To the beginner, mounting a winter angling assault on a frozen lake can seem like a monumental task. Faced with endless acres of featureless ice, how does an angler find a place to fish, let alone catch anything? How do you target a specific species when, it would seem, all of them swim around in the same water all day long?
Like anything else, ice fishing is made less complicated by breaking it down to its base components. First, of course, you need safe ice. Anything less than 3 inches thick is unsafe — 6 inches or more is ideal because then you can allow yourself to ignore the ominous groaning, cracking and shifting of the ice under your feet. If you see water seeping up through holes and cracks in the ice, get to shore immediately!
The easiest way to find fish on unfamiliar lakes is simply to look across the lake and see where other fishermen have congregated. Local anglers know where the most action occurs, and you can’t go wrong by setting up near shanty villages or “bucket brigades,” where other anglers gather to sit on their 5-gallon bait pails.
One of the most valuable pieces of the ice fishing puzzle is a topographic map of the lake you plan to fish. Local tackle shops offer lake maps that include such information as depths, dropoffs, bays, coves, channels, islands, sand bars, points, narrows and other features that can help winter anglers find a place to start cutting holes.
Ask the shop owner to point out a few popular hotspots, or study the map and find your own places to fish. Any areas where sudden elevation changes occur are ideal angling hotspots, as are shallow coves and bays where weed growth is prevalent. If you know your target species and understand their habitat requirements, it should not be difficult to match those parameters to the map of any lake.
As is the case in any fish tank, winter fish may be found at one of three levels — the top, middle or bottom. Trout, salmon, pike, muskies and pickerel are the species most often caught near the surface (within 10 feet or so below the ice). These species tend to cruise along feeding on shiners, insects and forage fish. They will stay close to the surface as long as there is food available.
Heading the list of preferred baits for these species is a 2- or 3-inch minnow or shiner. Run a fine-wire hook through the shiner’s back just behind the dorsal fin and use just enough weight to keep the bait swimming freely about 2 feet below the ice. The weight will keep the shiner from seeking refuge in nooks and crannies under the irregular bottom of the ice cover.
All of the topwater species prefer lively, eye-catching baits, so check your lines often to ensure that your shiner is working hard. Check your baits every hour or so and replace dead or listless baits.
Brightly colored jigging lures also take these fish. When multiple tip-ups are allowed, most anglers will set all but one tip-up with bait, reserving one hole for jigging spoons, jigs, flutter spoons or ice flies.
The jigging hole is not just an opportunity for the angler to stay busy and keep warm. Instead, this is where the winter fisherman can experiment with different lures and depths (top to bottom) in an effort to find fish. When a preferred species starts to hit with regularity, the smart fishermen drops his baited lines to that depth and gets set for some serious fishing.
Mid-range fish run the gamut of species but all have one thing in common: They want action! Large, lively baits or jigged lures will get their attention at any time of day.
When fishing for any species, go with smaller lures and baits. Bluegills and perch, for example, will take the widest variety of baits including worms, grubs, mousies, maggots and cut baits, while 1/8-ounce lures including jigs, rubber worms, grubs and spoons will get their attention.
Larger fish in the mid-range realm will take 3-inch minnows, 1/4-ounce jigs and cut baits that are kept moving in the water column. The key to catching these fish is to provide eye-catching baits that can be seen from a distance, especially in murky
or stained water.
Bottom-feeding species (lake trout, catfish, and others) are in a class of their own. They spend most of their time within a few feet of the bottom (sometimes in lakes that are 100 or more feet deep!) and will devour anything that even slightly resembles food, alive or dead. In fact, cut baits, fish parts and even chunks of raw meat (liver is ideal for catfish) will take these species.
When bottom fishing, keep baits or lures about 2 feet off the bottom to avoid rocks, logs and other debris. Baits that are sunk straight to the bottom risk being lost in the mud, in a hole, behind some rocks or other cover and fish won’t be able to find them. Keep baits moving so that cruising bottom-dwellers can see them.
When it comes to winter fishing in small ponds and lakes, the key ingredients are weed cover and bottom structure. Most such waters feature shallow rock or mud shorelines surrounding a deep basin or channel. The best fishing will be near the point where the weeds give way to deeper water. The smaller species (bluegills and perch, for example) will seek refuge in the remaining weeds and bottom structure while the larger predators (bass, walleyes, pike and so forth) will cruise nearby hoping to capitalize on any mistakes made by the dominant prey species.
