Finding Fish The Modern Way

Ice-fishing is no longer a hit-or-miss proposition. High-tech gadgetry helps today's anglers plan, execute and enjoy their winter fishing trips with an ease and efficiency of which the handliners of yesteryear could only dream.

by Noel Vick

Technology and innovation have revealed many of ice-fishing's mysteries. The war on hardwater species isn't what it was. Chopping or hand drilling holes in the ice is about extinct. Guys only walk when the ice appears dubious, motoring most of the time. Depth is reported electronically, not measured with a line. Hotspots are forever etched in bits and bytes, not lost till next year as snow melts and the ice goes out.

From a utensils perspective, we've finally conquered winter fishing and that once mystifying sheet of ice.

But, even with a snowmobile and portable shelter laden with fish-catching tools, an untried lake can still seem pretty daunting.

Electing a body of water is job one. What's biting where and on what? Thankfully, the Internet answers many of our ice-fishing questions. Numerous Web sites, like Fish and Game Internet (, Ice Team (, and others provide active message boards where users can exchange fishing spots and tips. Go to a site, post a query, and you'll be impressed at the volume and quality of rejoinders. As you converse, try to gather details such as GPS coordinates, best baits, etc.

Next, access your state's fisheries Web site and ask about maps and lake data. In most states you can download lake maps and related statistical information, including stocking frequency, species abundance, available forage, water clarity, average depth, and the size of the littoral zone.

Stocking statistics help, too. Comparing quantities of specific species stocked helps anglers pit lake against lake on paper before drilling a single hole.

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

Average depth plays a role, too. It's wisest to earmark shallower lakes at first ice, deeper ones during midwinter, and revisiting shallow lakes later in the season.

Littoral zone figures are the final decisive link in published lake data. A lake's littoral zone - its most fertile area - is described as the percentage of a lake's acreage lying in less than 15 feet of water. This is often the weedier, sometimes sloppier zone, which includes bays and breeding areas. Lopsided percentages of littoral zone cover bode well for vegetation-oriented fish.

Area bait shops and resorts can often supplement what you've already gleaned from the Internet. Bait shop and resort phone numbers can be found on chamber of commerce or state tourism bureau Web sites, which are easily traced on your computer's search engines.

Download lake maps from the fisheries Web site, but if your agency doesn't offer that service - and several states don't - there are online alternatives. Do a search under "lake maps" or "fishing maps." The volume of results will amaze you. Depending on the source, some hydrological maps will need to be purchased and shipped - on hardcopy or CD-ROM - while others can be downloaded online. Factor in enough time to acquire the map long before hitting the ice. What's now cleverly called "pre-mapping" can make or break an ice-fishing outing.

High-tech ice-fishing specialists pore over maps before embarking. With a highlighter and species in mind, prioritize targets by numbering them, 1, 2, 3 and so on. Factors like depth, structure, current flows and time of winter are all important factors.

Another tip is to "shrink the lake." Divide the map, regardless of lake size, into manageable sections, and prioritize those chunks. Plenty of "dead" acreage can be purged on paper. Ultimately, you end up with a downsized version of the original lake that can often be fished in a day.

Mapping is conducted with an individual species or two in mind, but consider at least one backup so that your day doesn't depend on the eagerness of one variety of fish. Chase perch if the walleyes aren't cooperating, pike when bluegills are under lockdown, and crappies anytime.

At last you're on the ice with a customized map and mental image of where fish should be. Let the search begin. Ice conditions granting, tour the lake on an ATV or snowmobile as the snow cover stipulates. Inspect potential hotspots by lowering the transducer of a Vexilar flasher, which can be done without even dismounting from the machine. The transducer fires easily through clear and skinny ice, revealing depth, structure and sometimes, fish. Readings can be taken through thicker ice by first spilling a little water on the ice.

With a likely hotspot in mind, out come the augers, ideally more than one. Two auger-wielding anglers can exploit an area in a hurry, each drilling and hiking in different directions.

Two anglers bearing a single auger can also do damage. Angler No. 1 is the "driller," while Angler No. 2 becomes the "checker," following behind with a flasher and rigged rod to test holes.

Cutting the right pattern of holes expedites the search. If working a shoreline break or weedline, cut holes in a zigzag design that includes covering the edge, shallows and deeper water. Wide circles or S patterns effectively include offshore reefs and bars. On shoreline points and spacious flats, straight strings of holes will do.

When working off a point, be sure to carpet both sides - the dropoffs - as well as the crest. Hole spacing is determined by how quickly the bottom breaks. For example, over a gradual taper or flat, holes can be punched 20 to 30 feet apart. But on a fast break, try to assess all the possibilities - holes may need to be cut every 5 to 10 feet. Once forged, hole-hopping - leapfrogging - is a fine means of sampling what's down there.

Searching is further hastened by using a remote tip-up as an extra angler. A tip-up placed in a remote location samples for vagabond fish, while jiggers work the primary holes.

If the initial location isn't producing or delivers only marginal yields, move or send someone to spot No. 2. Be sure he totes an auger, flasher and two-way radio or cell phone to call in his results.

Portable flashers can quickly and effectively exhibit fish, forage, lure, depth, structure and even bottom composition so long as the operator can interpret the return signals. But, what's becoming the hotte

st apparatus in the discovery process is the underwater camera. The lens and monitor yield cursory peeks at what lies below, including actual quarry and edibles such as baitfish, crayfish, zooplankton and sundry bottom-dwelling creatures.

Visual and audible - flasher - searches disclose valuable information, but they won't hook any fish. As a result, the investigation process requires actual fishing, too.

Draw on a pre-rigged rod and reel matched with a universally-accepted lure, such as a jigging spoon, in a size and color that complements the conditions - depth, water color, etc. - or go with the advice of experienced locals.

Carry lures, minnows and maggots where legal, because despite the species in question, you never know what'll fin into striking distance.

Where the practice is legal, traveling with an assortment of pre-rigged outfits is both prudent and expeditious. It's not uncommon for an ice-fishing sharpie to have five, six, or more pre-rigged combinations in possession; each engineered the night before, just like a summertime tournament bass fisherman. Winter days are already too short to waste fooling around on the ice with loose, tangled gear.

Winter fishing is no longer a hit-or-miss proposition. High-tech weaponry now exists, and more winter anglers are taking advantage of it. Each device becomes increasingly vital as anglers' knowledge of its operation increases. Add a strategy that demystifies even unfamiliar lakes and you're prepared to win the war on hardwater species no matter where you live.

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