Short Rods...and Small Holes

Montana Grant

Winter winds excite fishermen to do some hard water fishing. Frozen lakes become a perfect platform for angling fun. A safely frozen lake becomes a poor man’s yacht. Every corner of the watershed is accessible for some fishing fun.

The first time that I went ice fishing, I caught cold hands and colder toes. Without the right gear and mindset, ice fishing can be miserable. Standing on a frozen lake, getting skunked is pure hell. Here are some tips and tricks to help you master your short rods and small holes.

Comfort is essential. Without waterproof, warm footwear and gloves, you will be doomed to failure. Make sure that you get quality cold weather gear. Most of your heat is lost out of your head. Start with a warm hat. If it is windy, make sure that you cover your face. Years ago, I bought a camo fleece “Capuche” at a local outdoor show. What a great piece of winter gear. You can cover your head and face or just roll it down as a neck protector.

Great gloves are a requirement. When the fingers and toes go, so does the fun. Hand warmers come in many styles and can save the day. Having a warm pocket to revive your cold hands is a luxury. Having several pairs of gloves is also helpful. As your gloves get wet from handling fish and gear, switch on a new, dry pair.

When your toes start to freeze, the day is over. Waterproof boots are a must. Layered socks are also helpful. Battery heated socks or “Toasty Toe” toe warmers can also save the day. A polypropylene liner sock will wick away moisture and keep your toes comfy. Try wearing constrictive long underwear that compress your legs and improves blood circulation. Lakes are often covered with a slush, or wet surface. Regular boots will get soaked. Use strap on metal cleats to add traction on these slick surfaces.

Now some of you are thinking, just use an ice shanty or tent to stay warm. That is certainly a choice for the “wussy ice fishermen,” but not real ice anglers. If you require a shanty, stay home and watch fishing shows on TV. Just kidding! To each their own. Shantys and pop-up tents do require more effort to get onto the ice. Pick the weather and days that you are most comfortable with, then enjoy being outdoors.

Bibs, or good Gore-Tex gear, are also important. It is easier to remove layers than wish you had more. Knee pads will help you keep your legs dry or protect them if you slip and fall. The longer you can stay warm and comfortable, the better the odds to catch fish.

Having a working ice auger to drill your small holes is important. Don’t get cheapo here. If you can’t make a hole, then you can’t fish. Spud bars, axes, and hand augers work, but as the ice gets thick, the holes become tougher. A 6-8-inch hole is plenty big. Most Montana fish that I have caught will fit.

Short fishing rods were designed for fishing in an ice shanty. Limited space means shorter rods. When on the open ice, it is fine to use a 4-5 -foot traditional length rod. Remember that the fishing rod is a lever, or simple tool. The longer the lever, the bigger the fish you can handle, and the faster you can set the hook. Place the rod into a cradle that allows you to set the hook and lift the rod in one motion. If you have to pull the rod out from a tube, then set the hook, you will catch fewer fish.

Fish are not stupid. If you are standing over the hole and have a moving shadow, fish will leave the area. If you are stomping around the ice like a Sasquatch, you will be fishing, not catching. Also remember to consider the sunlight. If the lake is covered in snow, the subsurface area is dark. Use a snow shovel to clear an area and let light shine below the ice. Curious fish will swim over to see what is revealed. If the ice is clear, consider fishing the edges of cloudy ice where shade or a shadow is created. Fish tend to stack up in these shaded, and sheltered spots.

Lures, or baits, are simple and basic. Maggots, worms, meal worms, waxworms, and lures will all work if presented properly. Try to locate the correct depth of the fish. This is when a fish finder earns its pay. Sometimes fish are suspended, just under the ice, near the shore, or on the bottom. Try to locate structure such as drop offs, submerged trees, or rocks. Once you locate these spots, mark them with a GPS device for future trips. If you don’t know these details, then you are fishing and not catching. Go with the tools, mindset, and gear to catch fish, not just go fishing. Fish scents can also be helpful. Consider the types, sizes, and color of the baitfish, or food that your lake is serving up. Match it. Live minnows work well but are not legal in all waters. Check regulations before you fish. If you are not getting any action, move.

If you can’t see the bite, you do not know when to set the hook. Try adding a Spring Bobber to the tip of your rod. If you see the slightest movement, set the hook. Jigging and movement of your rigs works well on some days and on other days a “Dead Stick” is best. Also consider sharpening your hooks. Use a small diamond coated pen style sharpener. The sharper the hook, the more hook ups you will get.

Perch, bluegills, pike, walleye, crappies, and trout are the fish of choice when ice fishing. Burbot, or ling, are also found in many waters. Take only what you need and check regulations for legal limits and tackle restrictions.

Ice fishermen tend to gather together when using their short rods and small holes. This social style of fishing becomes a “frozen watering hole.” Congregations will share stories, snacks, and tips when on the ice. Only the best and toughest anglers brave the winter cold. There are also many wonderful websites and Facebook groups that share ideas and information.

Celebrate this great sport together. It helps to keep warm.   


This was made by

Montana Grant

Montana Grant is a retired Educator, Consultant, Naturalist, Guide, and freelance writer, he spends much of his time sharing and teaching about the great outdoors. For more Montana Grant, visit his blog at

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