This is an incredibly exciting time to be an ice-angler. During the past decade, our favorite frozen pastime has witnessed a revolution in bite-triggering presentations and purpose-driven equipment, resulting in more and bigger fish hitting on the ice than ever before. Central to the dawn of truly modern ice-fishing is a wave of 21st century high-tech advantages that have converged on the surfaces of frozen lakes, each making anglers more successful.
Gone are the days of shivering on a pail, staring at a lifeless bobber, and hoping for a nibble or two. Now is the time to be mobile, to fish aggressively, and to leverage ice-fishing’s tech innovations to find and catch more fish.
Here are 10 common challenges faced by ice-anglers, and how technological advances have helped to address them.
Find a productive spot
Nothing ruins an ice-fishing trip faster than sitting above a barren wasteland, one devoid of finned adversaries. In the same way as your soft-water experiences, a portable GPS system, complemented by precise digital cartography, will ensure that your holes are drilled over high-percentage cover rather than hundreds of yards away.
Manufacturers recognize the critical role that position determination plays in modern ice-fishing, and now offer a comprehensive selection of compact, portable fish finders with fully integrated GPS and mapping capabilities.
When selecting a new piece of ice electronics, resist being drawn into the “bigger is better” spiral that frequently dominates equipment selection.
Remember that big screens draw a lot of power and can rapidly deplete the typical sealed 12V batteries favored by ice-anglers; a 5- or 7-inch display is more than enough for most purposes.
In addition, consider replacing the standard battery with one that has expanded capacity, like a 10Ah-12Ah sealed lead acid battery, to increase the unit’s run time.
Look before you drill
Wouldn’t it be great to spend less time cutting holes and more time pulling fish through them? Using an ice sonar unit to look for fish beneath drilled holes before dropping a lure is nothing new — but using a sonar unit that can interrogate a large area beneath the frozen surface from a single hole can be a tremendous time saver when hunting for fish.
The Garmin Panoptix Ice system offers such an opportunity. Employing a transducer that can be rotated with 360-degree freedom, Panoptix creates a real-time, live-action view of structure and fish up to 100 feet away from a single hole. The math is compelling when you think back to your high school geometry experience: its 100-foot range means that Panoptix can scan a circular region beneath the ice with an area of over 31,000 square feet.
If a school of crappies or pod of walleyes is in that zone, Panoptix has the ability to see them and determine their position relative to the drilled hole. Now, you can cut holes where the fish are rather than where you think they should be.
Use a smarter auger
Most of us still remember the days when holes were cut either with a hand auger or a smoky, gasoline-powered drill. Thankfully, those days are behind us.
Smart alternatives now exist for opening holes, using drills that are lighter, faster and quieter — let’s call them “evolved augers.” A lithium-ion-powered electric auger, like the ION X, provides hardwater anglers with several advantages. First, you won’t have to carry gasoline or oil, noxious liquids that invariably leak or spill.
Second, battery-powered augers are generally much quieter than those driven by internal combustion engines, a fact appreciated by everyone above the ice and the fish below. Remember to protect the batteries from extreme cold; when not drilling, I keep my battery in my heated shelter, and also carry a fully charged spare, just in case.
Use the right rod
I think back to my first ice-fishing “rods” — they were little more than too-short, too-stiff versions of second-rate open-water rods. If you’re missing bites or losing fish, then your troubleshooting sequence should begin with your rod.
Traditionally, ice rods have been manufactured from solid graphite blanks for sensitivity needed for light-biting walleyes or panfish or solid fiberglass blanks for toughness perfect for hard-charging lake trout and pike.
These two blank materials serve as the foundation for most commercial, and even handmade, custom ice rods. However, advances in manufacturing techniques and the smooth transfer of technology once reserved for the open-water rod market are resulting in unique types of ice rods that will help anglers detect more bites and catch more fish.
The new Croix Custom Ice series from St. Croix Rod, for example, includes incredibly lightweight rods made from tubular graphite blanks, as well as rods prepared from unique blends and fusions of graphite and fiberglass to meet presentation and species-specific needs for sensitivity and durability.
Use the right line
A common, albeit incorrect assumption among anglers is that open-water line is also appropriate through the ice. These are often the same anglers that complain when line freezes on their reel or flops off the spool in unmanageable coils onto the ice.
There are three fundamental types of line: nylon monofilament, fluorocarbon and braided line. Monofilament is stretchy and absorbs water.
Fluorocarbon has less stretch, does not absorb water, and is nearly invisible beneath the surface. Braided line is a strong, sensitive alternative that is very visible to fish.
In moderate temperatures, or when fishing in a shelter, I use a thin-diameter braid, like Seaguar Smackdown, as my main line, finished with a 2- to 3-foot leader of Seaguar AbrazX 100 percent fluorocarbon. The braided main line gives me the strength and hook-setting confidence I need, while the fluorocarbon leader provides a stealthy, low-visibility environment near the lure. I also keep one reel spooled completely with fluorocarbon for use in very cold temperatures, or for slip bobber or dead-stick presentations.
