The only thing Mike McNett likes more than ice fishing is teaching other people about ice fishing.
McNett, a BSA certified angling instructor and world champion fisherman, caught the bug when he would go out on a frozen lake – he calls it “hard water” – when he was a kid. Now, he devotes much of his time to helping Scouts have some of those same experiences.
McNett is currently the freshwater sport fishing director for USAngling, the non-profit that supports competive USA fishing teams. As a certified angling instructor, he is committed to improving Scouting’s fishing programs in and around his hometown of Lombard, Illinois.
“It’s an infection you can’t get rid of,” he says. “And I want to give that back to the kids.”
Here is McNett’s advice on getting out onto the ice and catching some fish.
Before you go ice fishing, check with local land managers or conservation officers for ice conditions. Many organizations recommend a minimum of 4 inches of new, hard, clear ice, but that number goes up depending on the number of people and the amount of equipment.
Like every BSA activity, your qualified adult supervisor should make the call on what’s safe.
“I’ll drill a few pilot holes to measure thickness,” he says.
Just because the ice is thick enough in one area doesn’t mean it’s thick enough everywhere. For larger groups, McNett sets up cones that designate the safe area.
(Think of it like a safe swim area at Scout summer camp.)
Be Prepared for winter
If you live in an area where ice fishing is popular, you’re probably already used to the cold.
Ice fishermen dress similar to snowboarders or skiers, wearing multiple layers of clothing with a rugged outer shell to protect from wind and moisture.
Hiking boots might be fine, but McNett suggests cleats to help beginners stay upright on the slippery ice.
“I usually bring extra cleats for parents, because if they fall, they don’t bounce back up like the kids do,” he says.
You can drill by hand
McNett likes hand-operated augers, both for himself and for youth. He says it gives the kids something to do if they get bored and it helps everybody warm up.
“I’m a hand auger-exclusive guy,” he says. “I like to drill a hundred holes with the hand auger. It keeps me warm, and I don’t like to be cold.
“If the kids are cold, a hand auger is the easiest way to warm them up.”
Bring the right fishing gear
The standard outfit for an ice fisherman includes short rods; monofilament line; lures; a skimmer to dip the slush and ice chips out of the fishing hole; a bucket or box to sit on; and plenty of warm clothing.
Some ice fishermen use tip-ups, a device that suspends live bait at set depth through the hole. You can leave the tip-up mostly unattended, checking only to see if the flag tips up or down, signaling that a fish is on the line.
Not surprisingly, McNett prefers to have kids hold a rod in their hands. His rods are 16-24 inches long, with a spring indicator that will show when you have a bite.
“There’s no casting involved,” he says. “You just drop the line, jig and pull it back up.
“As long as they can get the right motion, it’s so easy to use. A lot of times we put a song on for them to get the right beat.”
Bring an expert with you
Being unprepared on an ice-fishing trip can, at best, be boring, and at worst, be dangerous. BSA guidelines require that your guide be adequately trained, experienced and skilled to lead the activity, including the ability to prevent and respond to likely problems and potential emergencies.
A BSA certified angling instructor would fit those requirements.
The first step is to contact your local council and ask to get in touch with a certified angling instructor in your area.
If you are unable to connect with an instructor, look for any ice-fishing clubs nearby who have a youth outreach program. (Keep in mind that these clubs might be experts on fishing, but not on BSA policies like Youth Protection.)
When Scouts in his area reach out to him, McNett goes out early to test the ice, drill some pilot holes and look for fish. He also sets up a pop-up tent on the ice and provides all of the gear, including a really cool underwater camera that Scouts can use to see the fish as they consider whether or not to strike at the lure.
“As a kid, ice fishing was the easiest thing to do,” he says. “You don’t need a $50,000 boat. You can just go out on any safe hard water in your community.”
Learn how to make your own ice-fishing tip-ups at https://scoutlife.org/hobbies-projects/projects/18131/how-to-make-ice-fishing-tip-ups/