The first fishable ice (three inches or more) usually forms by sometime in mid to late December. Then you can head out onto the fishable coves on such impoundments as Lake Hopatcong, Lake Wawayanda, Swartswood Lake, Paulinskill Lake, Cranberry Lake, Lake Musconetcong, Budd Lake, Mountain Lake, or any other frozen body of water in where you can gain public access. Safe ice takes longer to form on the bigger and deeper lakes and reservoirs, but ice 10-20 inches thick can eventually accumulate. Make sure to check ahead and see if the location you intend to fish has safe ice. Thermal underwear, a thermal cap, and thermal boots are a necessity, no matter how cozy it may feel at midday. Bring along a thermos with hot coffee, tea, or soup and even a grill and a good supply of hot dogs and hamburgers because your appetite will certainly be enhanced by all the fresh air and excitement. And don't forget your this year's fishing license!
A sled with a wooden box attached to it is perfect for carrying your supplies across the ice. To do the actual fishing, you'll use a "tip-up", an apparatus that automatically signals when live bait is taken beneath the ice by flipping up a flag. By using tip-ups you don't have to stand there and tend each line. Bring along five tip-ups with your name and address clearly marked on each one of them.
Keep your ice-fishing site simple. Using a hand auger, cut several holes through the ice, preferably in a straight line so that you can sit at one end and keep an eye on all your tip-ups. Spread your tip-ups about 30 feet apart. This way, should you get a big fish on one, chances are slim that he'll be able to run around another bait and tangle your lines. A spud bar comes in handy to keep the holes open or to open holes that have frozen over for a short period of time, and a skimmer will keep the water clear of free floating ice.
Medium sized shiners work best for bait, and somewhere between two to four dozen should be sufficient for a satisfying afternoon's catch. So that you will not have to reach into the cold water with your bare hands, a bait bucket and a baitfish scoop net are advisable. Keep your bait bucket somewhere near the middle of your operation so that you'll be able to get fresh bait quickly to any of your holes.
To estimate the water's depth, place a heavy jig on your jigging rod, drop it to the bottom and walk the jig back up to the surface. Once the tip-ups are in position, drop your bait down to about 1 or 2 feet above the bottom. Water between 5-15 feet deep works best during the early season, and you might want to fish near the bottom, where the warmer water is. As the season wears on and oxygen is depleted from the depths, raise your baits higher and higher off the bottom. Later in the season, the best fishing is in water from 10-30 feet deep and down only several feet.
Once all your baits are in the water, keep a watchful eye out for a flag to fly. When it does, make your way quickly to that tip-up and look into the water to see if your line is still straight up and down or running off to one side of the hole or another. If the line is running, take your tip-up out of the water, grab hold of your line, feel the fish, and then give a short firm tug on your line to set the hook. Slowly pull the line in- one hand over the other- until the fish is up on the ice.
In New Jersey, you can use only five ice-fishing devices at one time. If you intend to use a jigging rod, you can use only four tip-ups. Try beginning with five tip-ups until the moment you catch a fish on one. Then set up jigging in the vacant hole. Place the sled and box at the hole and sit on the box while you prepare a small jig on the end of my line adorned with a mousy grub. Drop the jig to the bottom, reel up about one or two feet and begin to twitch the rod up and down about a foot, keeping the line in he middle of the ice hole. After several twitches, let the jig settle and rest for about 10 seconds. Keep your eyes peeled on the line and, should it move out and away from the middle of the hole, strike the fish.
On good days you should be able to catch between 10-20 fish. The most consistent shiner swipers are the perch and pickerel, and grub takers tend to be perch, crappies, and sunfish. Lures such as the blue-streaked Kastmaster, Rebel ice lures, and silver Phoebes will consistently take pickerel and perch. Other possible catches include northern pike, walleyes and stripers, and trout where they are stocked. Keep an eye on the weather, and when you find that the conditions are going to be just right, get out there and catch some of these great fighting and very tasty fish.