Get down to the fish faster.
There’s nothing more disheartening than watching a target-rich sonar screen suddenly become lifeless while waiting for your lure to descend through the water. When fish are beneath us, we need to be down there before they get picked off by our buddies.
Tungsten jigs and spoons, like those offered by Clam, descend rapidly to the fish zone. This results from the simple fact that tungsten is denser than lead; ice-anglers benefit from this quirk of the periodic table to catch more fish. Tungsten’s higher density also means that, when compared to lead jigs of the same weight, tungsten jigs will be more compact. This can provide substantial advantages when dealing with finicky fish, when finesse presentations can turn lookers into biters. Be prepared to pay a little more for quality tungsten lures when compared to lead alternatives, but the significant advantages of tungsten over lead justify the additional expense.
Turn the light on
No, I’m not talking about a headlamp, but you should have one of those handy too. I’m referring to glow, or more specifically, glow pigments on jigs and lures. During low-light conditions or darkness, or when fishing stained or turbid bodies of water, a glow will make your presentations more visible to fish, which can substantially increase catch rates.
Glow pigments take advantage of a chemical phenomenon called phosphorescence. The molecular components of glow pigment are energized by absorbing visible light, and then relax back to their original state by emitting light over long periods of time; this is the glow that we, and the fish, observe.
Having the brightest possible glow is not necessarily as advantageous as having the right amount of glow in the right places, especially on a larger lure. LIVETARGET has taken a biomimetic approach to using glow, adding glow pigments to the belly portions of their ultra-realistic Golden Shiner and Yellow Perch lipless rattlebaits, lures that dominate trophy walleye fisheries on Lake Winnipeg, Lake of the Woods and Lake Erie.
Having glow adjacent to dark portions of the lure allows it to retain its visual “flash” even under the cover of darkness, a truly insightful lure design. To keep your bait bright, recharge your glow lures every 10-15 minutes, or after each fish is landed. Remember when I said you’ll want to keep a headlamp handy?
Detect the bite
Not all bites through the ice are easy to detect. Panfish and bass, in particular, have mastered the art of rapidly inhaling and expelling a bait without transmitting any information to the angler. Those undetected bites are missed opportunities that we should work to minimize.
A titanium spring bobber system is a useful tool, especially for panfish, providing an extra measure of highly sensitive bite detection. An even more valuable and broadly applicable tool is an Aqua-Vu underwater camera, with high-quality optics that can be positioned above, below or at the same level as your lure.
Aqua-Vu cameras not only provide the ultimate advantage in visual bite detection, but are also highly instructive, allowing you to actually see fish react to your bait or lure, even if they don’t strike. This can help you make informed decisions about changing presentations (or locations) — choices that can result in more fish on the ice. For the way I fish, an Aqua-Vu camera is just as important as my sonar unit.
Eliminate sonar interference
Ice-anglers are tethered to their electronics, and for good reason. Quite simply, the original flasher-style sonar units brought ice-fishing out of the dark ages and ushered in our current era of high-tech hardwater adventures. However, with virtually every angler pinging away with their own sonar unit, interference commonly referred to as “crosstalk” can be hard to avoid.
At the root of this problem is the fact that most ice electronics use the same sonar frequency, 200 kHz, to create their structure and fish-finding displays. When two or more units are near one another, each transmitting (and receiving) at 200 kHz, those units will display not only their own sonar echoes, but also those created by others. This results in sonar crosstalk.
Common methods for interference rejection rely on filtering out weak sonar echoes, but this can also eliminate important, albeit weak signals, like those from large fish at the edge of the sonar’s coverage area.
Humminbird recently introduced a unique way of eliminating sonar interference, leveraging open-water CHIRP technology to selectively transmit (and receive) frequencies that are not being used by nearby sonar units. Look for this powerful interference rejection method in their ICE HELIX 7 G2 and G2N sonar/GPS combos.
This is obvious, right? Staying warm starts by paying attention to how you dress, where the time-tested adage of dressing in layers applies. Start with a thin, wicking layer, like the performance base layers favored by winter athletes. Moving sweat away from your skin will keep you warmer than wearing 10 heavy sweatshirts (which would be a mistake, by the way).
Once you’re dressed right, you can concern yourself with staying comfortable while presenting baits and flopping fish on the ice. The most significant technological advance in this arena has been the advent of lightweight thermal shelters, which help to retain heat generated by portable heat sources.
Frabill offers thermal fabric in both flip-over and hub-style shelters, and I make use of both. I use Frabill thermal hubs as a base camp, for keeping gear warm and for my kids, who find moving around in a spacious hub more comfortable and fun than being constrained to a flip-over.
At the same time, I use my Frabill thermal flip-over for hole-hopping when frigid air temperatures make such adventures impractical outside of a shelter. A small propane lantern, in concert with proper ventilation, can convert the interior of a thermal shelter into a comfortable respite from the elements.