Why is it that hunters will spend days scouting the woods in order to find just the right spot to erect their tree stands, but those same people ignore the same kind of preparation when it comes to ice fishing?
Most people wind up following the crowd on hard water as a result of poor scouting or no scouting at all.
“Many anglers tend to follow that first guy on the ice,” said Dave Genz, father of modern ice fishing and member of the Lindy Little Joe Fishing Team. “You’ve just got to hope that first guy did his scouting.”
Most often, however, he didn’t do any more than you did. Instead of catching fish, you both spend most of the winter on community spots wondering why the quality of ice fishing diminishes soon after ice up, Genz added.
The common complaint is, “The fish have disappeared… and they have,” Genz joked. “They’ve gone home in buckets.”
It’s especially frustrating when you realize the biggest fish caught during ice season are generally the first ones, he said.
Avoid that disappointment by finding several spots on your own, far from the maddening crowds. You’ll have a better shot at catching bigger fish that way, and fish will stay on less-pressured areas longer.
“Once the pressure comes, fish stop biting,” Genz said.
You’ll also be more willing to make a long trek across the ice to a spot you know holds fish.
Scouting in Late Fall
Best time to find those private places is before ice up, Genz said. It’s far easier to locate likely fish-holding structure and cover it with your electronics from a boat in October or November, than to use an auger to cut through several inches or feet of ice in December, January or February.
Pick a nice day, get a map of the lake, launch your boat and follow some simple steps that will help you enjoy good fishing all winter long.
Genz said the first factor to remember is this: tall, green weeds standing straight up will hold fish well after ice covers the lake. Live weeds give off oxygen that, in turn, attracts microscopic plankton that brings in the baitfish. Baitfish draw larger species, from panfish to gamefish like walleyes, northern pike and bass.
“If the panfish are there, so are the walleyes, northerns and other fish,” Genz said. Panfish and northerns will be present during the day. Walleyes move in at dusk or after dark.
The first step in good scouting is to determine the depth of the weedline. Then, look at the lake map and find areas where the contour lines are widest at those depths.
For example, if the weedline is at 10 feet, look for places on the map that have wide areas from 5 to 10 feet. If the weedline is at 15 feet, then look for spots with wide areas from 10 to 15 feet. Those are the places where weed patches are likely to be largest.
The bigger the patch the more fish it will hold.
(Contour lines that are close together indicate sharp breaks that are typically too narrow to hold many weeds.)
Then, check out those wide areas with your boat. If weeds are standing, they will hold fish. Look for the points, inside turns, and other irregularities within the weedline. Mark likely locations on the map and enter the coordinates into your handheld GPS.
Move deeper if the weeds are dying and lying down or the water clarity is poor so deeper weeds are non-existent. In that case, look for likely structure that may hold fish, such as points and inside turns on the breaklines closest to deep water closest to deeper water. Look for suspended fish on your sonar. Watch for rock piles, brush piles, fallen logs and other cover fish will use.
Enter those spots into your GPS, as well.
You’ll have a good mental picture of what’s below by the time you’re done, and you will have done it far easier than if you’d waited until the hard water comes.
Gearing up for Ice
Next, get your gear ready. “Do the little things,” Genz said.
Start with new line. Old line has kinks in it, making it impossible for your jig to hang straight and for you to stay in contact with the bait.
Check the eyelets on your ice rods with cotton swabs to identify the ones with sharp edges that need replacing to avoid putting nicks in your line.
Go through your tackle box and get rid of the jigs that are rusty or did not produce last year. Always focus on limiting your tackle to what works.
A new lure that really catches fish and was tested all winter last year is the Rattl’n Flyer Spoon. Make sure that you have a few of these gems in your tackle box.
Sharpen your hooks. Even the littlest ones on your ice jigs can get dull.
Next, check all the batteries you’ll rely on. Check your Tazer light so you will be set to charge up your Techni-Glo jigs. Charge the battery on your portable Vexilar or change batteries on your Bottom Line Buddy sonar unit. Do the same on your Aqua Vu underwater camera.
Charge the battery on your snowmobile or ATV and service the oil and other fluids.
Make sure you have ample light sources and that they are ready to use. Replace mantles and propane canisters on gas lanterns and batteries in electric ones.
Now, turn attention to your ice shanty. If you have a Fish Trap, which Genz designed, put electric conduit around the edges for extra rods and other equipment. Bolt some onto the bottom to protect your runners while pulling across snow-less areas. Check out the shanties of your buddies or visit outdoor shows to get ideas for other modifications you can do.
Find a good local supplier for bait, like eurolarvae, and buy nightcrawlers ahead of time and keep refrigerated until needed.
The Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” Make it your motto, too, and you’re more likely to have your best ice fishing season ever.