Conquering the Cold

How to avoid equipment failures and frostbite.

Outdoor Life Online Editor

Across the country's northern tier of states, the term "fishing" is now used to describe what you do through a hole in the ice. Everything else that involves a rod and reel is called "summer fishing." Yet much of my "summer fishing" has occurred when temperatures were so cold the rod guides clogged with ice and reel gears turned about as easily as chilled roofing tar. During much of my "summer fishing," it rains, sleets or snows. That's why I'm cheered whenever I learn of innovations that make fishing in water that's barely liquid a heckuva lot less painful and a good deal more effective. Consider a few of my recent finds.

Fast as You Want to Go
In winter there's a certain proportional comparison between Formula 1 race cars and open fishing boats. While we're not about to match driver Michael Schumacher's 220-mph speeds in an 853-hp Ferrari, surviving boat rides at speeds over 50 miles per hour in 30-degree weather borders on the heroic. The wind will ream your sinuses and zoom past your pain threshold in short order. I've sought protection for my face by wearing everything from oversized goggles to ski masks, but sooner or later the cold finds its way inside. A new item called Fish Hedz promises better results. Essentially a hard mask with interchangeable lenses in several tints, the Fish Hedz is far less expensive and less confining than a snowmobile helmet, and the lenses are non-fogging. The Fish Hedz should be great in summer as a foil against love bugs and cicadas, too. (From $110 to $150; Save Phace Corp.; 866-783-3223; www.fishhedz.net)

Coldproofing Tackle
I wear wind-blocking fingerless gloves in cold weather to keep my hands from going numb. I also might cover a spinning rod's reel-seat threads with electrician's tape or foam tape for a bit more hand comfort. Some rod makers are producing seats with cork spacers and no exposed threads-good news.

Your fingers aren't the only things that might not function properly at freezing air temperatures. You can expect rod guides to ice up a bit, even if they're coated with one of the various dressings sold to prevent such occurrences. The recently introduced NiTi Recoil guides freeze at a slower pace than insert guides, and because they can be twisted with your thumb, they shed ice quickly. Steelheaders love them.

Spinning and casting reels can be adversely affected by the cold, too. A reel that is difficult to crank because the lubrication inside it is getting gunked up drastically reduces an angler's sense of feel. When you're dragging rigs and lures on the bottom or retrieving crankbaits, you need all the sensitivity you can get. Because fish aren't voracious eaters in winter, their strikes often take the form of what I call "pressure bites," and a half-frozen reel won't let you feel them. That said, if you do tweak your reels for better performance in cold weather, be prepared to maintain them after every fishing session or you'll experience serious parts wear.

First, degrease the reel bearings and gears by using the right solvent. Kerosene and similar solvents work, but the stronger stuff can destroy plastic parts. Products such as Reel Saver Cleaner or Hot Rods Super Duty Cleaner & Degreaser (both from Fisherman's Headquarters, 877-984-5400; www.fishermansheadquarters.com) are gentler but just as effective. Pay special attention to getting the grease out of shielded (not sealed) bearings. You'll know what shielded bearings look like when you see them.

[pagebreak] Winter-Beater Lubes
Once reels are cleaned, let all the parts dry thoroughly. Relube using special light reel oil. There's no need to relube greaseless bearings, if, like a number of Shimano models, your reel is equipped with them. Good winter lubes include the Yellow Rocket Fuel or Hot Rods Big Bob's Reel Oil. This stuff is thin and needs to be applied often to prevent bearing and gear wearr. It's also good on levelwind mechanisms and anti-reverse bearings, which can fail when some types of grease are used. If reels seem a bit rough without grease on the gears, try a light coating of Daiwa's Special Grease, but leave the bearings lightly oiled. (Fisherman's Headquarters carries these products as well.)

In cold weather, you might be tempted to add a dab of oil on a bait-caster's spool shaft where it passes through the pinion gear. Don't. It will actually cause the spool to slow. The oil will fill the already tight tolerances and act as a vacuum.

For all the discomfort that angling in unfrozen lakes and rivers poses, winter fishing nevertheless can be rewarding. I salute all of you who've suffered numb hands and frozen noses during forays into what some Yankee anglers disdainfully refer to as "summer fishing."

And don't take any guff from those ice-drilling boys. Any time the chill gets too bad they can duck into a cozy shanty where there's a stove going and the temperature is nudging 70.

Light Biters Beware
The best selling point of the new Legend line of icefishing rods from St. Croix is an interchangeable "super finesse" wire-spring bite indicator. The system was developed by Greg Wilczynski, an international icefishing tournament winner, and is being offered in a five-model series (ultralight to medium-heavy). The bite indicator attaches to the tip of the rod by a rubber grommet. Three indicator sizes are available: light for small jigs, medium for medium-size jigs and small spoons, and medium-heavy for large jigs, regular spoons and jigheads with minnows attached.

Likewise, the rod actions cover everything from the smallest ice jigs to spoons and jigs plus minnow. The 24-inch-long rods are made with solid carbon blanks, woven graphite handles and stainless steel guides. (About $50; 715-762-3226; www.stcroixrods.com)

Jerry Says
WATER HAZARDS Take special care of fish you catch in winter if you intend to release them in good shape. In freezing air temperature their eyes can frost over quickly and suffer permanent damage. This is especially true of river trout. Get them back in the water fast; don't remove them at all if you can help it.

You'll also need plenty of hand- drying towels for yourself. Remember, too, that you should never grab a chemical hand warmer with a damp hand or the warmer will lose its effectiveness immediately.