How to Catch Fish Right After Ice Out

How to Catch Fish Right After Ice Out

True anglers can catch fish all year long. Whether you’re out slinging long casts in the glittering summer sun or drilling holes through the ice during the cold gray of the winter, there are very few times that true fishing fanatics can’t land a big one. Yet, if there’s one time of the year that even the best anglers go home skunked—it’s right after ice out.

Just like before freeze-up, melting ice signals a time of transition for fish when oxygen levels fluctuate, water temperatures bounce around, waterways cloud up, and fish become moody. It can be a huge challenge for anglers to get any sort of action during this time of year, and many simply hang up their rods and wait for conditions to improve. However, these anglers don’t realize that when you fish in the right places with the right baits and techniques, ice-out fishing can provide the best action of the whole year.

Find the Right Water

Whether you’re chasing panfish, pike, walleye, trout, or bass, finding and fishing the right water is vital if you want to have any success. Almost every species has a certain area of water that they’ll flock to as soon as the first trickles of sunlight begin to break through the ice’s surface. And when you can find these spots—you can find a hell of a lot of fish.

Panfish like crappie, bluegill, and perch will tend to head to the shallowest water they can find, which typically includes shallow backwaters, coves, sloughs, and mud flats with a lot of woody cover. These areas tend to warm up fairly quickly, especially if they have a darker-colored, heat-absorbing bottom. Look for these spots on the north end of lakes and ponds, which typically are free of ice sooner and warm up more quickly, and you’re bound to run into some schooled-up panfish.

Pike, pickerel, and muskie anglers can also have a lot of luck in these spots as the toothy fish will move into them to begin spawning and devour as many panfish as they can before they begin. However, it should be noted that most states have closed or limited seasons for Esox species, especially muskie, during this time, so be sure to check your regulations before hitting the water.

Bass and walleye are also spring spawners but generally won’t move into shallow water until a few weeks after the ice is gone. However, both species will stage up in large schools in deeper water immediately adjacent to their spawning areas. With some good electronics, you’ll be able to find massive groups of both bass and walleye in 15 to 30 feet of water. Concentrate your efforts off the edges of drop-offs that are near any sort of rocky, gravelly bottoms in one to six feet of water where the fish will soon be moving into to begin spawning.

Trout and any other species that are found in larger rivers will begin to move towards and gather around inflowing water. These can be smaller, fast-flowing streams, spillways off dams, or even spots of runoff from riverside mills or factories (I know it’s gross) that are flowing into the main river. Inflows like these will generally have warmer water that will make fish like trout more active and will also be dumping a ton of food like small insects, worms, and even baitfish into the main river channel, ringing the dinner bell for hungry fish.

Live Bait is the Right Bait

Once you’ve found a few good places to start fishing, your best bet for success after ice out is always going to be live bait. Even the most sluggish, lock-jawed fish will find a struggling minnow, nightcrawler, leech, or crawfish hard to pass up. With the right setup, you can catch ice-out fish on live bait from dawn to dusk.

In shallower water, the most effective technique is going to be a live minnow (for panfish) or a shiner or sucker (for pickerel/pike) rigged under a bobber. It’s a simple and timeless setup that will probably catch fish in a mud puddle if you rig it right.

To start, slide an appropriately sized slip bobber onto your main line. Add a bobber stop to the line just above the float so that the line below the float is approximately two to three feet shorter than the depth of the water you are fishing. Next, tie a small barrel swivel to the line below the bobber and clip a split shot to the line just above the swivel. Then add a length of lighter fluorocarbon or monofilament line to the other end of the swivel long enough to ensure that your bait will be drifting just above the bottom. Finally, tie on a circle hook, and you’ll be ready for the bait. Whether you’re using a small minnow or a larger shiner or sucker, you should always rig baits by piercing the hook just behind the baitfish’s dorsal fin so that it hangs head down in the water. This will prevent the bait from swimming too fast and pulling your bobber under, preventing false hooksets that will send your poor bait into the stratosphere.

In water over 10 feet deep, it’s best to set up a drop-shot rig with your bait. This entails attaching a large weight to your main line and then adding a second length of line off of it for your hook and bait. It’s an incredibly effective ice-out setup as it can be left off the bottom to soak when chasing fish like catfish or sluggish trout and bass, or it can be jigged and twitched to tempt a reluctant walleye, white perch, or bass into striking. To set it up, tie a small barrel swivel or a crossline swivel to your main line. Then tie an eight- to 18-inch length of line to either the top loop of the barrel swivel or to the outside loop of a crossline swivel and add on bait hook. Finally, add a 12-inch section of line to the bottom loop of the swivel and tie on a heavy casting sinker. If you’re using a minnow or a shiner, hook the bait through its bottom jaw and then push the hook point through the hard bone between its nostrils. With worms or leeches, simply slip the hook point through the head (fat end) of the bait so that the body is free to squirm and wriggle in the water.

Slow It Down

If you’re the type of angler who insists on fishing lures and flies, then the key to success for ice-out fishing is going slow. Lures like spinners or buzz baits that you rip through the water at pace during the summer should be left in the tackle box. Focus on lures that can be twitched, jigged, or cranked through the water at a snail’s pace.

Soft plastic baits like the Slug-Go and the B-Fish-N are ideal for fishing right after ice out, as they can be twitched and pulsed like a wounded or dying baitfish with little to no effort. When fished right, these baits will be absolutely smashed by everything from trout to muskie. In shallow water, rig your soft plastics with a single wide-gap hook through the fatter end, and in deeper water, string the length of the lure onto a light jig head. In both cases, you’re going to want to fish the lures as slowly as possible with lots of twitches and pauses that will allow the lure to sink and pulse like a wounded minnow.

When targeting larger fish like walleye, pike, or bass after ice out, it’s hard to go wrong with a suspending jerk bait like a Husky Jerk or a Berkely Stunna. These can be cast and allowed to sink in deeper water or fished just beneath the surface in shallower water. Just like with the soft plastics, you’re going to want to fish the lures slowly, adding a lot of jerks and pauses which will be almost guaranteed to trigger strikes from even the most lethargic gamefish.

Fly anglers can get in on the ice out action as well. If you’re targeting trout, then nymphing with something small like chironomids or midges rigged beneath a strike indicator can create some lights-out action. However, if you’re after bigger game or just want a little more action, your best bet is fishing streamers.

For large trout, bass, or pike, streamers like the Double Deceiver, Clouser Minnow, or the Sex Dungeon will get you a lot of strikes. You can strip these patterns slowly along the bottom with a lot of small twitches and pauses or if you’re fishing in a river, you can swing them. This is done by casting the flies at a roughly 45-degree angle across and downstream, making a mend, and then letting the line come tight so that the streamer swims slowly across the river and comes to rest directly downstream. It’s a fantastic method for tempting sluggish fish and will often get you a grab when nothing else will.

It’s Never Too Early

Anglers are always full of excuses not to go fishing. It’s either too cold or too hot, or they’ve got to go to work, a wedding, or some other such nonsense. But after ice out, the unanimous justification for not hitting the water is that it’s too early.

Most fishermen believe that the water is too cold and that the fish are too inactive to feed. Most would rather sit inside and wait for the water to warm up and the fish to start biting. The fact is, though, that this is complete nonsense. So go out and hit the water as soon as the ice breaks, and try your luck. Not only can it make for a nice change after a long winter, but if you do it right, you may never find an excuse not to go fishing ever again.

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