Advanced Ice-Fishing Strategies

Innovations have changed the world of ice-fishing. Here's how to use them to your advantage.

Photo by Noel Vick

War is declared before you ever leave the driveway. Plans are made, enemies named.

Technology and innovation have solved many of ice-fishing's mysteries. The war on the hardwater isn't what it used to be. Drilling with a hand auger is about extinct. Anglers are mobile. Depth is reported electronically, not measured in arm lengths. Hotspots are etched in bits and bytes, not lost to snowdrifts and ice-out. From an equipment perspective, we've conquered winter and that once-mystifying sheet of ice.

Even with a snowmobile and portable shelter laden with fish-catching tools, an untried lake can still seem daunting. There are means, though, to ease the anxiety of selecting and fishing new water in the winter.

Selecting a body of water is job one. Narrowing the field down to one lake or cluster of lakes is taxing. What's biting where and on what? Thankfully, the Internet answers many of our ice-fishing questions. Sites on the Web such as fishing spots and tips.

From there, access your state's fisheries division Web site and look for a map and lake data. Usually you can download lake maps and related statistical information. Said data reveals particulars like stocking frequency, species abundances, available forage, water clarity, average depth and size of the littoral area. Each matters in the exploration of unfamiliar water. Stocking statistics help to indicate fruitful pike and walleye waters. Comparing quantities of specific species - measured via gill nets, trap nets, creels and electrofishing counts - lets you pit lake against lake, on paper, before drilling a single hole.

Forage diversity and density reveal a lot about the health and average sizes of fish in a system. For example, a body of water that has smelt or shiners is certain to foster massive and copious pike and walleyes.

Water clarity influences the depth at which fish reside. And such data is exhibited as a Secchi disk measurement. A 4-foot reading, for instance, denotes stained conditions; 10 feet or greater means the opposite. Bog or tannic (brown) staining is more germane to winter because algal coloration (green) clears, for the most part, just prior to ice-over. From a fishing standpoint, possessing prior knowledge of water clarity assists in forecasting peak feeding periods. In murky water, the action generally climaxes late in the morning, with a secondary spike an hour or so before sundown. Darker also means higher, as diminished illumination allows fish to dwell shallower.

Average depth plays a role insofar as labeling a lake shallow or deep. It's wisest to earmark shallower lakes at first ice and deeper ones during midwinter, and revisit shallow lakes at late ice.

Littoral zone figures are the final decisive link in published lake data. The littoral zone - fertile area - is described as the percentage of a lake's acreage spanning in less than 15 feet of water. Basically, it's the weedier, sometimes sloppier, zone, which includes bays and breeding grounds. Lopsided percentages of littoral bode well for vegetation-oriented fish, such as bluegills, crappies, bass and northern pike.

Trite as it sounds, the next step is contacting area bait shops and/or resorts for expanded information. Treated properly, they'll often supplement what you've already gleaned from the Internet and the fisheries biologists. Bait shop and resort phone numbers can be found on chamber of commerce or tourism bureau Web sites, which are easily traced through search engines.

Meanwhile, back at the map. If you can't download a PDF map from the fisheries Web site because your agency doesn't offer that service, there are online alternatives. Do a search under "lake maps" or "fishing maps." The volume of results will amaze you. Depending on their source, some hydrological maps will need to purchased and sent to you - hard copy or CD-ROM - and others can be downloaded online. Whichever, factor in enough time to acquire the map long before hitting the ice. What's called "pre-mapping" can make or break an outing.

Ice Team's Karl Kleman, an ice-fishing specialist, pores over maps before embarking. With a highlighter marker and species in mind, he prioritizes targets by literally numbering them, "1, 2, 3" and so on. Factors like depth, structure, current tips and time of winter factor in his decision.

Another thing Kleman does is "shrink the lake." He does so by dividing the map, regardless of lake size, into manageable sections and follows that by prioritizing those chunks. Plenty of acreage can be purged on paper. Ultimately, Kleman heads out with a downsized version of the original lake, one that he and his crew can blanket in a day.

Obviously, mapping is conducted with an individual species or two in mind, but Kleman also considers at least one backup, not wanting to rely on the eagerness of one variety. Instead, he chases perch if the walleyes aren't cooperating, pike when bluegills are under lockdown, and crappies anytime. Playing by these rules, though, necessitates a wider range of lures and rod-and-reel combos.

At last, you're on the ice, and with a customized map and a mental image of where fish should be. Let the search begin. Ice conditions granting, Kleman tours on an ATV; he will snowmobile later when snow cover stipulates the feasibility of doing so. He inspects spots by lowering the transducer of a Vexilar flasher, and without ever dismounting from his machine. The transducer fires easily through clear ice, revealing depth, structure and sometimes fish. Readings can be taken through thicker ice by first spilling a little H20.

Once he has a likely hotspot under his thumb, out come the augers. Two auger-strapping 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." The second guy follows behind with a flasher and a rigged rod to test holes.

Cutting the right pattern of holes expedites the search as well. If you're working a shoreline break or weedline, drill a zigzag design and subsequently cover the edge, shallows and deeper water. Wide circles or "S" patterns effectively envelop offshore reefs and bars. On shoreline points and spacious flats, straight strings of holes will do. With a point, be sure to carpet both sides - dropoffs as well as the crest. Hole spacing, in all instances, 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, to assess all the possibilities, holes should be cut every 5 to 10 feet. Once the hole cutting

is done, hole-hopping is a fine means of sampling.

Searching is further hastened with tip-ups. Treated like an extra angler, a tip-up placed in a remote location samples for vagabond fish while jiggers excavate primary holes. Equipped correctly, tip-ups can be employed to find everything from pike to walleyes to crappies.

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

Portable flashers can quickly and effectively display fish, forage, your lure, depth, structure and even bottom compositions, so long as the operator can interpret return signals. But what's becoming the hottest apparatus in the discovery process is the underwater viewing camera. The lens and monitor yield cursory peeks at what lies below, including actual quarry and edibles, such as baitfish, crawfish, zooplankton and sundry bottom-dwelling creatures.

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

Grab 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 that reflects size/color advice from locals. Carry both minnows and maggots, because regardless of the species in question, you never know what will fin into striking distance.

On the subject of rods and reels, 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 combos in possession, each engineered the night before with varied but suitable armaments. The day is too short to be fiddling with equipment while on the ice.

Now you are prepared to win the war on hardwater.

Get Your Fish On.

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