Secrets Of The Pros

Some of the top ice-anglers in the country divulge 30 secrets of successful ice-fishing.

Ice-fishing pro Steve Ladany of Northland Tackle with a decent pike caught on light gear.
Photo by Ron Hustvedt Jr.

Draw a line east to west across the United States where lakes freeze over in the winter and you have the southern edge of what's called the "Ice Belt." Anglers north of that line don't take no for an answer when it comes to cold and ice blocking their fishing opportunities. We consulted a few of the top ice-anglers in the country for their secrets on a wide variety of topics.

1. Go deep! -- On some lakes, fish can go into depths of 50 to 60 feet or deeper in winter. Food sources, fishing pressure and noise drive them to such depths making them difficult to find. Use your electronics to find them, said ice-fishing professional "Tackle" Terry Tuma.

2. Go shallow! -- Food sources and fishing pressure can also drive fish shallower than conventional wisdom might suggest. Fishing guide Bryan Sathre of Fathead Guide Service said he's had anglers fishing a hot jumbo perch bite in 4 feet of water.

3. Lighten up -- The water is generally clearer in the winter and the fish are more skittish. Instead of using 6-pound-test on his walleye rigs, Tuma downsizes to 4-pound-test and uses 1- or 2-pound-test for his perch and panfish rigs.

4. Find a splake lake -- Mix one part lake trout with one part brook trout and you get a tasty tackle-busting fish known as a splake. Stocked throughout the ice belt, splake are considered easier to catch than their cousins. Fisheries biologist Steve Persons said contact your state fisheries office for a list of lakes with splake.

5. Splake locations -- Persons said splake tend to be stocked in smaller lakes with minimal structure, so focus on reefs, shelves, points and sharp breaks.

6. Fly an airplane -- The airplane jig is a classic because it works. It's especially good on clear water species like splake and lake trout, but feisty pike and walleyes will hit a minnow-tipped airplane as well, he said.

7. Try super lines -- They've been around for a few years now. so the technology is now tried and true. Walleye professional Scott Glorvigen and Tuma both like micro ice Fireline for its invisibility and strength against the ice. (Continued)

8. Green stuff -- Weeds are prevalent in the summertime and a nuisance in late summer. Green weeds can be tough to find, but when you do, drop the electronics, and drop a line because there should be fish in the vicinity. On large weedbeds, work the edges and pockets.

9. Contrast kills -- Glorvigen said color combinations that contrast each other like pink and white or red and chartreuse seem to work better than a solid color.

10. Green and hard -- Weeds near rocks are one of fishing guide Tony Roach's favorite places to fish in the winter for pike, perch and walleyes.

11. Bring the green -- When you can't find good weedy areas, you can bring your own like Bryan Sathre does.

"I use structure on a string because they act like a fish magnet bringing in species like perch, bluegills and crappies, as well as predator species like walleyes and pike," he said.

12. Don't pout -- Actually, you should! Eelpout are tasty, feisty and solid winter biters. With the nickname "pout," this critter is ugly, but hey, ice-anglers aren't usually very pretty either.

13. Smoking 'bees -- Smoked tulibees are delicious. If you know somebody with a smoker, see if they'll let you smoke your catch of tulibees.

"They aren't my favorite species, but you can catch some huge tulibees in the winter using perch and walleye tactics," Sathre said. "They put up a good fight too."

14. Bug out -- "Walleyes eat a lot of bugs in the winter, so use lures that mimic bugs," said Steve Ladany of Northland Tackle. Tip with a wax worm, wiggler or spike to add to the effect.

15. Cut back on the layers -- Actually that should say cut back on layers that get in the way by getting an insulated ice-fishing suit. The field of snowsuits to choose from today is larger than a few years ago, and in most cases, you get what you pay for. Whichever brand you select, look at weatherproofing, wrist adjustments, a hood, matching pants with reinforcement on the knees and seat, and volume of pockets for depth and seal.

