Ice Fishing, at Least We Hope So


Last Saturday, it was twenty-one degrees outside when I drove to Coop’s Bait and Tackle Shop to talk with Coop Gilkes about ice fishing. The frosty weather on that Saturday couldn’t have been more perfect to plan an ice fishing adventure on Island. The scary part is, if you hate cold weather as I do, we’re going to need a whole lot more of those frigid days to freeze over a few of our Island ponds to make them safe enough to fish on.

And safety is the first thing on Coop’s mind. “You’ve got to tell them, especially the kids, not to go on the ice without testing it!” Coop insisted, adding, “Youngsters need to have an adult check the ice first.”

Checking the ice is a detailed process, and it begins now while the ice is forming. Go to whatever pond, or ponds, you hope to ice fish on. “While the ice is forming, check for spots that don’t freeze fast. Those are springs. Avoid them,” said Coop, who started ice fishing when he was 14 years old.

I asked Coop how thick the ice needed to be for us to go and how would we know if it was thick enough. “It’s got to be four inches thick,” said Coop, who looked me straight in the eyes and stated, “It’s imperative to take two people when you check the ice!”

Before you and a friend step on the ice to test the thickness, you’ll need a length of rope a bit longer than the distance you’ll be walking, an ice chisel, a long sturdy stick, and a smaller stick with a “L shape” on the end. On the “L shape” mark off four inches in “bright colors, clearly visible.”

“Why the big stick?” I asked.

“If you should go through the ice, the stick will keep you from going all the way through. Then you can use the stick as a pry to get yourself out of the ice,” said Coop, adding, “It happened to me.”

Though the store was warm, I felt a chill down my spine. I really, really want to go ice fishing. I have zero desire to need the emergency stick. And as I’m typing this, I’m making a note to ask Coop if a hockey stick would be good or something thicker.  I’m not taking any chances!

Coop continued with my instructions, “One person stays back with the rope. The other person carries the sticks and an ice chisel. Put a hole in the ice every ten yards. Make sure it’s four inches thick.”

One further note of caution, “Be careful right at the shore where the ice melts and the water heats up. If you step through ice there and your foot gets wet, GO HOME!”

When you know the ice is safe, it’s time to chisel the holes in the ice so we can catch some fish. Coop cautioned me to be sure I tied a loop of rope to my ice chisel and to wear that loop over my shoulder, “but not around your neck! When you break through the ice, the chisel will slip in your hands and the rope around your shoulder will catch it,” said Coop.

Coop suggested that people take turns on the chisel, as it can get tiring. And use your skimmer to get the chunks of ice out of your hole. Never use your hands to clean the ice hole. Coop said we’ll make a big circle of 6-inch holes, easily 100-200 feet in radius. Keep in mind that a football field is 300 feet long. The number of holes you dig will depend on how many of you are fishing and whether you’re using a jigging stick or tip-ups.

A jigging stick is a two-foot fishing rod, while a tip-up is a device you set over your ice hole and wait for the flag to pop up and tell you there is a fish on. We can use live bait or rubber bait or Gulp Alive scented rubber bait with a jigging stick or a tip-up. 

Coop reminisced about taking renowned angler Janet Messineo out for the first time. They got a bunch of tip-ups set up in a wide circle. As the flags flipped up, Coop would send Janet running to the hole. They got some great fish. Janet, a retired taxidermist, mounted a perch and a pickerel. “We had fun,” said Coop, “but the next day she called me, cussing me out. Her legs were so sore she could barely move.”

Listening to a few of Coop’s stories, I couldn’t wait for us to go. I asked a super important question: when I get a fish on, is it any different than fishing at shore? 

“On a jigging rod, you work your rod like a normal fish on,” said Coop. “Once a fish is on your tip-up, it is finesse fishing, not Doctor Crank. You’ll need to gently pull up about six inches to gently set the hook and put the device on its side so the fish can run,” said Coop, who added another four or five “gentles” as he emphasized how to reel a fish in on the tip-up. 

Once we reel the fish in, it’s going to be another round of gentle manipulation to get the fish out of the ice. “Ninety-five percent of big fish are lost trying to get the head into the hole,” said Coop. “You have to very gently slide the fish to the hole and bring the head up to hole.”

I must have made a face or looked concerned because Coop said, “It’s a piece of cake.” Then he laughed and laughed.

Just when I thought we were done, Coop said, “and one more thing, before you start fishing, make sure you have the keys to your car secured.”

As a person who hates being cold, I asked Coop about clothing, and how much I should wear. “Layer Up!” he said with a smile. “Be warm. If you’re not warm, you won’t last, and it won’t be enjoyable.”  Warm is exactly what I’m planning on, especially when Coop said I should plan on at least a quarter of a day on the ice.

Coop wears a pair of long johns, heavy boots, good wool socks, brings two pairs of gloves, handwarmers, toe warmers, insulated knee boots, corkers or creepers, a sweatshirt with a front pocket he can put his hands in, and a down jacket. “You want a warm light jacket. If you get into fish, you’ll be running,” Coop said with a chuckle. I bet he was thinking of Janet.

While we wait for the ponds to freezer over, here’s our list of supplies we need: an ice chisel, a skimmer, a rope, an “L” stick ice tester, a small dip net for live bait, an insulated bait bucket, a jigging stick, bait, a Tip-Up, a seat, a sled, and your long safety stick. Stop into Coop’s Bait and Tackle Shop on the Edgartown-WT Road and Coop will get you set up.  And, he’ll tell you a bunch of stories that will have you laughing and Jonesing to get out on the ice.

This coming Saturday, Feb 3rd is the annual MV Surfcasters Annual Banquet at 1 pm at the Old Whaling Church in Edgartown. If you’re not already a member of the Surfcasters, come to the Banquet, meet some truly fun fishermen, eat a bunch of great food, listen to the speakers, win a raffle item or two, and decide if you want to join. All are welcome. Admission is free.

I hope to see you at the MV Surfcasters banquet on Saturday, or on the ice if Mother Nature allows. If you go ice fishing, be sure to tell me about your adventures. I can’t wait!


  1. When they go out on ice to cross country ski or ice skate, every Child in Sweden carries ice claws: two ice spikes (a handle with what looks like a short nail on one end) on a lanyard around their neck. If you fall through the ice, you grab the handles and jam the nails into the ice in order to pull yourself back onto the ice on your stomach.

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