Tactics for Deep- Water Ice-Fishing

Get away from the crowds and get out of the shallows for more and bigger fish this winter. Here are some tips to find and fool fish in deep water this winter. (January 2008)

Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

With apologies for stating the obvious, in order to catch fish you have to put your baits and lures in front of the fish. Ice-fishermen tend to concentrate on shallow water even though deep water is often home to the biggest fish, just as it is during the open-water season.

Deep-water ice-fishing seems daunting because so much water is involved. Ice-fishermen always have the limitation of not being able to cover much water. It takes time to drill a hole, and then all you can do is fish directly under that hole. If you want to move to a new spot, you have to drill another hole and go through the process of preparation and presentation again, and unlike moving in open water, you cannot cover the water between those holes.

Most of the things that ice-fishermen must do are either complicated or otherwise made more difficult because of water depth increases.


Probably the most important tool an ice-fisherman can carry for deep-water fishing is a sonar fish-finder unit. Relatively few ice-fishermen carry sonar and this is probably one of the main reasons that more of them do not fish deeper water. But the plain fact of the matter is that if you are really serious about ice-fishing, then you should strongly consider buying a sonar that is specifically designed for ice-fishing, even if it takes tossing your change in a cookie jar every day to save enough money to buy one.

Sonar will let you know precisely how deep the water is and what is in that water between the ice and the bottom. That latter point is one that many ice-fishermen ignore. In fact, fishermen, in general, tend to concentrate too much on the lake bottom. Deep-water ice-fishing does not necessarily mean that your lure or bait should sit on the bottom of the lake.


Let's start with placing a lure or a bait close to bottom. Fish tend to be less active under the ice than they are during the open-water period. They are simply less apt to move far to take a bait or lure. Fish that are hugging bottom are probably there for a reason. Therefore, precise bait placement is very important. The difference between the right and wrong place can mean a matter of inches.

A good sonar unit can be a tremendous help in presentation if it is sensitive enough to provide an image of the lure or bait. All you have to do is watch the sonar screen to know precisely where your lure or bait is. (Without a sonar image, you will have to measure the line. Use a clip-on depthfinder [a lead weight that clips onto the end of the line]. Lower the depthfinder to the bottom, pinch on a small split shot to mark the line, and then retrieve the depthfinder and lower your bait or lure.)

When using a tip-up, allow for the length of the tip-up. Pinch the line at the top of the ice, lay the line along the tip-up from the point where it rests on the ice down to the spool, add about a foot, and then pinch on the split shot at that point. If you keep the split shot at the end of the tip-up spool, the bait or lure will be about a foot off bottom.

If you are using a jigging rod, pinch the split shot on at the waterline and however far the split shot is above the waterline is the distance the lure or bait is off bottom. Of course, there is no need for this if you are using a jig or a sinker with a bait that is heavy enough to feel the bottom.


Sonar is particularly effective when fishing deeper water because the signal cone increases in diameter with increasing depth (with increasing distance from the transducer).

Understanding how sonar signals function is essential to fishing the entire water column, not just close to the bottom, but also everywhere between the bottom and the ice. Without sonar, fishing the middle depths in deep water is next to impossible, or at least so time-consuming that it is not practical.

Sonar functions by sending a signal from the transducer. That signal bounces back to the transducer from the bottom and from anything it strikes between the bottom and the transducer. What you see on the sonar screen is an interpretation of those signals, which bounce back to the transducer.

The signals that emanate from the transducer travel in the form of an ever-widening cone. Within the first few feet beneath the transducer, you are seeing what is immediately beneath the transducer. Using a cone with an angle of 10 degrees, that cone has a diameter of a little more than 5 feet at a depth of 30 feet. A 50-degree cone has a diameter of about 28 feet at the same depth.

At a depth of 60 feet, the 10-degree cone has a diameter of 11 feet, while the 50-degree cone has a diameter of about 56 feet. (Now don't go checking my math. I'm an outdoor writer, not a mathematician!)

Some fishermen prefer to use cones with a wider diameter because they can see more. However, the problem with this is that the wide view can be confusing. You are seeing much more than what is directly beneath the hole through the ice. This also distorts the apparent depth of fish. Fish that are along the outer edges of the signal cone appear to be deeper than they actually are. A fish at the outer edge of a 50-degree cone at an actual depth of 60 feet appears on the sonar screen to be down more than 65 feet. And rather than being under the hole they would actually be about 28 feet off to the side, far out of reach or sight of any lure or bait.

Despite all this, it does help to know what is going on down there.

Perhaps the single most important piece of information you can get from your sonar screen is verification of the presence of aquatic life, not necessarily the specific game fish you hope to catch. Just knowing that something is down there, ideally baitfish that will attract game fish, lets you know that you are in the right vicinity. For this a wide-angle cone is a clear advantage. Get your lure or bait into the same zone where you have detected bait and you will have improved your odds for success tremendously.

Present your lure or bait on a jigging rod in the middle of the band of bait signals and at the bottom edge of the depth band where you observe baitfish, for two reasons: One is that wounded baitfish tend to flutter down and game fish will be there waiting. The other reason is the confusion of depth signals that goes along with wide-angle cones.

Baitfish are not going to school along a single line of depth. But one thing is very likely: The shallo

west signal on the screen probably is the most accurate because it depicts baitfish straight below the transducer, while baitfish along the outer edges of the signal cone are actually not as deep as they appear to be. With your bait or lure set at the bottom of the signals, it is a simple matter to bring it slowly up through the zone of activity.

For the same reasons, set baits on tip-ups toward the upper edge of the range of depth signals. The reason for this is that the tip-up bait is stationary (unless you use a wind-assisted tip-up, but even these do not move the bait very far).

Remember that most fish are more inclined to attack upward than downward. You can reason this out by examining the eyes of game fish. In most cases, they are positioned toward the top of the head. Pike and muskies are perfect examples.

Why present lures and baits among baitfish marks on the sonar screen?

The ideal situation is that game fish suspend at ap particular depth for feeding purposes. This means they should be receptive to our offerings, although as always our offerings must be something that is acceptable to the fish.

Game fish often retreat to the bottom while they are relatively inactive. This does not mean these fish should be ignored. The water along the bottom could be the most hospitable water for both game fish and baitfish.

However, while you are fishing in deep water you should always remain alert for anything that is happening between the bottom and the ice by checking the sonar screen frequently. Fish that are suspended between the top and bottom tend to move more than fish that are hugging the bottom, so you must react quickly to the marks on the sonar screen.

Deep-water ice-fishing does not necessarily mean that your lure or bait should sit on the bottom of the lake.

Just about all game fish will suspend at least some of the time and when they do, it is very often because they are actively seeking something to eat. Trout typically suspend. Pike and muskies often cruise just a few feet under the ice even over very deep water. Walleyes are often thought of as bottom-oriented fish, especially by fishermen who do not frequent the Great Lakes, but in fact, they are as likely to be suspended as they are to be hugging bottom. Baitfish are the key to determining their location in the water column.


Depending on state and local-specific fishing regulations, ice-fishermen usually are allowed several rigs. If you set out several rigs, start by setting tip-ups at various depths with at least one bait set 5 to 10 feet under the ice. The only good reason to concentrate most terminal rigs at a specific depth is that there is some clue that this is where most of the game fish are. Otherwise, only concentrate rigs at a specific depth once a pattern has become evident.

Visibility probably is not much of a factor for deep-water ice-fishing. Ice eliminates a large portion of sunlight. If there is just a little snow on the ice or if the ice is crusty or layered, even more of the sunlight is eliminated. In deep water, you can assume that it is very dark. Therefore, lure color probably is not important.

However, there is an exception: lures that glow in the dark. There are numerous jigs that are available in glow colors. The difference between glow orange, glow yellow, glow white and other glowing colors can be every bit as significant as the difference between regular colors when they are used in shallower water.

Be sure to carry some sort of light, a small flashlight will do, to recharge glow jigs. The brighter the flashlight, the better. This is not necessary if you are fishing in bright sunlight, but it is necessary if you fish at night or if you fish in an ice-shelter.

Fish will also be attracted to lures by vibrations. Fish have two means for detecting vibrations, a sense of hearing and a sense we do not possess, a lateral line. Anything that moves in the water creates vibrations, or sound waves, that fish can detect. This is difficult for people to comprehend because we do not have the same senses as fish. It can be likened to our sense of hearing.

All ice-fishing lures can be classified as vertical jigs because the only way we can give our ice-fishing lures action is by jigging them in a vertical manner. It's tough to troll through 3 feet of ice!

Swimming jigs are probably the biggest variation on vertical jigs. These are designed to dart off to the side when they are lifted sharply, and then they swing back and forth for a few seconds after the rod tip is lowered. They are often used incorrectly by constant jigging action. Because this does produce some fish, ice-fishermen assume they are doing fine.

That is not the way they are designed to be used. That can be done with any jig. Instead, give them time to do their "dance." Allow several seconds to elapse between lifts.

Swimming jigs are the exception to tipping ice jigs with bait. Bait will impair the swimming action. If bait is used, use just a small amount, such as a maggot or the head or tail of a small minnow.

Some ice-fishing jigs have rattles, which increase their attraction. Jigs with propeller spinners create more vibrations than plain jigs.

Even plain jigs create vibrations as long as they are moving.

Odor is another way to attract fish to your baits or lures. Baits generally have inherent odors. Many ice-fishermen who frequently fish deep water always tip their jigs with some sort of bait.

Lively minnows are excellent bait for most deep-water ice-fishing situations because as long as a minnow is moving it is creating vibrations. Where it is allowed, one way to keep minnows moving is using two minnows on a rig. This is not so much for the purpose of having two baits as it is that the minnows tend to keep each other more active than they would be if used singly.

Another way to keep a minnow moving is to lift it occasionally. If you lift your tip-ups from time to time, you will likely see that hits often occur just after a tip-up has been lifted.

Wind-assisted tip-ups get this done without any effort on the part of the ice-fisherman. However, there must be wind, the tip-up should be adjusted to the wind velocity and if the wind is not reasonably steady, they will not function properly.

A final note of caution for deep-water ice-fishing. In water more than 30 feet deep, that is if you are actually fishing more than 30 feet below the surface, most of the fish that you catch will not survive if released. The reason is because of pressure changes. An outward sign of this is a distended air bladder. Some fishermen prick the air bladder with a pin to release the air and while this might improve the chances for survival, still these fish still might not survive.

The effects of catching fish from deep

water can be minimized by bringing them to the surface slowly. But if you are catching undersize fish a good sportsman will move.

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