In any endeavor, there is no magic pill for success, but follow these ten points and you WILL catch more fish this season! These tips discuss doing your homework about the lake, devising a plan to pattern fish, choosing hook sizes, and other fishing issues.
1. Know the body of water you are fishing. The more details you understand about your lake the better. Focus on factors such as water clarity, weed growth, bottom composition, and, most importantly, how the lake is laid out underwater. Maybe you don’t know the entire lake, but go into the day with knowledge of enough points, rock reefs, major weed beds, etc., to last the trip. Without this knowledge, you can’t establish a fish pattern.
2. Know the best bite timeframe. This is essential. Some lakes have a night bite, others don’t. Some lakes catch fire from sun up to 8:30 a.m., and there are bites in-between. Some lakes have freakish bite times, and if you are not on the water at those times, well, forget it. Talk to the experienced fishermen to find out, and if they like you, they’ll tell what they know. Bait shops or guides in the area can provide you with solid information, and even a smart chamber of commerce that promotes fish and game (such as the one for the Lake of the Woods area) can produce a good report that includes bite times.
3. Fish with light test. Use two- to six-pound line, depending on your lure size and the targeted species. Often ice anglers hit the water with line far too heavy for the ice season. Panfish anglers, especially crappie getters, need to use two-pound test to really make hookups happen. These diminutive lines effortlessly cut through the water and barely even exist, which allows you to use tiny jigs. But, of course, with an upside there is a downside. The downside of these light lines is that in low light conditions, any knot or line twist can soon be a tough tangle. Unlike eight-pound line, the two-pound test can get you to pull your hair out after a string of clumsy moves. Regardless, I think the payoff of more fish is worth a bit of extra headache.
4. Move, move, and move, and find the fish. This tip is a result of great ice fishing products, from portable houses to ice augers, and is the foundation for the new ice fishing age that is upon us. With all the excellent portable sleds that instantly turn into ice fishing shacks, there is no reason to sit idle. Think of ice fishing as more of a “deer drive” deer hunt than as a “wait and sit in the stand” type of deer hunt.
5. Keep your hooks sharp the whole trip. This can be easy to overlook. I have fished side by side with a fellow pro who was using a dull hook; it’s a mistake that anyone can make. Buy a file and keep it handy. Also, on smaller hooks, slightly open the hook gap and offset it to the side. This really helps catch fish.
6. Match the hook to the size of the bait. Monstrous hooks skewering a tiny mousy (a panfish bait) just won’t work. This matter of sizing is far more important during the ice season than during open water, so have a wide range of hooks in your supplies. Match this principle with tip number 3 and you’ll be deadly on those finned swimmers! Also, on a tackle note, make sure that any bobber is correctly split-shotted so that the bobber will nearly sink even before a fish hits.
7. Know when it’s a bad crowd or a good crowd. This isn’t about people’s personalities or their social standing, it’s about only fishing the crowded spots when they are THE places to be. Fishing crowds can slow down the bites. The key is to know prior to the trip (or as soon as you can) if the spots with all the shacks are hot now, were hot a week ago, or are merely so-so traditional spots where a crowd is always located. Talk to fellow icers—they’ll likely fill you in on the bite history.
8. Take advantage of the extra lines that the ice season offers. Some states will give you three lines. Some anglers work just one line and stay on the move. These anglers also will fish one line because they give so much attention to changing lures that a second line just gets in the way. However, here are tactics I have used to successfully employ more than one line:
A) Establish a tip-up that is central to a general area you want to fish. Fish likely locations that essentially rotate around this tip-up; this way, when the flag goes up, you can quickly arrive on the flag, and most states have a minimum distance that you must be within the tip-up to stay legal.
B) By working with two lines, you can discover twice as fast which presentation traits are working that day and which ones are not. Multiple lines excel once the hot spot is found and it’s a bobber bite.
C) And lastly, the best reason to fish more than two lines is that doubles do happen. Fish on! Fish on!!
9. Work with a partner (or better yet, several partners) to kill dead water. This is important both during a given outing and over the season. Fish do tend to use an area and hold in those areas during an individual season, just as they also hold in more “traditional” areas. Partners help find these milk runs; just make sure to reciprocate the arrangement.
10. Be systematic in your approach to where you cover water and why. Make a list of the areas you want to fish, such as the hard- to soft-bottom transition areas on points and inside turns, deepest holes, and major weedbeds—then stagger your holes, from shallow to deep, to blanket these areas. This doesn’t have to be complicated, and it shouldn’t sound like work, but if it does, simply look at it like this: cover different areas until you find fish, and if you understand tip number 1 (lake composition – what’s down there) you can achieve a pattern for some great ice fishing.
Turk Gierke operates Croixsippi guide service year round on the St. Croix and Mississippi Rivers, where open-water boat fishing is great for walleye and sauger. He can be reached at www.croixsippi.com or 1-715-377-0006.