Over the past thirty years, anglers fishing open water have embraced improvements to “old stand-by” products and have incorporated the use of technology such as sonar, electronic contour maps and GPS into their tool chest of fish catching gear.
In recent years ice fishermen have also seen improvements made to their rods, reels, line and lures. Now they are also able to transfer some of the same technology used on their boats to the ice. The result is a change in how we find and catch fish in the winter.
For anglers who like to target the early ice bite, fall is the best time to prepare for hard water. Begin by taking your boat out to the lakes you want to target over the winter. The same places holding fishing into the fall are often the same places you will find fish during your first trips out on hard water.
We like to begin our preseason scouting by driving over these targeted areas in a grid-like pattern to record our sonar logs to an SD card on our Lowrance unit. Upon returning home we upload the data from the SD card to the Lowrance Insight Genesis program, which creates a custom map. This map is then saved back to the SD card to be used on future fishing trips.
The cool thing about the map is that it allows you to identify small points and holes that you never knew existed on areas that you have fished for years.
In addition, it gives you the ability to pinpoint key areas of structure that produce fish during early ice with a color-coded composition map. The darker areas indicate a hard bottom, while lighter colors indicate a soft bottom. Favorite areas to target include rock reefs, transitions from hard bottom into mud, sunken islands and hard gravel break lines.
With your homework done, it is just a matter of waiting for safe ice. We won’t go out unless there is at least four inches, and often wait until there is a solid six inches of ice. Safety gear is a must, including wearing ice picks and a Clam IceArmor Cold Weather Lift Suit.
It is important to constantly check the depth of the ice as you venture out. If it is less than four inches, turn around and come back when it is safe. Once there is enough ice to take a snowmobile out, be sure to pack a Nebulus Emergency Floatation Device. This product can be a lifesaver should you break through the ice on your sled.
Now that you have made it to your spot, it is time to put the maps you created with Insight Genesis to work. It is critical to drill several holes over the structure you intend to fish. More holes mean more mobility. By being able to hop from hole to hole, you increase your ability to find active fish. It will also allow you to move with the fish as they slide on and off the structure throughout the day.
Once the fish have been located, we like to set up several dead sticks to thoroughly cover the structure we are fishing, in addition to setting up for jigging over other holes. In the early part of the ice fishing season the fish can still be in their aggressive fall feeding frenzy. One of the most productive baits for triggering these aggressive bites are what we call Glide Baits, such as Moonshine Lure’s Shiver Minnow. This “minnow-like” jigging lure has a dramatic side-to-side darting movement when jigged, giving you great horizontal coverage of the area under your ice hole. The Shiver Minnow comes in various sizes and colors, including long lasting glow patterns that are excellent during the prime times of dusk and dawn.
A really neat gadget we use while ice fishing is a product by JT Outdoors called the Hot Box. This heated aluminum box keeps holes open up to 20 degrees below zero!
Not only can you jig over the Hot Box, but you can also use it with a dead stick. New this year is a 36” custom dead stick from JT Outdoors that has an integral Nitinol (an alloy blend of nickel and titanium) spring bobber that is virtually indestructible and kink resistant. It also contains a highly visible indicator bead at the end to let you know when you have a strike. The rod itself is a high-grade fiberglass with a super slow action. This provides a parabolic action, which allows the rod to load ultra-subtly.
When the fish grabs the bait, the spring bobber and rod loads the fish. When the fish begin to feel this tension, they react by trying to swim away, which in turn puts further load on the rod and the fish end up setting the hook themselves! The length and long bend of the rods give plenty of time for anglers to get to the hole and land the fish. Not only can no other method or set-up match the sensitivity of this system, but it gives anglers the ability to spread out lines as they would tip-ups, yet be able to fight the fish with a rod instead of pulling it up hand over hand.
We often leave our electronics in a hole by the dead stick since we can monitor fish activity from a distance with the Lowrance HDS-7 Gen3 GoFree App. This really neat app allows you to use a tablet or smartphone to control and view the unit wirelessly from the house or the shack. It is amazing how many times a walleye will come investigate the minnow on the end of your line and then swim away. If you see this happening on the GoFree App, you can run out to the hole and try jigging the fish up.
The early ice season can produce some strong winds and the last couple hours before dark can become very chilly. There are a variety of Clam one-man portable ice shacks that can keep you warm in the worst conditions. They are light weight, easy to pull, and can carry all of your gear. They offer a lot of headroom, which is great for taller fishermen and allows for hook-sets to be made without hitting the roof of the shack with the pole.
With a little preparation and the right strategy, the early ice fishing season can produce some of the best fishing of the year. Be safe, be prepared and you will kick off your winter on the ice with a great amount of success!