contain the lead warning label.  Instead, the product packages are labeled “Eco-Safe” in a globe-like emblem on the upper left-hand corner on the back of the package.

    Berkley / Pure Fishing

    1900 18th Street

    Spirit Lake, Iowa   51360-1099

    Ph:  1-800-237-5539


    Atomic Teasers

    Note: “Lead-Free” is labeled on the packaging, plus non-phthalate plastic tubes.

    Fiskas / Wolfram Jigs / Your Bobbers Down, Inc. (Sweden)



    Note: Traditional ice jigs by Wolfram Jigs are made of Tungsten.

    Cortland Line Company, Inc.

    3736 Kellogg Road

    Cortland, NY   13045


    Cortland Pro Select Tungsten Ice Fly Assortment (Assortment A)

    Marmish (Canada)




    Note: Vertical fishing lures have “Lead Free” imprinted on the package.

    JB Lures, Inc.

    Winthrop, MN  55396



    Note:  No lead warning appears on the packaging.

    The above is in no way a complete list of ice fishing manufacturers or of their non-lead jigs, spoons, and lures. It is only a quick list to get you started and show that the product is out there. In addition to the above, there are tackle companies that make other items such as non-lead split-shot (Gremlin Green, Bullet Weights, Boss-Tin, Eagle Claw, Dr. Drop), round ball-head jigs (Northland’s Nature Jigs, Boss-Tin’s bismuth-tin jigs, Outkast’s Money Jig, Jackall’s tungsten Shaky-Head Jig, Cubbie, etc.), balsa and wooden floats (Eagle Claw, Thill, Blackbird, and Kiri-Wood, who also makes weighted balsa floats that are non-lead), and even biodegradable fishing line (Bioline, now owned by Wright & McGill / Eagle Claw).

    Know of another product we should list here? Drop us an e-mail – fishrecycler[at]recycledfish[dot]org.

    Another component of “SAFE Angling” is a move away from plastic lures (SAFE Angling – Plastic Free Lures). Plastic lures can kill fish and wildlife when ingested, introduce endocrine disrupting phthalates into our water supplies, and pollute our waters and environment in both their production, loss and disposal.

    There is a whole assortment of biodegradable soft molded baits (“bio-softs”) such as FoodSource Lures, Berkley Gulp! and Gulp!Alive, Big Bite Baits Bio-Baits, FishBites, Rapala Trigger-X and others to effectively take the place of soft plastics and cut- or deadbait in instances.

    Generally speaking, the tiny plastics associated with most ice fishing are not acute environmental problems, but the biodegradable alternatives are a helpful “drop in the bucket,” and a move in the right direction.



    Use of a Gaff– Not fish-friendly. Not recommended at all unless every fish landed will be for the table. Never gaff a fish that you intend to release, or that will be required to be released.

    Gaffs are often used for the largest fish – pike, muskies, walleyes, lake trout. The biggest fish, both these predatory species and the largest specimens within these species, are excellent choices for catch and release. They help provide trophy genetics, and a predator / prey mix provides for optimum angling.

    In other words, the fish you’d be most likely to gaff are the ones that are best suited to being released.

    Remove Treble Hooks

    shucks-jiggerAny discussion on hooks and hook types could easily be drawn out into a book without much effort. Treble hooks can be difficult to remove from fish, increasing damage to the fish and air exposure, reducing post-release survival rates. They are almost impossible to remove without harming or killing the fish if the fish happens to swallow one. Furthermore, they are famous for snagging gloves, jackets, and portable shack fabric.

    If trebles do have a place in ice fishing, it would be for use in a quick-strike rig where live- or deadbait is used as the means of presentation. Fish like Northern Pike generally attack their prey from the side in a t-bone fashion, and the use of a quick-strike rig allows the angler to set the hook immediately upon feeling the fish strike, reducing the opportunity for the fish to turn and swallow the bait headfirst.

    Other than that, when possible, remove and replace treble hooks with single hooks on spoons and vertical, minnow swimming jigs and lures.

    Single hooks with the barb mashed down have excellent penetration and holding power, and our research has shown that the ratio of landed fish on single hooks is equal to that of treble hooks.

    Choose an appropriate-sized straight shank j-hook, preferably with a straight eye.  They may be tricky to retrofit as single, j-hook styles have a smaller eye than treble hooks that have eyes large enough to easily accommodate a split-ring.

    Open eye siwash style hooks can be an excellent choice.

    If changing out the treble hook with a single hook seems impossible, creating a short “dropper line” with about 1 ½ – 2 ½ inches of fishing line is always an option, and rarely a bad one.

    In a pinch, or when already out on the ice, cutting off or curling two of a treble hook’s two tine-points back in towards the treble hook’s shaft can be a quick remedy.

    Here’s another take on the issue of treble hooks from one of our most respected advisors, Daryl Bauer. Bauer is a fisheries biologist, he having served as Lakes and Reservoirs Program Manager and now Fisheries Outreach Program Manager  for Nebraska Game & Parks. He is also an avid angler, landing and releasing multiple ‘master angler’ fish from public waters every year.

    This topic will surely come up several times before the winter is over, so I might as well take a kick at it.

    You are absolutely right about the feeding behavior of those pike; yes, they tend to grab baits sideways and then reposition them for swallowing head-first. Yes, allowing them to run and reposition the bait makes it more likely for a hookup, BUT it also makes it more likely that you will deep hook a fish that subsequently may not survive. That is why I am a big fan of multiple, small trebles, “Quick Strike rigging”, and setting the hook as soon as possible, especially when fishing tip-ups. With quick-strike rigging you get solid hook-ups without the guessing [associated with when to set the hook on a single hook setup] and you are a lot less likely to hook vital organs.

    Many of our pike fisheries have regulations that require the release of at least some of the pike caught. We should try everything we can to make sure those fish are released with the best possible chance of survival. Hook location is [one of] the biggest factors in survivability and the sooner the hooks can be set after a fish takes the bait the less likely those hooks are going to cause damage to vital organs.

    That is my $0.02-worth.

    Daryl Bauer
    Fisheries Outreach Program Manager
    Nebraska Game & Parks Commission

    Live bait fishing

    Live MinnowsAs during the open water season, using livebait through the ice, whether on an ice rod or tip-ups, on plain hooks, jigs, spoons, or quick-strikes, the same advice applies: use livebait from the same body of water you are fishing, or, as is more likely during hardwater season, a local bait shop. Also remember it is never a good idea to release livebait into the body of water you are fishing if it is not caught from there. The rationale behind these precautions is that livebait that is foreign to a body of water has the potential of introducing invasive or other undesirable species and diseases into a particular ecosystem where it can upset or destroy that body of water’s delicate balance.

    One other live- or deadbait practice relates specifically to fishing for northern pike, as many anglers do during ice season, and that is the use of an appropriate leader on rods and/or tip-ups.  It is highly advisable to use a wire leader or a very heavy gauge monofilament or fluorocarbon leader when pursuing toothy fish such as pike or muskies.

    Bioline, a biodegradable fishing line company, has even come out with a tougher brand of their existing “biofilament” line, to be used exclusively as leader material.  Fish such as pike and musky have very sharp teeth and can easily bite through an average leader, so it is not only a smart idea so as not to lose the fish of the day (or season), but also to ensure a fish does not escape with hooks from a quick-strike rig, a spoon, or a lure in it’s mouth.  Matching your tackle to the quarry you are likely to catch is part of living – and fishing – as a steward.

    Deepwater fishing

    When catching fish from deep water, special care must be taken when fighting a fish if it is to be released healthy and strong.  Many anglers, especially shore anglers, are not accustomed to fishing deep waters, but in ice fishing we often offer vertical presentations in depths exceeding 20 feet.

