Mobility, no matter what, where or when you’re fishing, is key to success. If you were in a boat and not getting any bites during the open-water season, how long would you remain in one spot? Not too long, I would hope. So why do any differently in the winter? These days it’s relatively easy to pick up and try elsewhere, thanks to portable huts (which set up in about a minute), warm flotation suits, lightweight ice augers, fishfinders, hand-held GPS units and, of course, ATVs and snowmobiles.
2. Stay in the loop
Ice fishing is currently undergoing some significant changes in terms of tackle and tactics-and for the better when it comes to catching fish. To keep up with the trends of the day, read magazine articles, watch how-to videos and TV shows, and attend seminars. There are also several excellent Web sites that feature up-to-date information about local ice-fishing conditions. Keep a log book, then repeatedly test what you’ve learned until you know what works and what doesn’t. Perhaps try to fish some ice tournaments, too. Laying down your hard-earned cash and competing against like-minded anglers forces you to take the sport seriously. Whether you win or not, you’ll learn more in one day of intense competition than in 10 days of haphazardly fishing for fun.
3. Come prepared
There’s a reason professional anglers carry so many different rods—rigged up in various ways and ready to go—in their boats: so they can quickly change presentations when needed. The same should apply to ice fishing. Consider the size of the species you’re pursuing, the depths you plan to cover and how active you may find the fish, then rig up several rods accordingly. You don’t need to go overboard; half a dozen rods of various actions and lengths at the ready should do the trick. You’ll thank yourself later, too, when you don’t have to keep tying on different lures in sub-zero temperatures.
4. Don’t overdo it
Probably the biggest mistake most ice anglers make—not only when fishing for panfish, but also for larger fish such as trout and walleye—is jigging too vigorously. Certainly, aggressive fish will hammer a big spoon jerked up and down really hard, but the odds will be in your favour if you reserve this method for simply attracting fish into the area or as a last resort when a more subtle approach won’t work. Instead, try twitching your bait by moving your wrist only, or slowly move your rod tip up and down only a few inches.
Alternatively, slowly swim your lure or bait from one side of your hole to the other. Or try a slow, gentle lift, then hold the rod straight out in front of you. Nothing? Twitch it again, and let it fall to the bottom, then lift and hold the lure about an inch off the bottom until the fish strikes.
5. Be one with your lure
You should always be able to feel the weight of your jig or lure so that whenever there’s any extra weight (that is, a fish at your bait) you know about it instantly. If you can’t even feel the weight of the lure itself, it may be too light for your rig or the depth you’re fishing. Or maybe it’s too windy or the line you’re using is too heavy. Consider: Many ice anglers think they can effectively fish a 1/16-ounce jig or a small spoon on 10- to 12-pound-test line for panfish. In truth, you can’t. Four-pound test is standard for panfish, and even two- or one-pound test is sometimes better, particularly if you’re dealing with finicky panfish in shallow, clear water.
6. Keep an eye on things
Many bass and walleye pros swear by watching their lines to spot hits. Ice anglers can increase their chances by doing the same. Watch your line like a hawk, right at the point where it enters the water. At the slightest movement-whether it kinks, tightens up or moves from side to side-set the hook. And if your line stops much sooner than you expect when dropping your lure down, set the hook so you can catch that suspended fish that just grabbed your lure.
7. Go easy on ’em
When you set the hook, avoid a quick, sharp jerk. You need to account for both the depth at which you’re fishing and the line stretch of your mono. The deeper you’re fishing, the more stretch. Most experienced ice anglers employ a steady yet decisive upward lift—even over their heads if need be when fishing deep water. If you’re using a no-stretch line, such as Berkley FireLine, you can set the hook quicker, but be sure to use the same smooth upward lift you’d use when fishing mono.
8. Lighten the load
In recent years, the best ice anglers have been opting for smaller baits and lures, as well as lighter lines and rod actions. For perch bait, for example, many pros have switched from minnows to tiny maggots, with very impressive results. Six-pound line on a medium-action rod is out for panfish, too. Instead, a super-sensitive, light-action ice rod rigged with two-pound test has proven more effective. Even the trend in the 1990s toward using heavy-duty baitcasters with 20-pound test on stiff, four-foot-plus ice rods for trophy lakers has given way to shorter, medium-action rods coupled with spinning reels and eight- to 10-pound test. The reason for all this lightening up? The need to finesse fish in this age of higher fishing pressure, not to mention clearer water thanks to zebra mussels.
9. Fish the prime times
Many fish species are at the peak of their activity early in the morning and late in the afternoon. If possible, then, take advantage by fishing these periods, particularly the early mornings, which can be slightly more productive. The upshot: this leaves you the rest of the day to spend time with your family (if they don’t go fishing with you already, that is).
10. Live and let live
Regardless of allowable daily catch limits, the voluntary release of larger walleye, lake trout, pike and other big gamefish can be critically important to the survival of your favourite winter hot spot. Also vital to the future of our fisheries is the release of large, pregnant perch, crappie and bluegill that are more than 11 inches long. Let the bigger ones go, and the result will be better fishing down the road.
11. Just do it
It’s easy to find reasons not to go ice fishing on any given day. But those who do find reasons to go fishing as often as possible—even if it’s for just a couple of hours at a time—are usually the ones who become consistently successful. Need we say more? Now dust off that auger and get fishing.