Break the ice/ Long-range weather forecasts auger well for winter

Break the ice/ Long-range weather forecasts auger well for winterWinter is upon us, and by some early indications, this one could be the real thing. No more El Nio. Say good-bye, La Nia, with all your mild days and nights.

That scratchy old recording of White Christmas may have some relevance this year, and if ice fishing happens to be your thing, the new season may be a long one.

Traditional winter or not, the start of ice fishing usually coincides with the holiday season. A coincidence?

To some, it may be a convenient dodge - a way to escape the rush of Christmas shopping. For others, it's an event unto itself, complete with anticipation akin to a child awaiting the arrival of Dec. 25. Still others are driven by gamesmanship - a push to claim bragging rights as the first of one's crowd to venture onto (or through?) the new ice.

Ice fishing can be a casual diversion. It can be a passion. It can be a pleasant way to while away a winter day, but it also can offer some of the best fishing action of the year. It can be gregarious, a ritual of preparation and easy camaraderie on the ice to be enjoyed as much as the fishing. It can be solitary, reflective, an escape from the office crowd and sundry social posturing.

Basic, elaborate, simple or high-tech ... It can be almost anything the ice fisherman wants it to be, and its many dimensions are reflected in the equipment assembled by different fishermen for testing the same hard waters on a given day.

Pack the auger

Let's begin with the most basic. Though ice covers the surface of the lake, the fish are in the water below. And so, whether individually or in a group, someone must have a way of getting through the ice and to the fish.

That requires an auger. (Chopping a hole in the ice with a spud bar or ax can be dangerous, may alarm fish and is not recommended.) The choice, therefore, becomes a hand- or gasoline-powered model.

Hand augers cost less ($35- $80) but require more effort to use. Gasoline models cost more ($300-$450), generally are more durable than hand versions and require less exertion.

Hand and gasoline augers usually are available in 6-, 8- and 10- inch diameters. The maximum permissible diameter of an ice-fishing hole in Colorado is 10 inches. As a rule, the smaller the diameter, the quicker and easier the drilling. Larger diameters cost a little more but make it easier to bring large fish through the ice. Rentals from fishing shops may be available for about $25 a day.

Once a hole is drilled, the fisherman will need a slush spoon or similar device to dip out floating chunks of ice and periodically chip away newly formed ice. A kitchen strainer may do the job a little quicker than a slush spoon.

Choosing your equipment

Next, the fishermen will need at least one rod, reel and line. In a pinch, a standard spinning rod may fill the bill, but rods made specifically for ice fishing will perform better.

Such rods usually are short, light and sensitive. A length of 30 to 36 inches is best, though in the tight quarters of a blackout hut (the portable ice-fishing house), an even shorter model may be more suitable.

The rod should be tipped with fine piano wire or a similar device that acts as a strikes indicator. Contrary to much ice-fishing lore, most takes through the ice are likely to be delicate. Without a sensitive indicator, the fisherman may not even be aware of them.

Indicators made specifically for ice fishing are best. Most have a loop at their tips for the line, and one or two, bright plastic beads for visibility. In a pinch, a small bobber or a strike indicator as used by fly fishermen can be used.

A rod holder/rod saver is recommended. It holds the rod in position over the hole and prevents an unattended rod from being pulled in by a strong fish.

Most standard spinning reels are suitable for ice fishing, and a vintage, closed-face model is preferred by some. The reel should balance the rod and have a sensitive drag system. Excess oil and grease should be removed before ice fishing to keep the reel functioning smoothly on a cold day.

The line should be as light and limber as conditions (the expected size of fish) will allow.

As a rule, 4- to 6-pound-test monofilament will fill the bill, but stay away from the high-visibility versions.

An ice-fishing line is subject to fraying and weakening. If you plan to ice fish through the winter, be prepared to replace it a time or two.

Jigs most effective

Assorted baits and sinkers have their applications, but day-in, day-out, jigs made of feathers, animal hair or synthetic materials are the most effective for trout and kokanee salmon.

