Ice fishing season will soon melt away

ICE FISHING  —  Montana Fish & Wildlife employees participated with the Prairie View fifth graders on a recent ice fishing trip at the Bynum Reservoir.  Photo courtesy of Val Kellogg




By Tirsea McNeal, I-O Reporter

Anglers brave the cold temperatures and set their ice fishing shelters out as early as ice is thick enough to hold the weight, as early as November, depending on the area.

Most anglers will go out with two and a half inches of good ice for walking, but four inches is recommended and five to six inches for sleds, snow machines, and snowmobiles, and seven to 12 for light cars and 14-16 inches for full-sized trucks.

Experienced anglers are cautious because sometimes ice won’t form in areas where swift currents leave open areas frozen with much thinner ice. Ice conditions can change daily.

One of the most important aspects of ice fishing is to have a fishing license and know the rules and regulations of the state you choose to fish. 

State agencies regulate the number of fishing lines allowed per angler as well as the number of fish anglers are allowed to keep.

Many anglers who ice fish invest in a shelter. A shanty or a portable shelter is preferable to standing out on the ice in the freezing winds. Some ice fishing houses resemble tents, made of durable heavy weatherproof shells. Many shanties are home-made of plywood, looking like small garden sheds.

Portable heaters help keep you warm and prevent the fishing hole from freezing up. Buckets can be flipped over for chairs and useful for carrying your rods, lures and baits. Anglers can jig from a nice warm shanty.

Ice fishing shanties can be elaborate creations. Some leave their shanty up for the entire winter season equipped with portable bathrooms, beds and all the comforts of home.

Some anglers prefer the car.  Ralph Fuson, ice fisherman from Conrad, uses tip ups and fishes from his car.  He augers out the holes, sets the tip ups and then returns to the warmth of his vehicle to await the spring loaded red flag.

He said, “I use a home-made tip up most of the time.  It works just as well.” Fuson added, “They are also easier to get loose from the ice if it freezes, the store made tip ups often will break if you have to pry them.”

Fuson gave some of the I-O staff a demonstration on how tip-ups work.  Fuson commented, “The home-made one has an 80-lb. line and it works really good. I use both the home-made one and the store bought.”

He said, “When I was young, I used to run when I’d see the flag spring up. Now I meander out there, taking my time and allow the fish to swallow the hook, ensuring it’s caught. If you rush them, you’ll likely lose them.”

Fuson prefers to fish for Pike, a whitefish.  He said, “It’s bony, but really tastes the best.”  Fuson told the I-O a few good recipes, but that’s another story. 

For fishing Pike Fuson advises, “I fish Lake Arod, Tiber and Lake Francis.”  For bait he uses Smelt. “I use a Swedish U-hook, sometimes called a Pike hook, and when using smelt, fish right off the bottom.” he commented.

He also spoke about ice thickness and safety.  Fuson knows from experience that ice can be unpredictable.

New ice is usually stronger than old ice. And ice seldom freezes uniformly. It may be a foot thick in one location and only an inch or two just a few feet away. It’s unpredictable, and if the thickness is uncertain, don’t venture out on it.

Ice flowing water and currents is dangerous. This is especially true near streams, bridges and culverts. Also, the ice outside river bends is usually weaker due to the faster current.

Snow insulates and slows down freezing. Heavy snow also reduces the weight an ice sheet can support.
Also, ice near the shore is weaker than ice farther out.

When ice freezes and refreezes, it can make terrible sounds. Booming and cracking ice isn’t necessarily dangerous. It only means that the ice is expanding and contracting as the temperature changes. If in the middle of the night you hear a screaming witch, relax, it’s probably just the ice expanding.

Schools of fish also can stir warm water up from the lake bottom opening holes in the ice causing snowmobiles and cars to break through.

For more information on local ice fishing and tips, you can visit the Montana, Fish & Wildlife website: