Get a Line on Lasting Ice Fishing Memories
When it comes to kids and winter, pretty much any problem can be solved with an outdoor fire (safely away from the trails of course) and some good snacks. This is even more important when you want the younger ones to stick it out on an ice fishing trip, even when the fish aren’t biting.
We remedied this pretty early in our camp life, when our two kids were about 6 and 9, by building our “ice shack”, complete with a wood stove, insulated walls, windows to bring in some natural light, and a door that could be bolted shut when those northern winds – or wolves! – came up unexpectedly.
While our youngsters Everette and Ren are now in their twenties, the love of ice fishing has stuck and is a favourite family activity when they come home to our place on the Winnipeg River near Kenora, Ontario. This past Christmas, Everette brought their partner Adam, a city boy from Toronto, and he was “hooked.” A supper of fresh walleye over an open fire back at camp sealed the deal.
Ice fishing continues to be a favourite economical and in our part of the country – very accessible – pastime for young families. Our cousin, Meghan Cranston’s 8-year-old son Ethan loves to go ice fishing with both his grandpas and Uncle Scott. “He has learnt so much about the sport just by spending time with them and looks forward to it every year,” Meghan said. “Ethan's favourite thing about ice fishing with his family is catching the biggest fish, even bigger than Gramps!”
Duncan McEwen has seen lots of happy young faces on the other end of a fishing line as an outdoor education teacher, owner and operator of Blue Heron Lake Tours, and a dad. He said, “We have never shied away from a forecast. We usually go regardless, so it’s really important to be prepared.”
Our family was much the same and when they were younger, Ev and Ren always knew that if the fish weren’t biting in our bay, we’d be loading them up on the sleds for a day trip in search of that next great fish fry. My husband Michael spent most of his youth snowmobiling and ice fishing all over the trails and back country of Northwestern Ontario.
From the outset, it was important to him that Ev and Ren knew how to handle the equipment. At a young age, they aced dropping their fishing lines and reeling up their catches. The mom in me always wanted to jump in to help as soon as they got a bite, but Mike would motion for me to stay with my line and let the kids enjoy the fish of their own labour.
In addition to rods, reels, the auger and various other necessities (like BBQ chips), Mike’s famous “ice fishing box” comes on every trip—packed with an enormous frying pan, oil, breading, cans of beans, potatoes, spatula, fileting knives, matches, and various other “condiments”. Who said a shore lunch was only for summer?
The “box” didn’t include dishes though, which we forgot on one memorable trip down the OFSC trails —when the fishing was really good! No problem…we cut the branches off a few pine trees and ate the tasty walleye with our fingers. I think it was one of the best shore lunches EVER and there were no dishes to clean up!
Knowing your destination at the outset is critical, especially if you have younger children in tow. Your local snowmobile club can help point you in the right direction and you can decide where you want to go from there, depending on the weather, the length of time you want to sled, and possibly the fish you want to catch.
Our family prefers live minnows, but when you’re far out on the trail with no bait shop nearby it’s good to have a backup plan. Ice fishing expert Jeff Gustafson (aka Gussy) shares these “insider” tips:
- Walleye – ¼ oz jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head, jig and minnow
- Perch – ¼ oz jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head
- Lake Trout – 3/8 tube jig, white
- Pike – quick-strike rig with frozen cisco, set one foot above the bottom
We’ve learned the hard way that the right gear can make all the difference between a happy time and a long day out on the lake. Make sure everyone has winterwear that can hold up for hours of standing around or sitting if you don’t have any shelter.
An auger is another must. Gussy recommends the new electric models that start more easily and do not require gas – so one less thing to haul on the trip – although having extra gas for your sled is always a must.
Finally, there is the shelter debate. Because we have an ice shack close to home, for us, fishing outside has always been part of a sledding adventure – but that’s not for everyone. Portable shelters are super easy to pack and put up and may be the right choice for a younger family and a longer, happier day on the ice. Duncan’s tip is to make sure the propane tank for the heater is always topped up.
He can’t overstate how this time together really is what lasting family memories are made of. “As we sit around in the off-season, so many conversations start with things like… ‘Remember that one that barely fit through the hole?’ It’s a great way to spend family time off all of our devices and enjoy the long winter.”
One additional point that Duncan also mentioned is about being good “stewards”. Often, it’s getting dark, and everyone is scrambling to load the sleds, gear, and kids. Use a flashlight or your cell phone to look around and make sure you aren’t unintentionally leaving anything behind. There’s nothing we hate more than hiking around our bay and seeing the remnants – drink cans (often thrown in the fire), snack bags, fishing hooks, even fish – of a hastily abandoned ice fishing outing. This isn’t just annoying; it’s hard on the ecosystem.
When I asked our kids about what our ice fishing adventures meant to them, they said it was about gaining a lifelong love of winter and a sport they always enjoy when they come back home.
“Dad was such a great teacher, we all became pros and caught lots of fish!” said Ren.
“What I appreciated most about being out in the snow is yours and dad's lessons, how to start a fire, what is best to pack, how to drive the snowmachine, and what time of day is best for fishing,” said Everette. “Being a kid and understanding what that takes is really valuable, especially when you watch someone catch their first fish. I always loved being the older sibling helping the younger kids in learning how to be out there on the ice, even if sometimes I got an attitude when I was cold or hungry!”
It doesn’t get any better than that.
Here’s hoping you can get out and find the same kind of great lasting family memories on the ice that will warm your heart for years to come.