We either live in an exciting age of technology or a terrifying one. From heart transplants being performed by robots, to immersive virtual reality video games, to having Zoom meetings so we can go to work and not even put on pants. Sometimes it feels like our lives are becoming more and more like an episode of the Jetsons. For the most part we view this as a good thing, but sometimes it does seem that as technology advances, we become a bit too dependent on it. People have “their whole lives” on their smartphones, cars are parallel parking and emergency braking all on their own, and for any situation you find yourself in, “there’s an app for that.”
This reliance on technology is even beginning to intervene with the otherwise primal activities of hunting and fishing as well. Where outdoorsmen and women used to go out into the woods or on the water with just a gun or a fishing rod, they now go out armed with an arsenal of trail cams, mapping apps, radars, sonars, and pretty much everything just short of remote controlled wildlife. While this may make things easier for many hunters and anglers, the question we really need to ask ourselves is if making the outdoors easier is actually a good thing.
By relying so much on technology in the outdoor world, aren’t we negating the need to connect with and reinsert ourselves into the natural world by going hunting and fishing in the first place? So perhaps it’s a good thing that, on occasion, we head out into the outdoors sans technology and try to fill the freezer on skill and luck alone, and there’s no better-proving ground for this than going ice fishing without electronics.
Without the benefit of technology, success in ice fishing comes down to knowing the water. Unlike traditional fishing, where being able to see the type of bottom and even the fish themselves can help an angler catch fish, it just doesn’t work that way with a solid wall of ice keeping you separated from what’s swimming beneath your feet. You can’t just walk out on the ice, blindly drill a few holes on a random piece of water, and simply hope for the best. Not only is this unlikely to catch you any fish, but it can also be dangerous. Instead, when going ice fishing without the help of electronics, your best bet is to fish a piece of water that you know.
Those same lakes, ponds, rivers, and reservoirs where you trolled for walleye, flipped and pitched for bass, or casted giant lures and flies for pike and muskie during the summer still have fish in them, and those fish can be caught through the ice. Fish are habitual. Although they might shift to different areas of the water during the winter, for the most part, they’ll generally be in and around the same sort of places you caught them during warmer months. Try and concentrate your ice fishing efforts on waters that you know extremely well. Target areas where you know exactly where shallow basins, bars, vegetation, drop-offs, and other fish-holding habitats are, or places where you can at least make an educated guess.
If you don’t have any familiar waters around or are just the type of angler that enjoys a good adventure, you can successfully ice fish on waters you’ve never fished before, but you better do your research before you hit the ice. Tools like bathymetric maps can be a great help when fishing unknown bodies of water. These maps will show you different depths and drops offs and give you a general idea of the best places to start drilling holes. Additionally, e-scouting these waterways by visiting Fish and Wildlife websites and online message boards is also a good idea. These resources can be incredibly helpful in learning about what sort of fish species inhabit unknown bodies of water as well as giving good information on where and when to start fishing.
Targeting the right species of fish when you’re ice fishing without the aid of electronics can often mean the difference between coming home with a pile of fillets for the freezer or spending a long, cold, and uneventfully fishless day on the ice. While it’s possible to catch almost any species, from bluegills to lake trout, through the ice without the help of electronics, there are certain species that are going to be easier to target than others.
“Some of my favorite ways to ice fish don’t require using electronics,” Jay Siemens, host of the Canadian Angle, said. “But success really depends on the species that you’re fishing for. Targeting suspended crappies in open water probably isn’t the best thing to try doing without at least a transducer, but tip-up fishing for pike or targeting burbot that hold close to the bottom and won’t be picked up by a lot of electronics anyway, that’s an entirely different story. You can have some incredibly successful days going after fish like that and not use technology of any kind. It’s really about just picking the right species and the right bite.”
Picking a fish that spends a lot of its time in shallow water during winter or one that has a high population in the body of water you’re fishing is really where “off-the-grid” ice fishing truly shines. Anglers will find success by targeting species like perch, pike, walleye, and even largemouth bass through the ice as these species stay in shallower water during the winter and are more oriented to hard bottom basins. They’ll hunt in these basins just outside of weed beds and other structures and are easy to fish with multiple techniques, allowing anglers to stay on top of the fish even when they’re moving around.
