On a recent remote ice fishing adventure, out of the seven friends in attendance, MeatEater Production Assistant Chester Floyd caught more than half of the fish. On nearly every ice excursion I’ve ever joined, I’ve seen similar trends play out: one guy is filling the bucket while the others are drilling holes around him and asking what lure he’s using.
I’m not saying that hot rod is me. It often isn’t. I didn’t grow up ice fishing, but I’ve spent the last several years observing talented folks who did. Good angling is always based on observation, whether that be taking note of your surroundings, fish behavior, or the habits of talented, experienced anglers.
Ice fishing requires more finesse and awareness than almost any other type of angling I’ve experienced. The difference between jigging and jiggling might seem like minutiae to the uninitiated, but it can mean limits instead of skunks. The best ice anglers consider a host of factors from lure color to bait freshness, hook size to line diameter, to the noise they make on the ice surface. Take a page from that obsessiveness and you may find yourself at the center of the horde trying to figure out what you’re doing right.
Experiment and Observe
You aren’t really ice fishing without sonar. Obviously it’s possible to drop bait or a lure down a hole and catch something, but flashers and similar devices provide you the invaluable ability to observe how fish respond to your presentation in real time. That in turn allows you to adapt to their preferences.
Get in the habit of always using your flasher or fishing close to someone who is if you haven’t made the investment yet. If you’re not marking fish after a period of time, keep ‘er movin.’ Perhaps the most useful function of these tools is to tell you where fish aren’t.
If you are marking fish but aren’t hooking them, first change up your cadence. Instead of full-wrist jigging, just bounce the rod tip. If that doesn’t work, try holding the lure still if it seems a fish is staring it down. No go? Try lifting your rod tip ever so slowly, waiting to feel pressure. It’s amazing how lightly fish like walleye and crappie can bite in cold water.
Sometimes you need to go in the opposite direction. If the finesse wiggle isn’t doing it, maybe get a little more erratic. Lake trout are famous for not biting until they see the lure rip away toward the surface, as if their prey is trying to escape. Burbot can be triggered by banging a lure on the bottom, stirring up the substrate. For walleye, try jigging higher in the water column so hunting fish can see it from further away.
Here’s one I’m trying to remind myself of often: change your damn lure. Knots aren’t fun when it’s 15 degrees, but the point of fishing is to catch fish. Many of us will haul hundreds of lures in the sled, only to try one or two. The three factors to experiment with are size, profile, and color. Make changes to deliberately narrow down the field. Not marking fish? Try something that puts off big vibration or has a rattle to draw them in. Getting looks but no commitment? Size down or change color. You’ll know it when you hit the right combo.
On the other side of the coin, observe other anglers around you. Simply swapping out for the same lure your buddy is whacking them with might not make a difference. Rather, watch his or her rod tip. How fast and wide are they jigging? How far off the bottom? Every scrap of data you can gather will put you that much closer to a fish on the line.
Do Your Research
Coming from the competitive, tight-lipped world of West Coast steelhead and salmon fishing, I’m sometimes shocked by how willing ice anglers are to give up the goods online. For most places you might want to fish, there’s likely been a frank and honest forum conversation about it recently. Reports are easy to come by, from local Facebook groups and tackle shops to national forums like Iceshanty.com. You might be able to even ask questions to the most experienced hardwater anglers in that particular neck of the woods. It’s almost like ice fishing has historically been so under-utilized—and the cold so daunting—that the diehards are willing to accept newcomers with open arms.
Clearly that isn’t universal—fishermen being fishermen—but still you’d be a fool not to Google your destination plus “ice report” before going out. At the very least you’ll find out if it’s safe to walk out on the lake. At best, you might wind up with GPS coordinates to the honey hole. Which leads us to…
Arbitrarily drilling a hole somewhere then plopping down to jig it might be the single best way to come home empty-bucketed. The best ice anglers I know always use bathymetric maps (read: topography underwater) to pinpoint their hole-drilling locations. Sometimes that’s the sunken river channel bend where the perch hole up. Other times it’s the shallow shoal where walleye come up to hunt. Just like with deer hunting, you want to make your stand on natural funnels and other high-likelihood locations where more fish may be traveling.
In advance of our last big ice adventure, my friends and I pored over the subsurface terrain of our destination looking for saddles, structure, channels, deep holes, steep drop-offs, and anything else that might help us find the needle in the haystack. Armed with this knowledge and plan of attack, we went out there knowing exactly where we wanted to place our tip-up traplines. When one of those clumps started to produce, we holed up there and caught fish all weekend long.
There are several smartphone apps that allow you to view your current location relative to the underwater landscape, much like onXmaps provides for terra firma. These programs vary widely in quality, reliability, and price. I’ve tried most of them at this point, and my favorite so far is the FishSmart App from Humminbird. It’s pricey to download every individual lake for $20 to $30, but you can also put that data on a micro-SD card and into a GPS-enabled sonar unit like the Ice Helix 5 Chirp GPS I’m running.
Persistence, not Patience
Complacency is the enemy of productivity. Jigging the same hole with the same lure that hasn’t been touched in hours is a waste of precious time on the frozen water. There are stretches when you do need to just hunker down in the hut and wait for the bite to turn on or the blizzard to turn off, but you should do it for a good reason—not just because you’re bored or buzzed.
It’s really easy to get out on the ice, unload sleds, start fishing, and end up parked right there for the whole day. It takes a lot more enthusiasm and force of will to strike out across trackless ice in search of greener pastures and grabbier fish. But that is exactly the habit of highly successful ice anglers: an unwillingness to accept poor results and an overwhelming desire to succeed.
Feature image by the author.