Ice fishing on a budget…Equipment hacks!

Ice fishing is a great way to get out in the winter time to get some sun and exercise. Naturally, it is also a very good way to catch fish too!111006

Getting started can be expensive, and storing gear can get messy. No worries! I have been ice fishing since high school, and on a budget the whole time, so I will share some of the money saving tips I have come up with along the way!

The primary things you need to go ice fishing, are “traps” to fish with, and a way to make a hole in the ice. These items can be the most costly, but they don’t have to be.

The truly frugal ice angler, that possesses even an ounce of handiness could simply build their own traps. There are links online that show you several!

‘Boy’s Life Magazine’ offers instructions, and well as some safety tips.

If you are not handy, DON’T FRET! there are many ways to buy your traps and not break the bank! I bought most of mine second hand at yard sales, thrift stores, and at online swap & sell sites. If you are patient, you should be able to find good quality traps for about $5 each.

In Maine, you are allowed to fish 5 lines at a time, in most waters. However, it is wise to have an extra trap or two on hand in the event of breakage (VERY RARE), or if you find somebody who wants to join you! Two people fishing four traps each makes for a great day! (Just be careful! In no time at all, “an extra trap or two” can turn into somewhere between 20, and 220!)

If you can’t wait around for a good deal on some used traps, you can get fairly decent traps at your local Wal-Mart for right around twelve bucks…16358780_10154457653188720_32755828_nNot really “cheap”…Unless you take into consideration that some ice fishing traps, can go for more than $70 EACH!



But if you MUST have brand new, and you must be frugal, you CAN get traps at Wal-Mart for just about $6 each.  Now I have never fished with those ones personally…But remember when I said breaking an ice fishing trap is rare? I am relatively certain I would break this kind! My advice? Wait for the deal on used gear, or go for the $12 traps!

These traps run around $6 each.  I have fished with them, and they are not my favorite, but they get the job done!16358992_10154457653368720_1841106470_n

Another option is to catch a sale in the spring time! Places like K-Mart will have deep discounts, often as much as 90% if they have too many of a certain item in stock at the end of the season.

If you don’t care about fishing 5 lines at a time, and you simply want to go out and catch a fish through the ice, you could always cut a hole in the ice and use your summer rod and reel, maybe take the tip off. Or, you could even get a few yards of heavy line, and make a hand line!

I caught this nice pickerel on a handline a few years back using a red and while spoon. One of the biggest pickerel I ever caught!002

OK. So now you know how to get your fishing gear at a good price. Now how about making a hole in the ice?

A few of you may be thinking about a pond or a lake that has open water near an inlet, or a bridge. You might think that would be a good opportunity to use your summer gear in the winter, and you would be right…Except in many lakes, ponds, and streams in Maine, there are laws banning that kind of fishing when most bodies of water are frozen.

In addition, if you DO find a body of water that allows you to fish with a rod and reel during the winter, in all of Maine it is against the law to stand on the ice and cast into open water.

Basically, READ THE LAW BOOK! Read it FROM COVER TO COVER, and then take it with you while you are fishing, and READ IT AGAIN!

So…Back to making holes in the ice. The preferred method is to use an auger. Some are hand cranked, and others are powered.092

The hand cranked, are going to be your least expensive auger option. I have one that I use for shallow water, early season fishing on thin ice. I got it brand new at an end of season sale at K-Mart for about $20.

New you should be able to get one for right around $40. If you wait till summer and catch a yard sale, you can get one for about $20, but the blades on a hand powered auger can get dull easily, so you need to consider learning to sharpen them.

Powered augers are your best bet, but they are not cheap. These days you don’t have to settle for the classic gas-powered auger that you can buy used for between $75 and $150. (New you are looking at $400.)053

Now you also have the option of propane powered augers and even kits that allow you to use your 18V cordless drill!105 But again, these options are not cheap…You are looking at $250-400.

If you REALLY wanna be cheap, and you insist on ice fishing you can get primitive, and use things such as steel bars, axes, hammers, and even chainsaws to make your ice holes! With these options, however, you have to understand that the thicker the ice, the more difficult your task will be!

Many beginning ice anglers simply tag along with a buddy who has a power auger, and THAT is about as cheap as it ever gets!!

So now you know how to get your traps and your method for getting through the ice. How do you get your fishing traps, and other gear onto the lake?

Many people use sleds, and they can be as simple as a homemade sled, or as advanced as large sleds designed to be hauled by snowmobiles. Those typically run about $80.

Some folks use pack baskets. Those have been around pretty much forever. They are woven wooden baskets with shoulder straps. You can even buy liners for them.  I suspect this is more out of a sense of tradition.16295331_10154457652508720_489161743_n

They are VERY expensive new, not so cheap used, and as far as I am concerned a waste of money. In fact, I had one, and I sold it!  CHEAP!  Liner and all!090 To me, they are awkward and needlessly heavy. In addition, I find them to be too delicate, and difficult to organize!

In the past, I have used backpacks, duffle bags, and 5-gallon buckets, and while they were all pretty cheap, they had their own problems.

