It's hard to believe a new year is already upon us and, with it, the start of another hard water fishing season for those living in the Northeast. While safe ice is never guaranteed in coastal lakes and ponds during these days of climate change, 2018 already seems to be off to a solid start with record-breaking cold and snow.
So, if you are one of the crazies that insists on heading out on frozen lakes and ponds to test your skills for panfish, bass, pickerel, pike, walleye, trout and more during the dead of winter, here’s a few thoughts to ponder as you gear-up for battle:
(Ice fishing can be quite the social sport – that is, if can find anyone else crazy enough to head out into the cold on a February afternoon. www.outdoortom.com photo)
Don't Think Too Much
It amazes me how anglers new to ice fishing bee-line to the middle of a frozen lake expecting to find the fish gathered all together in a nice, tight school. As with any other time of the year, different kinds of fish seek out different kinds of structure.
Thus, bass will still be found around submerged logs and man-made structure while pike will likely suspend along the edge of shoal waters. Similarly, yellow perch, walleye and trout tend to cruise level stretches beside points while bluegill, pumpkinseed or crappies frequently gather a short swim from the mouth of a shallow cove or expansive flat.
The point is don’t discard everything you already know about a lake in favor of completely new theories when it comes to ice fishing. Expect the fish you seek to locate slightly deeper but relatively close to waters that produced in the early spring and late fall. A good rule of thumb on smaller waters, especially, is to drill where you would position your boat if you were casting toward the shore.
(Tasty yellow perch are a favorite target of ice anglers, nationwide. A "Medusa" presentation tempts lunkers like this brute caught just 200 feet from shore. www.outdoortom.com photo.)
Quiet Can Be Key
Ice may seem like a terrific sound barrier but loud conversation, banging gear and walking about with heavy feet can shut down the bite in a hurry. If fishing close to home in a spot where you've had some success, try drilling a few ice fishing holes at lunchtime and returning to fish them an hour or two before dark. That way, you can quietly scoop each hole open with an ice ladle and be ready to go by prime time.
Another point to keep in mind as you figure out where to prospect is the importance of keeping moving shadows to a minimum. Whenever possible, position ice fishing holes in areas where the snow has built up enough to prevent your shadow from penetrating the frozen surface. If you play the sun right, you can drill a hole so that your shadow falls onto snow behind you while your lure is working clear ice at the edge of a sticky snow patch. Trout, yellow perch, walleye and crappies seem especially fond of snowy shadow lines.
Load Up The Bait
The standard theory on ice fishing baits and lures is to go small. This is because fish are cold blooded and, in the chilly water, their metabolism slows considerably. With less need to feed, and no desire to exert extra effort, your wintertime quarry is likely to strike softly and favor tiny jigs or small shiners.
Over the past few seasons, however, I've strayed from this conventional wisdom and begun baiting up a 1/16- or 1/32-ounce Northland Forage Minnow Spoon, KastMaster or tear drop jig with as many wax worms as I can fit on the hooks. This way of baiting up is called a "Medusa" presentation because of all those wiggling ends. The flash of the jig draws the biggest fish over for a look and when they see that knob of bait, the feeding instinct outweighs all caution.
(Ice fishing can be a blast but you’ve got to dress for the elements. Special ice-fishing suits like those made by Frabill and Clam Outdoors are a huge help when it comes to staying warm and dry. www.outdoortom.com photo.)
Keep It Safe
While we all hope the fish will drop their guard now and then, you can't while on the ice. "Safety First" is the ice-fishing mantra. Four inches of ice is the minimum on which to venture and be aware that areas around inflows, outflows and standing structure are easily compromised. Fishing with a buddy is always a good idea, but be sure to spread apart to disperse your weight as you head onto new or unfamiliar ice. Dress for the elements and wear a life jacket under your snow suit or use an insulated “float coat.” Also, bring along a throw rope and keep a screwdriver or ice pick in each pocket to help you crawl back onto solid ice if you fall through.
Cold as it may be today, ice-fishing season runs short and sweet. Make the most of it now because it’s only matter of weeks before you’ll be contemplating unwrapping your boat and heading back out into open water
Written by: Tom Schlichter