The First-Ice Phenomenon

The First-Ice Phenomenon

First ice is rumored to be the best time of the hardwater season to produce outstanding success. The rumors are true -- if you know which tactics to use!

Similar to summer fishing, early-season ice-anglers are likely to find most species in transition between shallower shoreline structure and deeper water.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt.

How many times have you heard it? "You better get out there as soon as the ice is safe to walk on if you want to get into the best hardwater angling of the season."

So, you load up the portable shelter, head out to the spot where the crappies or walleyes or sunfish cooperated last year and you can't generate a single bite. It happens more than you might think. That's because there is more to first-ice fishing than drilling a hole and dropping a lure. You have to be in the right place at the right time with the right presentation.

Dave Genz revolutionized ice-angling and is responsible for how the mobile ice-angler fishes today. He designed and manufactured one of the early ice shelters -- the "Fish Trap" -- that are widely sold today. He pioneered custom ice rods that used reels and relied upon sensitivity. His Blue Box was the original battery holder and sonar mount for a flasher sonar that allowed ice-anglers to see what was below the hole. In short, Genz's inventions, ideas and concepts have improved many hardwater anglers' success ratios. Thus, his title: "The Godfather of Modern Ice-Angling."

According to Genz, those who don't understand the first-ice phenomenon will not be able to take advantage of the outstanding fishing available. The angler who targets a spot that was successful the previous season but can't buy a bite during first ice now is likely facing a fundamental dilemma, Genz said.

"The fish aren't there yet," he explained. "This was probably a deep cut or a spot on the basin in the middle of the lake, and it might be a few weeks before the fish arrive there. This angler should be fishing shoreline-related structure, where the fish are when the ice forms."

Genz said winter fishing can be compared with summer fishing in that all species are in transition during the early and late parts of the season. He uses the walleye species as an example. "Walleyes leave the shallower water and move to the basins of the lake in midwinter," he said. "Same thing they do in the summer. In the summer, they come in to spawn and they're on the rockpiles. You catch them like crazy, and then all of a sudden, in the middle of July and August, they're gone. It's amazing how similar winter is to summer. When they move deeper in mid-winter, you have to start going to new spots, going to the humps in the middle of the lake. On first ice, we're fishing the ones in the bays where it's shallow. In midwinter, they move out to the middle of the lake, and that's where you go to find them."

Genz also advised that first-ice fish of most species are generally more aggressive and feed more than normal. In the midwinter months, food can be difficult to find, and the fat they produce early acts as an energy reserve later. Fish rely on this spare energy source to make eggs for spawning in the spring. They feed a lot more in the fall and at first ice than in the midwinter.

Genz said temperature has something to do with fish location as well. In the early -- or first-ice -- part of the season, the shallower temperatures are still in the preferred range, about 39 to 40 degrees. As the season progresses, those shallower regions get colder, while the deeper water in the middle of the basin maintains that preferred temperature. As a result, the fish move toward the deeper water to stay comfortable.

So what is the profile for first ice? According to Genz, it's after anglers can safely begin walking out on the ice but before the fish make their transition to the deeper basin areas. He said few anglers take advantage of this period.

"You have to go at first ice, before you can start driving on the ice," Genz said. "There are many people who won't go ice-fishing until they see trucks out on the ice. First ice is when you're walking with an ice chisel and hitting the ice in front of you to make sure it is safe. You're wearing a life jacket (and) you do have to be very careful. But if you want to take advantage of first ice, you can't wait until the ice is a foot thick."

"You can fish the weed lines because they are still up," said Genz. "You can fish the points that are close to shore, the rockpiles that are close in, the edge of the reeds. If they're deep, reeds can hold lots of fish at first ice."

Genz added that at first ice you will usually have a little snow, and there will be some drifts. Fish on top of those drifts so you're not making shadows. The ice is clear and thin, and the fish are shallow and spooky. When you make movements above the ice, the fish can see you. As the ice gets thicker, it's not as important.

Genz fishes much more aggressively at first ice. "I like flashier lures," he said. "Something with a bigger profile. I tend to rip it more to get their attention.

"Plastics are getting more popular," Genz continued, "but plastics typically have to be fished more slowly to get the proper action on them. The maggots and wax worms are easier to fish more aggressively."

One thing that Genz strongly recommends is to drill plenty of holes and fish them all. "That's how I like to fish," he said. "Move and make those first drops.

"There are other people who prefer to set up in an area where there are fish, because the weeds are a little different or a bit sparser, and it's here where they'll work the plastics once they catch the aggressive fish. You finesse them out.

First-ice fish of most species are generally more aggressive and feed more than normal. In the midwinter months, food can be difficult to find, and the fat they produce early acts as an energy reserve later. Fish rely on this spare energy source to make eggs for spawning in the spring. They feed a lot more in the fall and at first ice than in the midwinter. -- Dave Genz

"It's two different styles. In the long run, I think the aggressive style catches more big fish because the big ones are the most aggressive, and they come in and bite first. You take that big one out and you move to the next spot and catch another big one."

It never ceases to amaze Genz how anglers tend to fish first ice like they would in the middle of the season. "If you're fishing vegetation, you need t

o find the weed line or find open pockets in the thicker sections of weeds," he said. "You make it a mission to see how many holes you can fish, see how many first drops you can make. The first drop down a new hole, that's what it's about. Drop the jig down the right hole, and it's not that hard to catch that fish.

"There are a lot of people who go out there, drill a hole and catch a fish in that spot. They're all excited and they set up shop over that hole," continued Genz. "By the time they get set up, they've scared all the fish away in that area because they've made so much racket by shoveling off the ice and doing all the things they do. Now they're set up and they don't catch any."

Genz said you must size the lure based on the species you're after and tie it to a light line that isn't coiled and kinky. Use a rod that fits the line and reel. When the fish are aggressive, it's more about getting the lure into the fish's face.

"It's really about fishing the aggressive fish," said Genz. "Over the past few years, I've been at dozens of tournaments where I would talk to the anglers competing and they would swear you had to have this particular lure on or you weren't going to catch any fish. Then when it came to the weigh-in, there was seldom a time when the first, second and third place teams were using the same thing. They were all using something different. But they all swore that was what you had to have."

Genz's favorite time to fish during first ice is during the low-light period. He says you should get out on the ice a couple hours before sunup or sundown, drill your holes and be in position when the fish go on a feeding frenzy.

"I've always believed that when the sun hits the top of the trees, we all become better ice-anglers."

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