So what do I use? A golf bag! Golfers have to carry gear that is much heavier than ice fishing traps, and they often have many accessories with them. This means that golf bags are designed to carry a heavy load easily, and have room to store other things out of the way of their clubs.003

In my golf bag I carry 10 traps, my ice scoop (more on that in a bit), my gloves, my lunch, a thermos for hot coffee, a quart of milk to mix in the cup after I pour the black coffee, a small flashlight, extra sunglasses, acetaminophen for headaches, a pair of pliers, a roll of duct tape, and a sharp knife! I even snapped a couple of carabiners on a D-ring that was already on the bag. from there I can hang the fish I catch right on the outside of the bag! I paid $3 for the bag at a thrift store!

So now you have your traps, a way to make a hole in the ice, and a way to haul your gear…what else do you need?

Well, you have to use bait. Most of the time a dozen minnows called shiners are used for basic ice fishing. Basically, the thought process is, big fish eat little fish.

You can get fancy and fish with dace, smelts, even suckers…But we are talking cheap! Shiners can be trapped in a $10 minnow trap, or you can buy them for between $4-6 a dozen.

!AATo keep your live bait alive all day, you can buy a fancy minnow bucket complete with aerator, or you can use a plastic tub that once held ice cream, with countless options in between.

Next you need a way to clear the slush out of the hole you made with your preferred method of destruction. The cheapest solution I found, short of sticking your hands in the hole and scooping the slush out, is a plastic hand held colander.

You can get them for a quarter at a yard sale, and they work great! The only problems I ever had with them was in very cold weather the handles get brittle. Also, when the holes start to freeze over they do not make very good chisels!

A decent scoop can be obtained for between $5-10, and most will have a chisel for breaking through skim ice that forms over your holes. Most even have built-in rulers!

All I can think of now are convenience items and trap maintenance. The hooks on fishing traps have a habit of coming unwound, and making a heck of a mess! This happens most often when you are cold and tired at the end of a day of fishing and are not careful how you put your traps away.

Some anglers use rubber bands, some glue corkboard on the spool of the trap, and others simply stick the hook in the wood of their trap…Assuming the trap is wood, and not plastic.

I think you can picture all of the ways those methods could fail…Trust me, those methods eventually WILL fail, and you don’t want to waste your time untangling your gear when you get on the lake!

16395836_10154457652408720_1015801021_nSomebody came up with the GENIUS idea of installing a grommet on a velcro tab! Simply put the hook in the grommet, and wrap the tab around the spool. PERFECT!

The problem is, they cost more than $10 for a set of five!

I knew there had to be another way. My first thought was to get my wife to make them. She told me if it was so easy to do, I could do it myself.

My buddy Zack figured it out one day at Harbor Freight. VELCRO CABLE TIES!!! A pack of 20 is only around $7! They are not as sturdy as the real deal, but this is my 3rd season using them, and so far only 1 has broken!

The last little hack I can think of comes under the category of maintenance. Most fishing traps have little plastic flags that pop up when the spool of line moves, indicating a fish has taken your bait.

Typically these are bright and stand out pretty good against the white backdrop of a snow-covered frozen lake. Over time, the flags wear out, and fall off.

16395912_10154457652308720_397909926_nYou can most certainly buy replacement flags, but I find that duct tape works just as good at a fraction of the cost. As an added bonus, with all the various styles of duct tape on the market, you can customize yours so they stand out in a crowd if you fish with friends. Three guys/gals fishing the same area is fifteen traps to watch!

So there you have it! For just about $120 bucks you can get 5 traps, a bag to carry them in, a scoop, and a dozen shiners… Ice fishing on a budget! Aside from the bait, your equipment should last you for generations!

I am sure I left out many other ideas, but that is part of the fun! Get out there on the “hard water” and catch some fish! Make some memories, and come up with your own money saving tips! Just be sure to come back and share them with me!

Be sure to check the laws! Most important always be aware of the ice conditions. They can change within a few minutes in some cases where lakes are controlled by dams.

Don’t forget! In Maine, Feb 18 and 19 is Free Family Fishing Day in 2017! No fishing license needed! (unless yours has been suspended or revoked!)

Photo submitted by Ryan Fitch. "Ice fishing with my 4 year old. That's what ice fishing is all about!"

Photo submitted by Ryan Fitch. “Ice fishing with my 4 year old. That’s what ice fishing is all about!”

Doug Alley

About Doug Alley

I grew up in Bath, Maine in an upper lower class family with 3 step sisters, a step brother, and a little sister. After high school I spent 3 years serving in the USAF at Elmendorf AFB in Anchorage AK. I've competed in, and won, demolition derbies. I've competed in, and never won, stock car races. I am the 47-year-old father of an 11-year-old boy who is pretty sure he is smarter than I ever was. We live on a little less than an acre of land in a 1973 mobile home in Stetson with my wife Jen, some cats, a few chickens, and rabbits, and a couple of goats. I hunt, fish, camp out, dabble in photography, gardening, and I cook in variable degrees of near success.