What You're Bringing to Ice-Fishing

Once an essential survival skill in the Canadian wild, ice-fishing is now a national pastime.

By Jeff Kirkwood   |   March 09, 2021

  Ontario Tourism
When life hands you winter, you build an ice fishing community.

“Will you go fishing with me?”

Since it’s snowing, I assume my pal Dylan is not talking about a cottage weekend but about the just-opened ice-fishing season instead. It’s an activity that seems right up my alley—the social, roughing-it-outdoors part; not so much the hook-through-the-fish-lip part. Maybe there’s a handsome bait boy (man). I cock an eyebrow and begin quizzing Dylan on how the whole experience (and fishing line) goes down.

“People have been ice-fishing on Lake Nipissing for over 100 years,” he says. Lake Nipissing is about three hours north of Toronto, anchored on its east side by North Bay, Ontario. (Given that French fur trader Étienne Brûlé, the first European to visit the lake, arrived on its shores in 1610, people have been fishing there for a lot longer than that.) The area Dylan fishes is a small portion of Lake Nipissing called Callander Bay, a well-protected near-spherical body of water 15 minutes south of North Bay and propped up by the town of Callander.

“People move the ice huts out on the lake when the ice is thick enough—when it’s about 10 to 12 inches thick,” Dylan says. “The season starts January 1 and ends on the second-last Saturday in March.” Shacks must be off the lake by the end of March. “The most common fish to catch are pickerel, pike and perch, but you can also catch the odd catfish and, in rare cases, bass.”

      Ontario Tourism
Ice fishing can also be a solitary pasttime you perform at your own pace.

I have visions of a heated toilet burning through the ice and taking my bare bum to the bottom of the lake with it.

Just like the fish, fishing huts come in all shapes and sizes. The average is 8 by 10 feet, but they can also be very small—or very big: Outfits like Chilly Willy’s Ice Fishing Adventures in Callander Bay rent huts that are more like suites, up to 10 by 20 in size, sleeping up to six people—perfect for first-timers dipping their toes in the icy waters, like me. Willy’s, it turns out, can set you up with everything from a pre-drilled, in-hut fishing hole to heated toilet facilities. I have visions of a heated toilet burning through the ice and taking my bare bum to the bottom of the lake with it. But I’m a city boy who has to draw the “roughing it” line somewhere, so I am willing to take the risk. After all, the alternative could be equally horiffic (read: bare bum + frozen toilet seat).

Heated potties aside, if your experience is more scaled back, there are a few basics you’ll need. Here’s Dylan’s list of the five most important things to take ice-fishing:

1. heater/woodstove

2. rods/tip-ups

3. bait

4. ice auger

5. food/booze LOL

The LOL is a direct quote. Considering how well I know Dylan, the fact that food/booze is last on his list is a testament to how serious he is about ice-fishing. My list would probably be longer, something like:

1. food/booze LOL

2. heater/woodstove

3. Bluetooth speaker and Johnny Nash’s greatest hits (cuz nothing goes better with ice-fishing than reggae)

4. plush trout adult onesie to get in the spirit while also staying comfy

5. my fisherman name (which according to the fish name generator is Salty Drifter)

6. a deck of Scopa cards

7. comfy chair, preferably one that rocks

8. arsenal of fishing jokes (What did the fisherman say to the card magician? Pick a cod, any cod.)

9. Willy’s fucking heated toilet

10. lots and lots of lemon and tartar sauce

My thoughts turn from supplies and the scenario to the sociability factor. I wonder out loud if everybody knows each other. “No, ha ha, not everyone knows each other,” Dylan says. “There are probably 200 to 300 ice shacks spread out over the entire bay when the season is in full swing.”

But surely ice-fishing is a good reason to party? I mean, what does everyone do at night? “Unless you have some friends with shacks nearby, people just keep to themselves if they’re spending the night,” Dylan says.

This community sounds a bit, well, icy. “It’s not a community per se, just lots of people chasing fish, having a good time and a few laughs,” Dylan says, which is good to know, as it means I might actually fit in with my Johnny Nash and trout onesie.

So, I’m hooked. There’s a good chance you’ll find me in one of Willy’s suites this winter, with only about a foot of ice separating me from the icy depths—and the odd catfish.

When You Go

Chilly Willy’s huts are available seven days a week. Prices are higher on the weekend and fluctuate depending how many people are in the huts. Treat yourself to the new deluxe bungalow and settle in for the weekend.

Jeff Kirkwood

Jeff is Travelier’s editor-in-chief. He has been wandering the globe since age 14, when he begged his folks to send him from Bermuda to boarding school in Canada. He will be bringing his adventurous spirit, story crafting, and insatiable hunger for exciting and beautiful places to Travelier, and to you.

Look for Travelier in print soon.