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Ice fishing presents the winter angler with many challenges; it’s usually done in cold weather, with snow and slush providing obstacles in getting to the fish. The biggest impediment by far, though, is ice. If you want to fish in the winter and you’re standing on frozen water, you have no option but to cut through that ice.
I’ve often wondered how our ancestors cut ice without the use of an auger. Before the Iron Age, they may have used a piece of sharp rock or perhaps an antler. It boggles the mind to think of the effort that would have been required to dig one hole.If you’ve ever tried to cut an ice hole with a chisel or axe you know very well it’s not an easy job. You start really wide and usually end up with an opening you can barely pull a perch through. You also get soaked with sweat in the process — this I know firsthand.
Luckily, the modern ice auger has made drilling through ice a lot easier, and there are more types and models of augers than ever before. Choosing one really depends on what you’re fishing for, as well as the conditions you typically face.
Based on 40-plus years of multi-species ice fishing and countless hours spent cutting ice, here are my thoughts and recommendations on ice augers.
The earliest augers I used drilled a relatively small hole requiring a fair bit of effort. The “Spud” style auger is the one I recall from my youth, but there were other types as well.
When the Swedish-style hand augers came along, with offset handles and removable cutting blades, the ice-fishing world was changed. Suddenly cutting a hole was not torture — or at least not as torturous, but the larger the hole, the more effort required. Turning a 6-inch hand auger was worlds easier than an 8-inch blade.
When power augers became more common, things changed again. What didn’t change was the physics: it still took way more power and some muscle to cut an 8- or 10-inch hole as compared to a smaller one. Yes, the larger hold provided a much more spacious portal to pull a giant fish through, but how often did you need that extra size? Not very often for my buddies and me, it turned out. Lugging a super heavy, 10-inch gas auger around — especially into back lakes for brook trout — made no sense, so we downsized to our current go-to, an 8-inch, which can accommodate some pretty large critters. If you primarily fish for panfish or small trout, I believe you can get away with a 6-inch hole.
As for blades, I’ve used a wide variety, and a whole bunch of combinations, from a single blade to a four blade. The auger blade combination you use depends on the average depth of ice you fish and how much snow and slush you typically encounter. If your fishing has you on ice that’s not too snow-covered or slushy, a 3- or 4-blade combination may work. However, my experience has been that snow and slush tend to jam up multi-blade augers, which then require clearing. No big deal, unless it’s really cold and the blades freeze in there; then you’re trying to clean off numerous sharp blades. For this reason, I prefer a two-blade auger. It works well for most of the ice fishing I do in northwestern Ontario. The blades will still freeze up, but clearing them off is not quite so onerous.
I started ice fishing using only hand augers, then slowly graduated to gas augers, with a hand auger as back-up. These days, I rarely use a hand auger. Yet, for those who snowshoe or walk into back lakes, or are fishing on relatively thin (but safe) ice, a hand auger is a great tool. They’re light, can often be folded compactly, and are generally the most affordable option.
Gas augers are the most popular choice, and they’re much more efficient and quieter than they used to be. They’re more dependable too — especially at starting in very cold weather. It’s also easy to bring a small jerry can along for a fill up.
The newest addition to the ice-cutting world is the battery-powered ice auger. I’ve only used these a little, but have been quite impressed by the relative quietness of the units and the power they have to cut holes. The downside is the batteries don’t do well in really cold weather. If you’re cutting ice in extremely cold temperatures, the battery power will be greatly reduced. Some anglers build insulated battery storage boxes, especially if they’re snowmobiling any distance with an exposed auger.
It’s also a great plan to bring an extra charged battery or two along. While a gas auger can be quickly refuelled on the ice, batteries require charging. Still, I think the future is learning toward the battery-powered auger. They’re more environmentally friendly, much quieter, their power and batter longevity are constantly improving, and they’re lighter than a gas-powered unit.
Cutting holes is a job that every angler has to do, but with the right tools, it doesn’t have to be the hardest.
Senior Editor Gord Ellis is a journalist, radio broadcaster, photographer, and professional angler based in Thunder Bay.
Originally published in the Jan.-Feb. 2018 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine.