"The five Great Lakes are beautiful waters to fish," said walleye pro Mark Martin, "but given a chance they will kill you."
Martin was referring to an incident two years ago when a lone ice fisherman was riding an ATV across the ice of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay and drove into open water, dying of either drowning or hypothermia.
"Because of water currents and other factors, open water can occur on big lakes any time during the winter, even in sub-zero temperatures," Martin cautioned. "For safety's sake, never go ice fishing alone."
Beginning Sunday (Feb. 8), Martin and three other professional walleye anglers (Mark Brumbaugh, Mike Gofron, and Ross Grothe) will be conducting a three-day, ice fishing school on Saginaw Bay of Lake Huron.
The first thing the four instructors will stress to students is safety, but once that important message is conveyed the foursome will quickly move on to the fun of icing walleyes and other finny species. Covered in the hands-on course will be details of ice fishing equipment setup and use, jigging strategies, tip-up techniques, electronics, where and when to fish, etc.
Not your father's ice fishing ...
If you've not ice fished in a while — or ever — the sport has gone through as many changes in recent years as open water angling. Nothing has been overlooked by manufacturers including clothing, portable ice shelters, power ice augers, propane heaters, rods and reels, and even transportation on the ice.
But the one advancement that has made the most difference in ice fishing success is quality electronics. Sonar units and underwater cameras are as much a part of ice fishing today as a bait bucket of minnows.
"The biggest mistake I see people make with their sonar units is turning them on and then not making any further adjustments," said Martin. "They just let the machine run in the automatic mode."
The problem, according to Martin, is that the sensitivity setting on most sonar units is not turned up high enough. By dialing up the sensitivity, an angler will not only see his bait, but with some experience he'll actually be able to tell if the minnow or wax worm he's tipped the bait with is still on the lure.
"With a color sonar unit, the color will change just a little bit if the bait comes off," said Martin.
Martin has both a flasher mode and an LCD sonar screen mode on his Lowrance IceMachine.
"Most of the time I use the regular sonar mode, the same as I do when fishing open water," he said. "I like to watch my bait as I work it up and down, and I like to see a fish's reaction as it comes into the transducer cone."
But Martin said not to expect to see a classic fish arc on the sonar screen through the ice as during summer. Rather, what you'll see when marking a fish through ice is a straight line.
As with Martin, most of the time Mike Gofron also runs his sonar unit on LCD mode rather than flasher.
"Flasher units can be tiring on your eyes if you stare at one all day," he said.
Gofron also prefers a sonar model with GPS capabilities.
"It can be a literal lifesaver," he said, "especially if you're returning to shore after dark and have to cross an open-water crack in the ice. You can punch hazard icons into the unit as you go out on the ice earlier in the day that will warn you on your way back in."
Airboats for ice fishing
An increasing trend in ice fishing on the Great Lakes is airboats. These craft look similar to Everglades style airboats but are built beefier, making them able to withstand pounding across rough ice. Their advantage over ATVs or snowmobiles is the safety factor — if they break through the ice, they float.
"Traveling across large expanses of ice is much safer by airboat," said Bob Hanko, an airboat builder (Hardwater Airboats, www.cranberrycreekmarina.com ) on the south shore of Lake Erie. "Many times while out I've hit a hidden soft spot in the ice, and if I was on foot, or on a snowmobile or four-wheeler, I'd have broken through. But if you break through the ice in an airboat, you simply give the engine more power and the boat crawls up the other side of hole."
Hanko and others don't actually fish from their airboats; rather, they use them to travel back and forth from the mainland to fishing areas or shelters, sometimes miles from shore.
In addition to transporting anglers, most airboats are large enough to also hold the myriad equipment associated with modern ice angling. If you're in the market for an airboat, be prepared to pay the equivalent of a quality, open-water craft.
A few spots remain for the Saginaw Bay ice fishing school and it's not too late to jump in, even if you're a novice. For more information, go to www.markmartins.net, and click on Ice Camp 2009 Flyer.
W. H. "Chip" Gross (chipgross.com) of Fredericktown, Ohio is a walleye enthusiast and frequent contributor to ESPNoutdoors.com. He's also author of the new fishing book, Pro Tactics: Steelhead and Salmon, just published by Lyons Press.
Priced at $26.50 (includes tax and shipping), personalized, autographed copies may be ordered by mailing a check or money order to: WORDsmith, 6108 Township Road 88, Fredericktown, OH 43019. And please include a note as to whom you would like your book(s) signed. Non-autographed copies can be ordered online at www.globepequot.com or through your local bookstore.