To successfully fish for shallow-water species in winter, the best approach is to set as many tip-ups as the law allows perpendicular to shore starting in about 8 feet of water. Cut holes about 30 feet apart in a line heading toward the center of the lake.
Using small shiners, night crawlers or some other lively bait, drop each line to a point just above the weeds. It’s better to err on the side of open water — too high rather than too low — because you’ll get more hits when fish can see your offerings.
You will start to see some flags flying, often at the same two or three tip-ups, which is your signal to set all your tip-ups nearby at the same general depth. At this point, it’s time to set your tip-ups parallel to the shoreline but at the same depth. Set your tip-ups about 20 feet apart when targeting forages species such as bluegills or perch. You likely will run out of bait because these fish, when you find them, are so numerous and accommodating.
If you are after the larger predators, it’s best to set your tip-ups 30 feet or more apart. These species are often more territorial in winter and will drive others of their own kind away from prime hiding places.
If the action is slow, set up for jigging and spend some time at each hole with a small, brightly colored jig or bucktail. Jig from top to bottom in increments of 3 feet or so until you find fish. Set a couple of tip-ups to the appropriate depth, and if the action continues, it’s time to drop all lines to the same level.
The biggest mistake any winter angler can make is to just cut some holes, drop a few lines into the water and then just stand around and wait for the flags to fly. Winter fishing is an interactive sport. The fish are there and they will bite, but you have to give them what they want at the proper depth. Whole schools of fish can be missed by fishing too shallow or too deep, so it’s important to continue experimenting all day, especially when barometric pressures keep fish moving up and down in the water column.
Always keep a rod-and-reel combination rigged with a brightly colored jig or lure, and keep at least one hole open for jigging throughout the day. Also, it pays to jig for 30 minutes or so in each hole you have cut, plying the water from top to bottom. Conditions change and fish move, even under the ice, and the best way to find them is to jig regularly, especially when the action is slow.
Aside from a good supply of lively baits and a good selection of jigging lures, the winter angler’s greatest asset is his collection of tip-ups. The best of the modern models are made of rugged plastic that sits directly over the hole and won’t freeze or collect ice. The spool is designed to be suspended underwater to eliminate line icing, and the flags are attached to responsive mechanisms that flip the flag skyward at the lightest strike of a fish. The newer models will continue working even after the hole has frozen over, although it’s best to keep your holes open and free of ice. No matter how old or new your tip-ups may be, keep the line, spool and flag mechanism free of ice to ensure that the flag will fly whenever a fish bites.
Braided lines are best for winter fishing because they are less likely to twist or curl. Fill your tip-up spool with at least 100 feet of 10- or 20-pound-test braided line (more if you are fishing at greater depths). Use snelled hooks with a light, 24-inch monofilament leader to which a weight may be attached. When fishing near the bottom, the sinker may become snagged, and it is a simple matter to break off the weight without losing any braided line or other terminal tackle.
For jigging, most anglers go with a 3- or 4-foot rod with a spinning or casting reel loaded with 6-pound-test black or green braided line. Keep at least 100 yards of line on the reel and inspect the terminal end frequently for abrasions. Monofilament may be used for jigging but it tends to twist and coil more frequently. Also, breakage due to guide icing can be a problem, especially when jigging in deep water.
Always buy the best, liveliest shiners, worms, maggots or mousies you can find. Keep baitfish alive by transporting them in a large, insulated bucket. Some anglers add oxygen tabs or use tiny aerators to keep the fish from suffocating. Do not allow ice to form in the bucket and do not let the water level drop below three-quarters of the bucket’s capacity. Cold weather alone will not adversely affect baitfish, but a lack of oxygen will kill them in just a few minutes. Because most winter fish prefer lively baits, it benefits the angler to protect his supply of shiners.
The easiest way to keep worms and other small baits alive is to carry them in small containers filled with peat moss, dried leaves or shredded newspaper. Keep the container in an inside pocket of your snowmobile suit or coveralls. Just remember to remove them from your pockets after each trip!
Keep your hooks sharp, of course, and don’t leave home without the basics: an ice skimmer, spare gloves, warm clothing, snacks and a Thermos of hot tea or cocoa.
Take a pro-active approach to your winter fishing this season and you may not have time to relax!