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Guide to Successful Family Ice fishing

Smiles all around, as a family enjoys ice fishing in Northern Ontario. • Credit: James Smedley

"Islay's got a fish," says my four-year-old daughter Lillian. Islay, two years her senior, is furiously reeling a small jigging rod. A tiny perch rockets out of the hole, stubbornly gripping the worm in its teeth. On seeing its peril the wise little fish releases its hold and arcs into a perfect swan dive back down the hole. Tears well up in their eyes as the 5-inch trophy disappears with a flick of its tail. "It's okay, girls, we'll get another one," I say.

Sure enough, we do. My wife Francine and I are with our girls on a small lake reputed to have scads of small perch. We end up hooking a few, plus a little rainbow trout and a much larger brook trout whose exact dimensions will remain a mystery, forever.

That was back about 10 years ago on a typical winter fishing trip with our daughters. The girls have been toted around outdoors since before they could walk. Now, as young adults, they will still join us on the ice and I like to think we did a few things right during those formative years.

Looking back on what has since been ingrained in my mind as The Day of the Mystery Trout, I remember a mild, sunny mid-winter day. The girls are dividing their time between playing on the ice, playing with the minnows in the cooler and pulling up the occasional fish. The fact that Islay and Lillian are happy, comfortable and having fun outside makes the day a success. If you have children with a budding desire to ice fish, make it blossom by following a few simple guidelines.

Fish licence-free in the province of Ontario on the Family Day long weekend.

Go Where There’s Fish.
Experimental scouting trips are not good for children.

Fish Easily Accessible Lakes.
Check provincial stocking lists, available at Ministry of Natural Resources offices and tackle stores, to find lakes close to home and full of trout.

Dress for the Occasion.
In addition to dressing snugly in layers from head to foot, bring extra mittens to replace the pair that inevitably become soaked with water or slush.

Take Time from Fishing To Play.
Standing on a sheet of ice waiting for fish to bite can equal boredom. Play options include pulling children on a toboggan and scouting the shoreline for moss, pine cones and firewood.

Make Warmth and Food.
A small fire or camp stove provides a central gathering point that is warm, comforting and entertaining, especially when there are sausages to grill, marshmallows to roast, and hot chocolate to drink.

Use Set Lines and Live Bait.
Where allowed, live bait is often a better option than artificial lures because fish will bite a worm or minnow without the angler having to jig the line.

Don’t Take Fishing Too Seriously on Family Trips.
It's one lesson my children continue to help me grasp.

As The Day of the Mystery Trout progresses our girls are quite content with the three or four tiny perch and the 10-inch rainbow trout lying on the ice. We're ready to pack up when I get a strike on my jigging rod. I set the hook into what feels like a large fish. As I angle it closer to the hole I see a huge expanse of speckled hide flash by. I'm thinking that it's at least four pounds as Islay and Lillian arrive at the hole, wondering why I don't just pull it in. My rod is bent double with a line peeling from my reel when Islay grabs the line.

"I'll show you how Dad," and before I can say or do anything she heaves straight up. The audible snap of the breaking line helps to mask my gasp of horror. Islay sees the blood leave my face and the tears welling up in my eyes.

She puts her hand on my shoulder, "It's okay Dad, we'll catch another."

Once the shock and disappointment pass, I realize the loss of the big trout is destined to be part of a fond memory of a great family fishing trip. No trout can replace that. And in all the years since, no fish ever has.

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