Take To The Ice Early For The Best Ice Fishing

By Tim Mowry

ice fishing - Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG)

If you ask Andy Gryska, November is the best time to go ice fishing in Interior Alaska.

“The ice is thinner, the weather is warmer, there’s more daylight and the fish are feistier because there’s still plenty of oxygen in the water,” Gryska said, rattling off a few of the advantages to early-season ice fishing.

As the area management biologist for the Tanana River Drainage Management Area in Fairbanks, Gryska is a big fan of ice fishing, whether it’s for work or play. Gryska routinely goes afield to ice fish at different lakes and ponds in the Fairbanks and Delta Junction areas. As the biologist who ultimately oversees the stocking of 89 lakes and ponds in the Tanana River drainage, Gryska said it’s important to have “boots on the ground” knowledge of the area he manages.

Sometimes, though, Gryska just wants to catch a few rainbow trout that he and his wife, Joy, transform into a delicious fish dinner.

“People who live in Fairbanks and don’t go ice fishing in the winter don’t know what they’re missing,” Gryska said. “With an ice fishing rod and a jar of salmon eggs, you can catch enough fish to feed your family and enjoy a day outside.”

Over the course of the winter, however, oxygen levels in most lakes and ponds drop and ice fishing catch rates tend to decrease as fish become more morose and try to conserve energy and oxygen. Many of the smaller lakes and ponds of Interior Alaska are prone to what fisheries biologists refer to as “winterkill,” a natural phenomenon that occurs when oxygen levels become so low that fish can no longer survive.

When shallow water bodies freeze over, they are sealed from the atmosphere and the fish and other organisms must survive for the winter only with the oxygen already present in the water when the lake or pond freezes. Day by day, oxygen is slowly depleted from the water. The longer (for example, 7 months vs. 5 months) the lake has an ice cap, the more likely a winterkill may occur.

Each lake is different, but in general, oxygen levels begin to reach critical levels for stocked fish species in shallow Interior lakes by late January, said fisheries biologist April Behr, who oversees the ADF&G Stocked Waters Program in Fairbanks.

ice fishing - Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG)

“Natural processes such as decomposition and respiration consume oxygen, and the rate at which oxygen is removed from a lake depends on multiple factors such as depth and the amount of vegetation,” Behr said. “Approximately 49 percent of the stocked lakes around Fairbanks and Delta winterkill, and 28 percent of the stocked lakes in the Glennallen area winterkill.” 

Popular stocked lakes that winterkill in the Fairbanks area include Ballaine, Cushman, and some of the small ponds along the Steese Highway, Chena Hot Springs Road, and Richardson Highway, Behr said.

It is important to note, said Behr, that different species have different oxygen tolerances, and some native species (such as northern pike and blackfish) can withstand extremely low oxygen levels for extended periods of time. 

Once the oxygen levels drop and fish aren’t moving as much, catch rates drop off. If you’re not fishing directly over fish, your chances of catching them are greatly reduced, unless you are constantly drilling new holes and changing locations, which means more time spent drilling holes than fishing.

Here are some of the advantages of taking to the ice early, assuming you have drilled test holes to ensure the ice is thick enough to support you, your snowmachine or your vehicle. The general rule of thumb for ice safety is that Ice should be at least 4 inches thick to support the weight of a person, 6 inches thick to support a snowmachine, 8-12 inches thick to support cars and small trucks, and 12-15 inches thick to support larger pickup trucks.

ice fishing - Alaska Department of Fish and Game (ADFG)

The ice is thinner – Interior Alaska is famous for growing good ice. The World Ice Art Championships are held in Fairbanks every March and ice sculptors from around the world drool over the huge 4-foot-thick slabs of ice they get to carve into incredible works of art.

For ice anglers, though, the thicker the ice is the harder it is to cut through it, especially for low-budget anglers who don’t own a gas-powered or electric ice auger. Ice on most small Interior lakes and ponds is already at least 6 inches thick, which is thick enough to support ice anglers but thin enough to cut through easily with a hand auger or even an ice spud/chisel.

“Ice fishing early in the season is easier for people who don’t own a power auger because simple, inexpensive tools like spud bars or axes can be used to easily chop a small hole in the ice when it is less than 12 inches thick,” Gryska said. “Once the ice gets to be over a foot thick, you’re not going to want to use an ice spud or a hand auger.”

And in the spring, once the ice grows to 4 or 5 feet thick, which it routinely does in Interior Alaska, even cutting through it with a powered ice auger is a chore. 

The weather is friendlier – Let’s just say it tends to be a lot warmer and a little bit lighter in November than it is in January and the first half of February.

The average high temperature in Fairbanks in November is 10 degrees above zero and the average low is minus 4 degrees. In January the average high temperature is 0 degrees, and the average low is minus 15 degrees.

Likewise, the amount of daylight in November ranges from almost eight hours on November 1 to nearly five hours on November 30. In January, there is less than 4 hours of daylight on January 1 and just under 7 hours on January 31.

It’s the humane thing to do – As noted above, a portion of the fish stocked in smaller lakes and ponds throughout the Tanana River drainage will die due to winterkill if they’re not caught before January or February.

The way Gryska sees it, as both a biologist and ice angler, is that a fish in a frying pan is better than a dead fish floating in the water when the ice melts.

“We encourage anglers to harvest fish from stocked lakes and ponds early in the winter, especially in those lakes and ponds that winterkill later in the winter,” Gryska said. “We like to see these fish go home with anglers.”

Continue reading at adfg.alaska.gov

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