It appears that there is a mysterious force that hypnotizes anglers and forms them into tight packs. Magnetically they are drawn from all parts of the lake and pulled tightly into groups of boats or icehouses. This mysterious force is especially evident when ice fishing.
This grouping begins with a thought process that if two anglers are close to each other, "They must be on fish", and if there are three or four, "It's a hot spot!"
The saying goes that 10% of fishermen catch 90% of the fish. I believe it. I also believe, though, that 90% of anglers on the water on any given day fish the same spots. It's hard to catch walleyes when your lure is just another face in the crowd.
True, there are times when the structure that the packs are fishing is holding fish. In fact there are times that these community holes hold the only game in town, but these times are few. It's easy to tell if the packs are catching fish because, in open water, they'll quickly wave you in with fishing nets, or on the ice you'll see the frozen catches on the ice by the fish house door.
However, the majority of my best days guiding were days when we caught walleyes away from the packs. Many of these trips also happened during "off" bites, as reported by pack anglers.
Furthermore, there is a river rat that I have become acquainted with that only fishes the St. Croix River during the ice season, and he catches big walleyes, including an eleven pound eye a few winters ago – the largest I've heard of through the ice down there. When he starts talking about what's what on the ice – I listen.
In summary, he says fish alone, away from other anglers, have your spots picked out ahead of time, and fish it only if nobody is fishing it. He said, "Once another line is down there, it's over." Now that may be a bit extreme, but it rings true for him.
There are times when open water anglers or groups of ice anglers catch fish together, but day in and day out, fishing away from the noisy, fish-spooking pack will catch you more fish, especially on the ice. When I'm out on a particular stretch of water, I have the luxury of knowing proven spots in a given one or two-mile area. If someone is on one of them, I usually move to the next spot.
Again, fish can be caught next to others, but when adding it up over the length of a season, more fish are caught lone wolf style.
In terms of going out and doing it on your own on the ice, it's very important to have your fishing partner with you for safety, but also so you can whittle away at what's not working, and hopefully carve out some productive structure, depths to fish, and lures/baits to use.
On the other hand, a day in the pack on your first trip to the lake, actually does pay off if you take the time to ask fellow anglers about the lake's bite, lures that work, and when they hit. After you've learned this basic info on the lake, then I completely advise to get out and fish on your own.
Many times these "packed" anglers are fishing memories, and working the same spot as last trip regardless of the conditions. Fishing is fun, and it's supposed to be, some places are fun to fish even if you get blanked, but the fun of hooking water only lasts so long.
Repel the force that draws us all into the tight groups of anglers. Even if some fish are being caught on structure, odds are if you find the same structure somewhere else on the water, fish will be there and all yours for the catching during the ice season.
Turk Gierke operates Croixsippi guide service year-round on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, where openwater boat fishing is great for walleye and sauger. The author is on the Limit Creek Rod Company and the Crestliner pro staff and has won five St. Croix River walleye tournaments. He can be reached through www.croixsippi.com or at 1-715-377-0006.