    Just like a human diver can suffer “the bends” if coming to the water’s surface too quickly after exploring the ocean’s depths, most fish pulled up to the surface from the deep too quickly can suffer “barotraumas,” or “hyper buoyancy.”

    Fish have swim bladders that allow them to trap air within their bodies to regulate and maintain their depth and balance in the water. This regulation of air in most fish takes time, their bladder fills or releases air gradually, allowing them to rise and sink in the water column.  Bringing a fish from the deep up to the surface too quickly can cause severe physical disruption within the fish’s body and ultimately cause them to die, even if released.

    Signs of hyper buoyancy include:

    Setting aside any more scientific explanation, suffice it to say that this sort of nastiness is avoidable.  The best method is to fish in fewer than 20 feet of water. Even when there is a good deepwater bite, somewhere in shallower water, actively feeding fish can be found by those willing to go on the lookout for them.

    When fishing deep waters, generally 20 feet and deeper, it can be helpful to bring fish to the surface slowly, allowing them to acclimate to the pressure change and stabilize during the fight.  The idea is not to extend the fight far beyond what is reasonable, but a controlled manner is necessary.  This way the fish literally does have a fighting chance of surviving.

    Realize that many of these fish still have high post-release mortality rates, even if they swim away.

    If a caught fish does portray signs of bloating and barotraumas, there is a method of “fizzing” or “venting” a fish to relieve the trapped air within the swim bladder.  Many bloated fish will be unable to swim away, floating in the hole or trapped under the ice as they are unable to swim back to depth.  Basically, the procedure involves taking a larger gauge hypodermic needle (a 16-gauge surgical type needle is recommended), inserting it into the side of the fish approximately 1.5 inches past the pectoral fin and approximately 1.5 inches into the side of the fish, thereby relieving pressure on the fish by releasing the excess air trapped within the swim bladder. There are fishing tools designed exactly for such occasions, such as the Ventafish Fish Venting Tool (you can visit their website for details on their venting tool and proper procedures for use at http://www.ventafish.com ).  Tools such as the Ventafish are actually required by state and federal law on some waters.

    The “fizzing” method of inserting a needle through the fish’s throat is no longer recommended due to too great a chance of puncturing vital organs.

    A final technique includes using a heavy weight clipped to a fish’s jaw to return fish to depth, then shaking the weight loose and retrieving it, allowing the fish to swim off.

    Catch and Release/Selective Harvest

    Winter fishing in the North can be a hot and cold affair. It can sometimes feel like forever between bites, and then the bite turns on and landing fish gets to be like factory work. Fish school tightly in the winter, and it’s possible to put far more pressure on them than in summer months.

    Today’s electronics like Vexilar or similar portable sonar units or underwater cameras can be powerful tools in locating concentrations of fish quickly. With the power of these advancements comes the need for responsible use.

    In winter’s icy waters, fish typically hold in relatively predictable, tight locations.  Most of those locations are connected to food supply, travel routes, dissolved oxygen content, temperature and cover / protection.

    Due to fish concentrating in somewhat predictable spots, once a prime location is found, modern anglers have enough information and technology on their side that a few skilled anglers can quickly and easily catch such a multitude of fish as to create a serious depletion of a species in a relatively short amount of time.

    Winter fishing through the ice, perhaps more than any other time of the year, can lead to “fishing out” a hot spot. To catch more and bigger fish and leave something great for our grandkids, it’s always best to “limit one’s catch, not catch one’s limit.”  There’s no harm in taking a few fish for the table, but the greedy “catch and all you can, and can all you catch” mentality has no place in a stewardship-minded angler’s lifestyle.

    For more on Selective Harvest, read our Selective Harvest Best Practices. In brief, the biggest fish aren’t necessarily the oldest, they are faster growers – genetically superior. Big fish make big fish, so releasing the biggest fish means the probability that you and others will catch more big fish from those waters in the future.

