Stay Stealthy for Early Ice Success

Stay Stealthy for Early Ice Success

Nothing is better than the first ice. After watching and waiting for the weather to cooperate and prepping gear for weeks, that first appearance of a solid three inches of freeze can have ice anglers sprinting out onto their local lakes like kids on Christmas morning. Early ice is the kick-off to the winter hardwater season, offering a first chance for anglers to drill some holes, drag out shanties, set up tip-ups, and get cracking on their ice fishing obsession—even though they usually don’t catch many fish.

Most ice fishermen believe that their first days out on early ice aren’t always the best, with the fish being incredibly spooky and difficult to catch beneath their newfound frozen ceiling. Many view these early excursions as a way to blow the dust off their equipment that has been sitting in the garage all summer. Sure, folks will go out, but most are simply content to wait for winter’s cold to add a few more inches of frosty insulation before they really start finding success. But with the proper preparation and approach, early ice can provide you with some of the best ice fishing action of the entire winter season.

Plan Your Approach

One of the biggest reasons that fishing on early ice is so difficult is because it’s a new environment. Fish that have been hearing quiet splashes and seeing consistent changes in light and temperature all season long are suddenly plunged into a consistently dark world full of loud booms and bangs. This new realm makes the fish edgy and quick to run and hold in the nearest cover at the slightest provocation. Subsequently, if you go and start fishing haphazardly by dragging around a sled and drilling a bunch of prospecting holes all over the place, you’re going to scare every fish in the entire waterbody, creating a long, slow day of fishing. So, before you head out onto the water, you’ve got to make a plan.

Knowing exactly where to start fishing on early ice is the key to success. You’re going to want to drop a line in the most likely places where you’re going to find fish with as little disturbance to the area as possible. The best way to do this is by looking over the spot you want to fish on a bathymetric map or on a mapping app that shows the different depth changes of the area that you want to fish. Most fish–with the exception of deep water species like lake trout–are going to be moving in and out of shallow water during the early season. This is especially true in waterways with a lot of weed growth. You’re going to want to target these spots beforehand, planning where to set up and even going as far as to mark your planned holes on the map so that you can move to the areas quickly with as little noise as possible.

Tip-ups are going to be your best bet for early ice as they can be left to soak in spots, allowing any fish that have been spooked by your setting up to move back into the area. Mark a line of planned tip-up holes on your map as well as a good spot to sit and jig, which both gives you a good view of your planned tip-up line and is close enough to each tip-up so that you can walk quietly to them rather than having to sprint when you get a strike. Ideal spots for this set-up will be in three to seven feet of water just outside of any prominent weed growth that is immediately adjacent to deeper water.

On the day of your attack, you’re going to want to get out early—preferably before sunrise—and move to each planned spot. Drill a hole, set up a tip-up, then move on to the next as quickly and systematically as you can before hunkering down in your planned waiting area. Once there, get your jigging hole drilled, your chair set up, and your cooler within easy reach so that you don’t have to move around a lot once settled, and then wait for the flags to start flying.

Stay Stealthy

Being as silent as possible can’t be emphasized enough when fishing early ice. You’re going to want to keep your movements slow and subtle and any impacts to the surface of the ice at an absolute minimum. Often this means that you not only have to pay attention to how you walk but also what you’re walking around in. While things like ice cleats and studded boots can be extremely helpful when moving around on slippery ice, during the early ice season, you may want to leave them at home.

Any steps you take on thin ice are going to reverberate around beneath the water, but if you’re wearing ice cleats or studs, these sounds can increase tenfold. This can give the fish the impression that an entire marching band is tromping around on the ice and cause them to get as far away from you as they can. Accordingly, instead of wearing cleats or studs, you’re going to be much better off wearing a pair of boots with a thick rubber sole and a significant tread on, which will still give you a decent amount of grip. Boots like these will not only make your walking quieter but they will also prevent you from moving around too quickly from fear of falling. This is a good thing as early ice fish won’t be used to the rhythmic steps of an angler walking on the surface of the water yet, so the more you have to pick your way along, the better.

Aside from your boots, you’re going to want to make the effort to muffle other equipment as well. Ice auger blades should be well sharpened to ensure that you can bore holes quickly and efficiently, preventing you from pinging and slamming the bit on the ice to get through. Sled runners can be coated or covered with a quick layer of duct tape to minimize scrapping, and the bottoms of any buckets or chairs should also be covered for the same reason. If you’re planning on having a fire or doing any cooking out on the ice, do so from an elevated position on like a pile of snow or from the back of a metal sled. This will minimize any impacts your activities have below the surface of the ice.

Go Undercover

When you’re fishing on thinner, clearer ice where it’s easy for fish to spot shadows and movement on top of the ice, you’re going to have a lot more success fishing from cover. Now I’m not talking about setting up a full-on camouflaged blind, nor am I saying that you should be dragging your heavy shanty out with you on the first days of the freeze—that can be dangerous. However, hunkering down in a small pop-up ice shelter can really help keep you comfortable, which will both help to hold you still and keep your silhouette hidden from any fish moving around below you.

If you don’t own or don’t want to buy a pop-up shanty, there are other ways to break up your silhouette on the ice that won’t cost you a thing. The real key to creating early ice cover is to create one stationary silhouette below the ice that the fish won’t be continuously disturbed by. You can do this by cutting and laying down a thick layer of pine boughs in your fishing area or by shoveling a layer of snow onto your spot. However, this should be done the evening before so you’re not causing a ruckus on top of the ice the same day that you’re fishing.

However, one of the best and easiest ways to create early ice cover without a shanty or any pre-fishing preparation is with an old piece of carpet or floor rug. Simply roll it up, put it onto your sled, and unroll it once you get to your designated fishing spot. Carpet is cheap to get and easy to handle, plus you can easily cut a hole or several holes in the center of it to jig through. In addition, putting down carpeting will help to muffle your footsteps and any other impacts you create on the surface of the ice, ensuring that you’re staying as quiet as possible.

It’s The Most Wonderful Time of The Year

While the rest of the fishing public is grumbling about the coming of winter and having to put their equipment away until spring, ice fishermen look forward to the cold season with a fervor that borders on madness. For many, ice fishing is more than just a sport, it’s a religion.

The truly obsessed will spend weeks and even months prepping their equipment, waiting, and dreaming of that first moment they get to stare down into the darkness of a freshly drilled hole and wonder what’s swimming beneath them. There’s a magic to it that can’t be found anywhere else, and with the right strategy, most can begin hunting that wonderful feeling as soon as the ice freezes while landing a few fish to boot.

Sign In or Create a Free Account

Access the newest seasons of MeatEater, save content, and join in discussions with the Crew and others in the MeatEater community.
Save this article