"Try it on and see how it moves with your body," said Noel Vick, ice-fishing expert. "If the zippers bind and the suit doesn't quite fit right in the store, it's sure to be a disaster on the ice."

16. Match your hooks -- This doesn't mean color coordinate them to your clothing; it means make sure your hook is the right gap for your bait.

"It seems like a simple concept, but a lot of anglers in the winter go small with their jig and fill the entire gap with their bait," Terry Tuma said. "There needs to be space around the bait for the hook to have leverage when you set it."

17. Use your electronics -- Don't just drill a hole and hope for fish. Check for action below and only fish spots where the fish are located. It might take a while to find them, but it beats fishing where there aren't any.

18. Try plastics -- Plastic baits work great in the summer, so why doesn't anybody use them in the winter? "You can change colors, presentations and when the fish are biting you don't have to lose fishing time rebaiting your hook," said expert ice-angler John House. His favorite is a 1/16-ounce mushroom or gumball head jig tipped with a 2-inch Yum vibra-king tube, a 1 1/2-inch Wooly Curlytail or Wooly Beavertail.

19. Run and gun -- Anglers who are willing to move can catch more fish if they move to the right locations. Sounds obvious, but most anglers aren't willing to put in the work it takes to follow the hot bite. "It's not easy to do it, but the payout is huge because you can target active fish over a large area in a short period of time," Roach said.

20. Go soft -- Not on attitude but with baits. Soft baits are different from plastics in that they are made of natural substances. Companies like Berkley Gulp! and FoodSource make soft baits that most ice-anglers have yet to use. Tuma said he loves using Gulp! fish fry, minnows, minnow grubs, spikes, waxies and wigglers because of their scent dispersal and flexibility.

21. Soft and small -- Scott Glorvigen fishes almost exclusively with the smallest soft baits on the market. Gulp! spikes, waxies and wigglers are great on a buckshot rattle spoon or forage minnow.

22. Electrify things -- Ice augers used to be big and clunky, but several models with an electric motor are lightweight and easy to use. In-Fisherman ice-fishing guide television host Chip Leer said electric augers cut through ice like a hot knife through butter.

23. Soft bait makeover -- Get out that knife and alter the soft bait to change its size, vibration and action, Tuma said. Try cutting a V-notch in the tail, shortening the base, filleting it in half or cutting notches in it.

24. Use the right rod -- "Mr. Walleye" Gary Roach said gone are the days of the wooden dowel ice-fishing rod. Dedicated ice-fishing rods are made for the unique conditions and restraints of ice-fishing.

25. Soft pockets -- Glorvigen keeps his soft baits in his pocket so they don't freeze.

26. Get the shakes -- Jigging a lure can be too much action sometimes and dead-sticking is not always enough. Quivering a bait can give it just the right amount of action to trigger a strike.

27. Get a new auger -- If you own one older than five or six years old, it's time to upgrade to one of the newer models, which are far superior, thanks to a surge of innovation the last few years.

28. Bring a kid -- A quick ice-fishing trip lasting no more than an hour or two is enough to keep it fun and the child wanting more.

29. Fish a sleeper -- Not a sleeper lake but a sleeper house. Throughout the ice belt, Tuma said resorts and guides have icehouses you can comfortably sleep in during a night of ice-fishing. There's nothing like waking up in a cozy bed to the sound of a rattle-reel peeling off line.

30. Stay sharp -- Randy Havel is co-owner of StrikeMaster ice augers giving him access to the fastest augers on the market anytime he wants. "Even the world's best auger doesn't work as good as it should if you don't regularly check the condition of your blades," he said.

31. Be colorful -- Not with your language but with hook selection. Tuma said red is still a hot color, but don't be afraid to try green, chartreuse, glow and orange.

32. Practice CPR -- That's catch, photo and release. If the air temperature is above freezing or you are in a warmer than 32-degree shelter, snap a photo of your trophy and let it go. When it's below freezing, a fish's gills frost quickly in cold air.

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