New Year's Ice Fishing Trip - Adapting For Extreme Winter Weather

Extreme WinterWhen my buddy Gerry Heels and I began our ice fishing trip over New Years 2014 up to his camp in a remote section of Northern Ontario, we realized it wouldn't be a cakewalk. At a very remote location 1 ½ hours north of Sudbury and accessible only by train during winter months, we knew beforehand this was no four star spa resort. There would be running water- but just a small antique hand pump in the kitchen. There would be no cell phone service or email for seven days.  Morning trips to the outhouse were not something we looked forward to with gusto, however the ice fishing not long afterwards would more than make-up for any chilly discomforts.


Here's the cabin that was home for a week and Wil in far left just beginning to shovel snow off

Proper preparation and planning are essential to a successful and enjoyable winter fishing vacation.  Long-term forecasts predicted highs of -20 C for the week, with lows set to reach near -30. In actual fact, those would have been rather enjoyable temperatures compared to what we really faced! It was pretty cool to see the even par of -40 Celsius and -40 Fahrenheit on our thermometer some mornings and that was without any wind chill factor!  We heard official low temps reached -42.8 and again we didn't know what the wind-chill was ... probably a good thing!  

Here are several first-hand tips on how we handled the cold and thoroughly enjoyed our ice fishing vacation:

-40 Degree

This shows where American Fahrenheit and Canadian Celsius meet at the -40 degree mark- on New Year's Day!

Tip #1 - Pre-Rigging Rods:

Whether I'm preparing for a day of open water fishing or some hardwater action, I am a firm believer it pays to have multiple rods rigged and ready to go! Usually the overriding reason for this is having at your finger tips the ability to use the proper rod and reel combo for the lure type you are presenting. Hence convenience can equal increased success. However this added convenience  took on a whole new dimension during our week-long New Years Fishing ice fishing trip to the wilds of northern Ontario. When temps plummeted to

-42 some mornings with day time high's reaching between -25 to -30 C (not accounting for wind chill) the last thing we wanted to do was tie on different lures. Bare hands would be susceptible to frost bite in mere moments.  A variety of  HT rods were pre rigged the night before and stored in their protected HT rod case ready to go for the next day! That case by the way helped save our HT rods and reels from blowing snow and icing up to- so we didn't have any issues with malfunctioning rods/reels.

Ice Fishing Gear

Wil's rods and reels pre-rigged the night before and stored in the HT case- to minimize grief the next day

Tip #2 - Staying Warm- Be Cool First:

Minimizing trapped perspiration from exertion prior to fishing is key to remaining warm and comfortable while you fish! Conversely, overheating … sweating significantly and not allowing that perspiration to escape, is a recipe for a frigid outing. So- the ticket to staying warm while fishing often rests solely upon your ability to stay cool – or at least not to overheat – before you settle in to fish.

During our trip, preparing for a reasonably comfortable day began back at the cabin. First off, when those temps were below -40, we had to accept reality. Gas augers, propane devices, snowmobiles and even our own bodies wouldn't work or fish well in that extreme cold. So, as much as it hurt,  we waited until things warmed up to somewhere in the high minus 20's.  On two occasions this didn't occur until well after noon. Dressing in layers is a given. I began with my highly prized Blue Johns as the critical first layer to wick away moisture. Then a ‘series' of wool and polar fleece garments went over top. These materials also retain very little moisture- and unlike cotton stay warm even if a bit wet. All in all, I had four layers overtop my Blue Johns. Then I would put on my Polar Fire bibs. Unlike other snow pants or bibs that don't protect most of your chest- these definitely do! I'd put on my HT toque and Polar Fire gloves next. Now, the important part – I would look at my beautifully inviting Polar Fire overcoat hanging there- and simply walk right by and outside! Yep- I'd venture out there, load all my tackle and sonar onto the sled,  then start my ski-doo, gas up if needed, go back to the cabin, grab my helmet, get my lunch and hot coffee or tea and store all of it in the sled. Not until we were finally ready to leave for the trails to the lakes, would I put on a heavy duty polar fleece hoodie, then the big overcoat and finally helmet.   

The ski-doo rides to and from our fishing destinations each day were typically the coldest cold we experienced all day. However, upon arrival to our fishing location, I would still take my coat off, hang it over the heat vents of the ski-doo motor and then clear away a spot to drill my holes. After the holes were punched and lines were dropped I'd even fish without that coat for half an hour or so to let out any perspiration. Once the coat was on, I typically stayed warm and comfortable for the rest of the day- despite the frigid conditions while fishing the open ice sans hut. Yes- as train space is limited we were without our HT portable huts.

Cooling Off

Wil without HT Overcoat on cooling off after drilling holes and setting up

On the ski-doo, I carry extra over-sized mitts whenever my fingers would get cool (warmer than gloves) and these have a pair of fleece mitts inside. HT's hand and foot warmers are a sweet little treat to keep these warm and toasty!  I also carry a wool scarf.  We have all heard how much heat loss occurs from the head area – so while facing the elements I'd wear an HT cap followed by my HT toque, the fleece hoodie/neck warmer and then the large windproof Polar Ice jacket hood. Once back at camp- hanging all your clothes to dry and removing your boot liners to air out as well was a chore we did right away- to begin preparing properly for the next day.

Ice fishing in extreme cold conditions like we did is a matter of choice and should only be attempted if you are prepared physically and mentally to endure the elements. If you're hard-core, like this self-confessed sick ice fishing puppy – then learning how to stay warm and comfortable is an acceptable price to pay for the privilege of ice fishing –regardless of whether it's close to an urban centre or hundreds of miles from the nearest little town.   

Brook Trout 

Wil (left) and Bob Martin (who was staying in another cabin nearby) with a nice brook trout (one of about the only fish photos taken during the trip- because of the cold)

Tip # 3 - Fishing In Lots of Snow and Slush:

Although it was far too cold to snow heavily during our weeklong ice fishing trip, the area did see significant snowfalls prior to our arrival. Snow depths ranged from 1 ½- 3 feet depending on the terrain and lake. We knew some of our smaller pot-hole type brook trout lakes – with steep banks – would likely have more snow and hence increased slush so we would typically avoid these.  In other lakes, we also knew that whenever we drilled holes we would eventually be susceptible to slushy conditions in the immediate area. Making sure your ski-doo was on a good trail – for the drive out was therefore paramount.   

Without any sign of ice anglers for the whole trip, and virgin clean untraveled snow on the lakes, this meant we had to make some ski-doo trails around our fishing area before we fished. These would harden while we were there – and hopefully offer us a slush-free route for the way back.   Often the slush factor is very hard to predict so you would have to be prepared at all times to get out if stuck.  This meant we did not travel alone nor did we even fish different parts of the lake alone. We also carried extraction tools for the snowmobiles (carabineers, rope, ice pick) in case we got really stuck. A heavy wooden dowel was used to knock ice and slush off the track and runners.  On one occasion we travelled a fairly long distance to fish one particularly good brook trout lake – only to realize that no matter where we stopped – there would be 6-10 inches of slush below the crust of snow. And this in a lake where we've never had to worry about slush before! Needless to say- we didn't stay there long and got off while the gettin' was good!

 Tip # 4 - Mental Preparedness = Staying Positive:

The more extreme the weather conditions, the greater likelihood that unexpected encounters will occur.  How you deal with these – both from a logistical and physical perspective and also from a mental/piece of mind one- can determine the entire fate of your trip. Fortunately both Gerry and I have an uncanny habit of finding overriding positives with most negative or challenging situations – so that sure helps make life easier. “It could sure be a lot worse if ...” was a common expression.

For example, one incident occurred shortly after we reached our fishing destination when I noticed that my ski doo was dripping gas. Popping the cover, we saw that somehow the gas line had slipped too close to the muffler and burned through. That could have been one very scary situation if any sparks occurred- so we were thankful it was not a more serious situation. Then we had to figure out a way to try and repair the damage. After a few different ideas, we found out the line was just barely long enough to be re-routed away from the muffler and back to the coupler – so that's what we did. Only problem was- it wouldn't hold. So, we grabbed a short piece of HT braid and synched it tight overtop the coupler/tubing and it held. Problem averted.

Deep Snow

Heavy snow conditions made travel to some lakes particularly challenging. We always carry an axe and Swede saw for downed trees.

On another occasion we woke up at night in the cabin only to realize our propane space heater was no longer working. It was at least -40 outside so condensation around the regulator could have become frozen.  We used a small propane heater to warm that up- but still no luck. Oddly enough, the stove- which ran off the same tank did work- but only at about ½ capacity. We tried exchanging the smaller BBQ size cylinder- which we kept inside and both stove and heater worked fine again. So, we brought the whole 100 lb tank into the cabin to warm up as well and later on it too did the trick. From what I learned after returning home - apparently propane doesn't want to work well at temps below that magic -40. One source said “As the exterior temp falls toward that -40 mark, the rate at which you're making gaseous propane in your tank decreases correspondingly, and that can affect your ability to adequately supply enough gas volume to satisfy your appliances.”

On New Year's Eve we were returning from a long day on the ice.  It was already pitch dark and we were tired, hungry, cold and anxious to get back to the cabin and cook up some of the splake we had caught.  As we approached the train tracks to cross – we could see one of the CN Rail crew shoveling away- trying to get his truck unstuck (you know the ones- with the steel ‘tires' that ride the rails). He told us that he had to pull his truck off the tracks for an on-coming train at the small station, but that all the heavy snow prevented him from getting back on. Each time he did, his back-end would slide further and further down an embankment into deeper and deeper snow. There was nothing we could do, but grab shovels and help him dig a trail back to the tracks ...  which after an hour and a half- we finally did.  He was extremely grateful and would hopefully get back home in time to spend New Year's Eve with his family!

Fish Cleaning

Gerry filleting some splake for a New Years Eve feast

Although our trip started on a high- when the train was ½ an hour early ... it ended on a low by being over six hours late! The small living-room sized train station near Gerry's camp where we wait – has a small wood stove and a couple of benches so we appreciated the warmth. The train was supposed to arrive at 10:40pm and finally arrived at 4:45 am! In between- several freight trains came by to get our hopes up; only to dash on by. When we finally did board the passenger train it travelled for about 10 minutes before coming to a complete stop in the middle of nowhere- for over three hours. It made it to the first little town- where it was supposed to have a 15 minute re-fuelling stop- only to finally leave again two hours later.  We fully understood the extreme weather was the culprit so there wasn't much good in complaining. We each got home safe and sound to our families around supper time – none the worse for wear and pumped that our next ice fishing trip to the camp by train would be at half price - courtesy of Via Rail!    

Wil Wegman Via Rail

Wil after they arrived near Gerry's camp ready for a week's worth of ice fishing