Ice fishing has existed for thousands of years. For many centuries, it existed purely as a means of survival. Ice fishing was regularly practiced anywhere the weather was cold enough for water to freeze, and fishing was a means of finding food. The methods have changed throughout the years, but early people had a single mindset: find food and survive.
While historians are unable to name the single person who invented ice fishing, ancient people ranging from Native Americans to Vikings survived the winter by ice fishing. They utilized decoys, makeshift ice houses, and spears to catch a season’s worth of fish for their families.
Native populations worldwide did everything they could to create a comfortable and sustainable life for themselves and their families. As time has progressed, new inventions and technologies have made an entire massive industry!
Ice Fishing Inventors
1. Ojibwa Natives
First Nations people like the Ojibwa were creative with their ice fishing methods. Tribesmen hacked holes through the ice and used decoys as well as traps to land their fish.
As soon as November hit, they visited the ice, hoping to land enough food to sustain themselves and their tribe throughout the year.
The Ojibwa peoples lived across Minnesota, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Michigan, and parts of Ontario. While they were nomads, they rarely left the upper Midwest region.
Natives chopped holes through the ice with rocks or sticks.
Due to the extreme temperatures in the winter, the natives would place boughs of pine trees over the holes to prevent them from completely freezing over.
It allowed them only to have to cut through a few inches of ice instead of a couple of feet. The first method of ice fishing was spearfishing.
The person spearfishing would lay on the ice, put his/her face over the hole and stare into the water.
They would then cover themselves with a blanket to see down into the water without sunlight throwing a glare and making it impossible to see below the surface.
From here, the angler would lower a decoy into the water, representing a small fish. The string attached to the decoy was held in one hand and continually jigged up and down.
This jigging motion would move water and attract any curious fish in the area. Since cutting holes in the ice was difficult, they had to choose their locations carefully!
As they were jigging, they would have their spear ready and wait for a fish to swim under the hole.
The spear had a string at the end, so when they did throw it at a target, they could retrieve it via the string in case they missed their mark.
This process was repeated until the angler felt they had enough fish.
For over a thousand years, Inuit people in northern Canada and Alaska have relied on ice fishing to survive the 8-month winters.
Like the Ojibwa, the Inuit people used spears and traps to try and land their fish. Inuit tribesmen created larger holes in the ice than Ojibwe tribesmen would create.
The Inuit would use saws made out of animal bone to cut through the ice and make a hole that was several feet wide and tall.
They would use animal pelts to cover the entire hole to keep the bright light away and allow them to see towards the bottom. They would chum the water with decoys or smaller pieces of animal fat.
Several tribesmen would wait around the hole with spears and harpoons at the ready. When fish would swim underneath, they would strike.
As their skills progressed, Inuit tribesmen began stringing nets between holes in the ice.
They would cut a large hole in the ice, place a net vertically through it and stretch it to another hole in the ice a few feet away. The fish would swim into the net, get tangled, and not be able to escape.
If the Inuit people didn’t want to leave their nets in the water for the fish to trap themselves, they would drill holes into the ice wide enough to place their stretched-out net.
One Inuit would stand on each side of the net and drag it through the water in hopes of scooping fish out of the water.
This method of fishing proved to be highly effective on the edge of drop-offs or near bait schools where the fish would congregate.
When the Inuit people were actively ice fishing, they would store their fish in things called Pigu’s. These were stone boxes that kept fish cold. They would place the fish directly on the rocks to keep them cold.
Scandinavians, a.k.a Vikings who lived in modern-day Norway, Iceland, and Greenland, used ancient fishing methods to help them land their fish.
When the last ice age ended 10,000 years ago, Scandinavians began ice fishing. Some of the primary targets were cod, herring, salmon, and trout.
Harpoons and spears were the primary methods of choice of the ancient Vikings. They would cut holes in the ice and jig with a fish decoy in one hand and hold their spear or harpoon in the other.
The Vikings would strike when a fish found its way close enough to the jig. They were highly accurate with the spears and harpoons.
Plus, the high fish population made it easier for the Vikings to meet their needs. They didn’t need to worry about fishing pressure or limits.
Mongolians are widely known to be nomads. From the beginning of their history, over 2000 years ago, their lifestyle emulated the lifestyle of North American Natives.
They stayed with their tribes and traveled with their flocks of goats and sheep. Their winter survival relied heavily on ice fishing as a primary source of sustenance.
Many Mongols still use traditional ice fishing methods today. Mongolians would use an ax, rock, or sharp stick to chop a hole through the ice in a part of a lake or river that was only a couple of feet deep.
From here, they would chum the water with food that would float. Rice, pieces of animal fat, and other things were commonly used.
Instead of covering the hole to block out the sun, they would stand a foot or two away from the hole and wait for the fish to swim toward the surface to eat the food.
They would be waiting with their harpoons or spears. Once the fish swam up into the hole, they would strike. Many times the spear would go through the fish and pin it to the edge of the ice hole.
If they didn’t have a spear or harpoon, they would use small nets and scoop the fish onto the ice as soon as they swam to the surface. Either method proved to be highly effective.
Ice fishing has a fascinating history, and ancient people groups from around the world used different variations to survive the brutal winters.
Fish populations were healthy, and native people had the time to think and try numerous methods to determine what worked best.
The natives understood that fish were eager to eat throughout the winter, but they weren’t going to be as aggressive, so they tried to get as close to the fish as possible to make their bait look like easy meals.
Survival was at the forefront of their mind, so no experiment was off the table.