    Mid-sized panfish (bluegills from 7″ – 8 ½” / crappies from 9″ – 12″ / perch from 7″ – 10″) are excellent choices for selective harvest. So are invasive species such as yellow bass, or prolific species such as white bass. Put-and-take fisheries like stocked rainbow trout are another great selective harvest option.

    Predatory species such as largemouth and smallmouth bass, muskies, pike and even the tasty walleye require additional consideration prior to harvest. Knowing the body of water will help dictate how to steward it best with your take. Generally, keep mid-sized fish and release the largest specimens. True trophies are best kept in photos and fiberglass reproductions.

    It goes without saying that wanton waste is not only illegal, it is deplorable behavior. Any fish that are kept should be cleaned and eaten. Leaving sport fish on the ice at the end of the day is literally a crime.

    (Leaving unused bait on the ice is not a crime, and is good practice – unused bait should not be dumped down the ice hole.)

    Fish Handling

    Just as is recommended during open water season, it is even more important to get fish back into the water quickly when releasing fish during ice season. During colder temperatures, fish exposed to cold winds and frigid temperatures can easily suffer freezing damage to their fins, gills, and eyes.

    For larger fish, it is a good practice to remember to hold fish in a horizontal position rather than vertically by the lower jaw or gills.

    Larger catches on ice and open water – northern pike, walleye, lake trout, bass, channel catfish, salmon – have less of a potential of being injured if held with one hand supporting the head and the other hand or arm holding the fish under its belly, or around the base of the tail.  Larger fish held vertically can have their jaws or spines dislocated.

    In terms of fish handling, it is always best to handle fish as little as possible if you are planning to let your fish go.  Handling fish with dry hands or gloves can remove the protective slime coating on the fish, which is what protects them from infection and disease.

    If uncertain as to whether you will be keeping or releasing your catch, keep a water-filled 5-gallon bucket with an aerator. Fish held in buckets or coolers have mortality rates that increase the longer that they’re out of their natural environment, so decide quickly if fish will be kept or released.

    The notion that fish can be kept on the ice and frozen, then released later after they defrost is an old wive’s tale. Although fish exhibit some swimming behavior even after being frozen on the ice for a long period of time, this tends to be “chicken with the head cut off” response. These fish do not live.

    A fish can reliably survive out of water, even in the winter, for a minute or two at most.

    Keep it Clean

    It’s always a letdown to leave home excited to connect with nature, only to be confronted by trash. Empty worm containers, beer and pop cans, wispy plastic grocery bags, snarls of hair-like fishing line – these are the signs that the most unethical among us have shared our waters.

    As in any outdoor pursuits, whatever you drag out onto the ice, be sure to pack it back out.  It not only shows respect for nature, but other ice anglers as well.  A snow and ice-covered lake at dawn is a beautiful and breathtaking scene, white, pure, and pristine.  Help others to experience it too.  This is what stewardship is about.

    The truth is, trash at the lake comes from three places:

    Observe Local Laws/Check Weather and Ice Conditions

    The same as open water season, observing the state laws and those of the waters you fish will not only save you money in potential violations, but is also your part in managing your local waters. Find out how many ice rods and/or tip-ups you can use, the size, length, and slot limits for the fish you catch, as well as daily creel limits, how many hooks per line are allowed, ice shanty regulations and dates, maximum hole diameter that can be drilled into the ice, and whether the ice is thick enough to be considered safe.


    How many times have you gone out fishing on some perfect spot and someone (uninvited) came over and fished right next to you when there was a whole lake or river to fish?  Every angler needs some space to work their magic and that can be important on the ice, although ice fishing tends to be more communal than other types of fishing.  Many little ice fishing camps spring up out on the ice as the hardwater season progresses, where stories and camaraderie are shared, fibs swapped, and techniques are discussed, but there are times when anglers want their room.

    It is never a good idea to crowd another angler. If you’re setting up shop within 30 or 40 feet of someone else, it’s polite to ask if they mind.

    While it is customary to punch out iced-over holes other anglers may have made, it is far from polite to follow directly behind another angler and fish the holes they’ve recently cut as soon as they’ve moved on.  If they’re in sight of the holes, they may have every intention of coming back to the hole after letting it settle.

    Again, common sense, politeness and communication are the rule.  Although it may be tempting after seeing an angler pulling fish from a hole, it’s best to give them plenty of room.  You can fish nearby.  You may also just go over to the angler and find out how they’re fishing, what technique, bait or lure they’re using, or what depth or structure they’re keying on, and then work to replicate their success a respectable distance from them.  If the angler invites you to fish with them, great, all the better!  You may make a new fishing buddy.

    Crimp Your Barbs

    Crimping the barbs on your ice fishing lures is always a fish-friendly practice. Crushing the barbs on hooks with a pair of needle-nose pliers (or filing or grinding them down) makes the release of fish much quicker and easier.  It is also much easier on the fish, causing less damage to their lips and jaws by creating a far greater wound than necessary upon tearing the hook loose. 

    In ice fishing, we often use live bait – waxworms or spikes, live or dead minnows. A barb helps hold bait on the hook. The happy medium is pinching the tip of the barb to create a “bump” which helps hold the bait on the hook while providing easy release.

    Remember to keep the drag appropriately tightened, and use the flex in the rod and rod tip to keep the line tight following the initial hook-set and the fight.  Barbs aren’t exactly the necessity some anglers feel they are, and plenty of anglers are testament to that

    Tournaments & Derbies

    For thousands of anglers, part of the fun of fishing in the winter includes tournaments and derbies. A couple of special advisements for these situations.

    Tournaments generally involve fishing for several hours, and bringing a number of fish to a weigh-in at the end of the fishing time. Most tournaments now require that these fish be kept alive. These tips will help you bring live, vigorous fish to the weigh-in:

    Keep fish in a white, insulated bucket or cooler with a floating thermometer.

    These fish come out of 34 degree water. Dark colored containers and uninsulated containers tend to heat up quickly, even a 10 degree temperature shift can kill the fish.

    A battery operated aerator helps keep the water oxygenated. Cold water holds dissolved oxygen well.

    A lid will help prevent water from splashing out during transport.

    Fill your bucket with water before you catch your first fish. If you wait to fill the bucket with water until you catch your first fish, that fish has a lower survival rate. A 32 ounce plastic cup from a convenience store works well to draw water from an ice hole. Some anglers make a “water on a stick” device, using a 5″ diameter container with a 1″ x 2″ x 3′ board screwed to the inside. This plunges quickly down the hole to draw water without getting the angler wet.

    A teaspoon of Sure Life in the water will also help keep the fish live, healthy and vigorous.

    Fish that will be kept for eating at the end of the tournament need only be kept lively enough for the weigh-ins. Fish that will be returned to the water require exceptional care to ensure long-term survival.

    In derbies, fish are typically caught, rushed to the weigh-ins, weighed and released. In this scenario, a bag filled with water or a bucket of water is all that is needed to keep the fish submerged through weigh-ins. During exceptionally cold conditions, an insulated bucket with plenty of water is helpful.

    Fractions of an ounce can mean the difference between winning and losing, and fish lose weight out of water. Live, healthy fish brought to weigh-ins in water give you the best chance of a winning finish.


    Ice fishing has its own mystique and enticements. Ice anglers are a rare and hearty breed, braving winter’s unforgiving winds and frozen, austere beauty.  There’s a particular wildness and solitude and sense of freedom found only by trekking across the broad, flat plain of a frozen lake, stopping seemingly in the middle of exactly nowhere, and declaring oneself as having arrived.  Few are lucky enough to know this feeling.

    Few are equipped to steward it like you.


    Topics: Catch & Release, Recycled Fish, S.A.F.E. Angling, Selective Harvest | Comments Off on Ice Fishing and Stewardship

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