“If you’re not using electronics, you’re going to want to stay in firm bottoms,” said avid ice fisherman and guide, Will Neururer of Federal Dam, Minnesota. “Fishing in mud or weeds is going to create a lot of problems with snagging up because you don’t know where the structures are and just keeping things in the strike zone in those situations can be challenging. You can drill a few holes around hard bottom structures and fish tip-ups or just jig them in turn until you find the consistent producers.”
Ice fishing techniques without electronics should be methods that cover a lot of water and don’t require a lot of precision. Doing things like fishing tip-ups, deadsticking with jigging rods, and even sight fishing in larger holes can all produce a lot of fish for anglers because they are simple to do, cover a wider expanse of water, and can work on a multitude of species.
When setting up tip-ups, you’ll want to use as many as the state and body of water you’re fishing in allows you to use. This can be anywhere from 3 to 5 in some places to as many as 10 or more in larger lakes and reservoirs. To start, you’ll want to set these tip-ups in a range of depths from about 3 to 15 feet of water, setting them in a straight line from the shallowest water to the deepest. Once a certain tip-up starts producing more fish than the others, you can drill more holes and rearrange your tip-ups around the more productive area, narrowing the distance around productive holes until you’re running yourself completely ragged chasing flags for the rest of the day.
Unless you’re targeting a specific species like pike or perch, which require completely different hooks, baits, and leaders, you’ll want to rig up your tip-ups with a pretty general set-up. Tie one end of a barrel swivel to the tip-up line and then add a 3-foot length of 10- to 15-pound fluorocarbon line to the other end. If you’re fishing in an area with lots of toothy predators like pike, pickerel, and muskie, add a wire leader to the bottom of the set-up before attaching a hook.
For the most part, when you’re fishing for multiple species, your hooks should be on the smaller side, which will give you more options for different baits. Your best bets are going to be between a size 6 and a size 2 bait hook as they can be used with smaller and medium-sized baits and are small enough to fit in almost any sized gamefish’s mouth. Bait these hooks with a small minnow or a shiner rigged with the hook through its back, and then clip a ⅛-ounce split shot to the line about 12 to 14 inches above the bait. Lower the bait into the water until it hits bottom and then pull it up a few inches so that the bait will be swimming right above bottom when the tip-up is set. Then all you have to do is sit back, crack a beverage, and wait for a flag.
Jigging is another productive option for fishing without electronics, but there are specific ways it should be done to make sure it produces fish. An angler can either drill several holes in an area and work each one individually until they find one that produces, or they can drill an extra large hole, like the kind used for spearing, which will give them a better view of what’s happening beneath the ice.
“I like drilling an extra large hole and then setting up a portable shanty around it,” Jay Siemens told MeatEater. “It’s almost like sight fishing when you cut a big hole in the ice and then can literally watch your baits. You can see what sort of bottom you have beneath the ice and see fish move in and see how they react to your jig. It’s a lotta fun and it’s productive. You can have some of your best days on the water doing this without having to bring any of that extra gear.”
When jigging for multiple species, you’ll want to use a setup that is large enough to attract fish but not one so big and flashy that it will frighten them off. Small jigs and maggots will produce when targeting fish like perch and panfish, but when you want to give yourself more options, sometimes you have to get more creative.
“My favorite setup for jigging blind is a ⅛- to ¼-ounce gumball jig like you would use in the summertime,” Neururer said. “I’ll thread minnows all the way onto the hook there so that they hang vertically in the water and then barely jig it at all. This presents the fish with a horizontal profile that’s more appealing to a fish that isn’t looking up from deep water but one that’s coming on an even plane to the bait. It’s subtle enough for small fish yet large enough for big fish and just works a lot better in comparison to more common ice fishing lures like vertical spoons, which look a lot larger and flashier to a fish. If it’s not in an especially aggressive mood, it might not eat that, but it will eat a jig almost every time.”
We seem to forget that long before the first microchip, our forebearers were successful in the woods and waters of the world by learning about nature and immersing themselves in its realms. They didn’t need to fly a drone over a good-looking piece of water or set up a camera along a game trail to know how to get what they were after.
As technology consumes more and more of our lives, it seems to me that we should make a greater effort not to bring it into the wild places of the world with us and work more on developing our hunting and fishing skills the natural way. If movies like The Matrix and The Terminator have taught us anything, it’s that as technology continues to advance, these natural skills will be handy to have when the machines eventually take over.