The variety of jigs knows few bounds. Most incorporate elements of profile, glow, flash and color to attract fish.

Fish preferences change constantly. One rule of thumb says, "Dark day, dark jig; bright day, bright jig," but it's fraught with exceptions. By another general rule, finicky fish and tentative takes mean it's time to try something smaller. Most ice fishermen carry an assortment of colors, styles and sizes and experiment constantly.

Most ice fishermen tip jigs with mealworms, wax worms or corn grubs. Others try commercial scents to improve the odds. Lure impregnated with Power Bait or similar substances also can be very effective.

Jigs may be fished actively - worked up and down - or passively - suspended motionless. Many ice fishermen use them in tandem, drilling holes 2 to 3 feet apart. (That requires a second-rod stamp, costing $4, on a Colorado fishing license.)

The actively fished jig may attract fish to the vicinity. A strike may come directly on the active jig or, at least as likely, on the passive one. Jigging spoons such as Kastmasters also can be used in combination with passive jigs or independently.

Getting onto the ice

OK, so much for essential equipment. But how do you get it onto the ice? Once again, the options are plentiful.

A 5-gallon paint bucket that also serves as a seat on the ice is the most basic choice for the most basic equipment. A kids' snow sled may be the next step, leading to a progression of custom-made sleds that usually are built onto scrapped skis.

Sled choices include black-out huts, among the first of accessories-turned-essentials for many ice fishermen. They cut the wind, stay warmer on a cold day, accommodate propane heaters, and, probably most important, offer an aquarium-like view into the lake below. Most blackout huts are collapsible, portable and built onto their own sleds, which also may have spaces for equipment buckets. (Expect to pay $230-$550 for a new one or a $25 daily rental fee.)

Accessories include Sonar units, especially on salmon waters where fish may cruise at depths beyond the visibility range of black- out huts. High-tech versions beep, have flashing lights, locate fish, tell you where your jig is relative to a salmon - stop just short of hooking the fish.

Spend a little, spend a lot ... Accessories include jigging machines, hook-setting gadgets, custom-made this, state-of-the-art that, but the season is long.

Ice-fishing enjoyment begins with ice-fisher comfort.

Add layers of winter clothing, insulated boots complete with non- skid chains, hat, at least two pairs of gloves - and get into the spirit of the season.

- Edited and headline by Bob Ehlert

Where to go ice fishing

Trout. Open water or ice, trout are the fish of choice among Colorado fishermen.

Places to ice fish for trout include almost all mountain and foothills lakes with adequate ice. (Spinney Mountain, Rampart and Montgomery reservoirs are notable exceptions; all are closed to ice fishing.)

Popular reservoirs within about an hour of Colorado Springs include Antero, Elevenmile, Tarryall and Skaguay. Slightly more- distant reservoirs include Clear Creek, DeWeese and O'Haver. Possibilities farther afield include Blue Mesa, Steamboat, Stagecoach, Wolford Mountain and the San Luis Valley impoundments. A sense of adventure may drive an ice fisherman to take a snowmobile to a high-mountain lake.

Northern pike: Pike are a winter attraction in Elevenmile, Tarryall and Skaguay reservoirs. Sanchez Reservoir in the San Luis Valley can be a hot spot when the ice is suitable.

Kokanee salmon: Salmon have been a mainstay of ice fishing at Elevenmile, but in recent years the action has been hit-or-miss. Blue Mesa also offers salmon ice fishing.

Mackinaw: Try Taylor, Blue Mesa, Granby, Turquoise and Twin Lakes.

Yellow perch: If the ice is safe, look to Aurora and Sanchez reservoirs. There's a mercury warning on Sanchez.

Ice safety first concern

When is the ice safe for ice fishing? ... A good question, and one without a simple answer. By one rule of thumb, 4 inches is considered safe, but such rules have many exceptions - just ask the people who fell through the ice of Antero Reservoir as recently as last weekend.