Reading The Ice

Weedlines, windbreaks, current lines -- these luxuries enjoyed by the fair-weather fisherman aren't part of the ice-fishing equation. On the hardwater, success and failure hinge on the ability to determine what lies beneath.

Quality electronics -- flashers, underwater cameras, liquid crystal graphs and the like -- can be the deciding factor between anglers who find fish and those who don't.
Photo courtesy of Ron Hustvedt

Is it possible for an angler to "read" the ice as effectively as he or she can read open water?

It's an interesting question that many ice-anglers have never considered. The simple answer is yes. It is possible to read the ice. You can look at that large blanket of ice as a clean slate or a thin veneer hiding a bustling underworld.

Granted, reading open water is much easier. Weedlines, windbreaks and current breaks are visible in the open-water season, but these features tend to disappear in the winter.

But even lakes caught firmly in winter's hardwater grasp can be evaluated -- and understood -- from an angling perspective if you're willing to pay attention to detail.

"Instead of being one of those ice-anglers who drops a few points into the GPS based on what looks good on the map and wishes for good luck, you'll be able to find spots that other anglers overlook where fish are waiting," said Bryan Sathre of Minnesota-based Fathead Guide Service.

Sathre spends as much time on the ice as he possibly can in the wintertime and said he actually finds it easier to read the ice than open water because there are fewer distractions. "Fishing success is about finding the fish, figuring out what they are eating, and then making the best presentation to trigger a bite," he said. "There's less to get in the way while ice-fishing, meaning you can focus on the specifics and then home in on details."

The ability to be a versatile angler is critical, but few anglers can actually pull off the act of true versatility. Get out onto that lake and do some digging. What is the lake telling you? What is it showing you?

Electronics are among the best ways to do this. The modern electronics arsenal includes flashers, liquid crystal graphs and underwater cameras. Having one of these tools in your arsenal is pretty much a necessity, two is even better, and three is too much for one angler to manage. Fish with a partner, however, and you can mix and match your technology for a more accurate reading of what's going on underwater.

"Are the fish suspended? Do you see baitfish? Are you seeing hatches of mayfly or crayfish larvae?" Sathre asked. "What you see in one location is most likely duplicating itself dozens of times elsewhere on the lake.

"After you've caught a few fish, analyze what you know so far. Were they suspended or holding tight to the bottom? Are they upchucking anything on the way up, revealing their food sources?"

Focus on these details and you'll better be able to determine the best locations and presentations for success.

If you are catching fish at a certain depth or on a specific location, it's probably just because they are cruising by and not holding tight to cover. If you want to catch fish, you must go out and find them.

If you see fish suspended or sitting just off the bottom, there's a good chance they are feeding. Check the mouths of the fish you catch and see if you can find the crumbs of their last meal. Often there will still be food in their mouths or sticking out of their throats. Once you find where the fish are feeding, you are going to have better luck because you've found the more active biters.

Quality electronics allow you to see what's going on under water. You can pick everything up, including fish holding tight to the bottom, schools of baitfish, larvae hatches and even plankton. Having a flasher or liquid crystal graph with a zoom feature is important, especially if you can zoom up and down the entire water column. Only being able to zoom along the bottom means you are virtually blind to the majority of the world beneath.

An accurate map is critical to seeing the lake through the ice for obvious reasons. Some lake maps are very generic, showing only contours every 10 to 20 feet, while other lakes have been extensively mapped.

"I'll fish any lake that has quality fishing in it, but I love fishing those lakes that are on my LakeMaster chip because I have such a more accurate idea of what's going on underwater," said professional angler Jon Thelen. "You can just go out and start drilling holes based on the chip."

Not only can mapping chips give you a more accurate picture of specific locations, they can also help you understand the rest of the lake. LakeMaster and Navionics are two premier mapping chip companies, and a chip with hundreds of lakes can be purchased for approximately $100. Obviously, the technology comes at a price, but if they can accurately mark the lakes where you spend your time, they are worth the money.

"Let's say you are fishing for panfish or early-ice walleyes and (you) are searching for those last green weeds," Thelen said. "If you find them in one spot, you can see the rest of the lake at that depth and find other places where the weeds are most likely green. This gives you a ton of other locations to try and has helped me find spots nobody else is fishing. A lot of times those locations are prime because the fish have been pushed there due to fishing pressure on similar areas."

This tactic can even be fine-tuned on lakes where contours are not as defined. "If you zoom out and look for the larger structure and how it comes together, you can find similar spots on the lake even if it's not super detailed," Thelen said.

Fishing the lake basin seems extremely difficult using this strategy, but the tactic can work out there as well. "If I identify that the fish are in 29 feet of water, I can more or less paint a picture on the ice again and look where there are irregularities in that 29-foot breakline," Thelen said.

If you get to a spot only to find a pile of anglers on top of it, apply this same technique: Fire up the GPS and go a little farther away from the crowds and you'll be on those fish that are being pushed out by the fishing pressure. "It doesn't take a lot of work to determine what you are looking for without drilling more holes," Thelen expained. "I can duplicate or enhance those spots a distance away because I have a feel for what the lake system is like."

Maps, chips and locations are just one part of the equation. Once you find the spot and find t

he fish, you should continue reading the lake, Sathre said.

For instance, suppose the fish are feeding off larvae. Switch to a smaller presentation like a small spoon or an eye drop lure tipped with a wax worm or eurolarvae. Those tactics will work on walleyes, perch, crappie and big bull bluegills. To focus on panfish, use a smaller jig or doodle bug.

Should you find the fish feeding off baitfish, then use a larger spoon tipped with a fathead pinched off at the gills. This gives you a flashier and higher profile presentation.

A lot of predator fish in the area could be disturbing your attempts at catching prey fish species like bluegills and perch. Sathre said he'll drill a few extra holes and drop down some structure on a string to bring the prey fish in tight to take cover.

"The more you watch for these subtle signs, the better an ice-fishing angler you'll become," Sathre said. "Time on the ice is often the best teacher, but just keep your eyes open and be willing to adjust to what the lake tells you. Your success will definitely increase."

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