By Phil Cooper - Idaho Department of Fish and Game
The 2012-2013 winter was a huge disappointment for ice anglers in the Idaho Panhandle.
Good ice was hard to find most of the winter, with only a few days suitable for ice fishing.
This year the ice formed before winter officially arrived. More than a week of single digit temperatures and nights that dipped into negative numbers (even on the Fahrenheit scale) will do that. A good number of anglers have already been fishing through the ice. Anglers were out on Cocolalla, Fernan, Hauser and a few other lakes last weekend.
Most waters in the Idaho Panhandle are open to ice fishing. Anyone interested in ice fishing should review the regulations carefully for special rules that apply only to ice fishing for safety purposes, as well as rules for bag limits or size restrictions on the waters in our area.
Once you know if the rules for the water you want to fish, the question most potential ice anglers are asking is, "How much ice is needed to safely support anglers?"
The safe load that ice will bear is not dependent entirely upon its thickness, but there are some reliable rules of thumb. A minimum of three inches of clear, blue ice (preferably four inches), will support a single angler, and five inches will hold several anglers in single file.
Thickness is not the only consideration. How the ice formed and weather following formation are important to assessing the integrity of ice. Slush ice is only about half as strong as clear ice, so anglers should double the minimum thickness figures when encountering such conditions.
Any lake with moving water in it, whether from an inlet canal, springs, groundwater seepages or an outlet, should be regarded with skepticism. Water movement, no matter how slight, retards freezing and speeds thawing. This often results in hard to detect thin spots.
Be suspicious of any discolored ice. Imbedded materials, such as weeds, rocks or logs weaken ice. Large objects in or on the ice, such as duck blinds or ice shanties can absorb the sun's heat and weaken ice. Ice near shore may also be weakened by heat from the ground.
Anglers, skaters, snowmobilers etc. need to keep in mind that a sudden warm spell can change conditions quickly, and that caution must always be used before venturing forth on ice covered lakes. When the weather changes, ice conditions change quickly.
Ice weakens with age. Late in the season, when it turns dark and gets "honeycombed," it's time to quit for the season. A cold snap sometimes halts the deterioration, but honeycombed ice will never refreeze to its original strength.
Northern Idaho offers some excellent ice fishing for yellow perch and northern pike. Also available at times are crappie, bluegill, bass, cutthroat, rainbow and kokanee. Mornings and evenings are often the most productive fishing times, with some slower action periods in the middle of the day.
For yellow perch and other panfish, auger a few holes until you find a spot about 20-25 feet deep and fish just above the bottom using maggots, cut bait or black marabou jigs. Occasional movement of your bait or lure seems to trigger strikes.
Those who prefer to catch or to eat trout, should fish 3 to 15 feet deep. Any type of the bait additives adding scent or color will likely improve your success.
Places where action should be good (provided the ice is solid) include Avondale, Upper Twin, Cocolalla, Rose and Fernan lakes.
Try Medicine, Killarney or Coeur d'Alene (when well frozen) for pike. Shallow bays with lots of weed growth on Hayden Lake are also productive for pike. Use smelt or herring 3 to 4 feet below the ice.
When ice conditions permit, try Spirit Lake for kokanee in the very early morning. The limit is 15 kokanee and if the fishing is good, you can reach that in a short time. Kokanee school up, so look for other anglers catching fish. Without crowding them too much, auger a hole nearby. Use a bead chain with a maggot tipped glow hook.
Ice anglers are permitted five lines, however any more than two or three are difficult to keep baited and watched at any particular time.
Holes may be no more than ten inches in diameter for safety reasons. I remember taking a call once from an angler complaining that the fish were too big because he couldn't get them through the 10-inch hole. I told him I'd better come and check it out for myself, but he wouldn't tell me where he was fishing!
After safety considerations, the second most important thing to remember is that a new license is required as of January 1.
For more information, look us up on the web. There is also a private website called "iceshanty.com" where many people report on conditions and how successful they have been fishing. On that site, go to the Idaho Panhandle forum, and there are usually several new posts every day when the ice is on.
Please do not call Fish and Game asking whether "this or that" water is safe. Conditions change so quickly that we cannot keep track of every lake every day.
Good luck, be safe and stay warm.
Phil Cooper is the wildlife conservation educator for the Panhandle Region.