With a few simple steps ice fishing can easily become an enjoyable way to pass the winter months.
Over the years my interest in and enthusiasm towards ice fishing has had its ups and downs. When I was much younger I longingly looked forward to first ice. After getting a new job moving across state lines some years ago my ice fishing forays were put on a hard hold as I was totally unfamiliar with my new surroundings. Eventually as I became both more familiar with the local possibilities and friends with some guys who enjoyed drilling holes in frozen lakes, my interest was once again peaked. But through and through one thing has always remained a constant: keep it fun.
I guess this could almost be said of all fishing, but a surefire way to keep the interest up is to fish where, when and how the odds of catching are highest. When it comes to ice fishing, this concept is all about panfish. Much like instilling an interest in fishing with young anglers, panfish in their many forms provide the perfect ice opportunity. Perch, crappie and bluegill are schooling species, so when you catch one, more often than not there are more to come. Whereas landing a dozen or so bluegill is not such an appealing proposition in July when alternate options abound, a similar catch made in January or February takes on a whole new meaning. The gear for this kind of fishing can be as simple or as fancy as you choose to make it, but either way there is no denying that it can simply be a blast!
For years I resisted adding electronics to my ice fishing game. This was a product of both being cheap and having never fished alongside an angler using a flasher (That’s what ice-fishers call their electronics, by the way.). I looked at it as an unnecessary addition to my repertoire and just one more thing to haul out onto the ice. Well, that all changed in recent years as I saw just how productive a properly-employed flasher can be on the ice. Once you figure out how to read a flasher’s display and how to manipulate your lure in regard to the fish’s response on the display, it really becomes a game changer. While I just recently finally broke down and added a Humminbird Ice Helix 7 to my bag of tricks, I had been “borrowing” flashers from my co-anglers the last few years and I went from scratching up some panfish here and there to actually targeting and catching them with purpose.
Cast A Spread
While you might get lucky and get in on a hot jigging bite from the get-go, I always employ a multi-faceted approach to ice fishing. Most states allow for multiple lines to be fished for each licensed angler on the ice (Check your local regulations to be sure what is legal in your state waters.). This allows the ice angler to fish several tip-ups with bait while also actively fishing an additional jigging rod. I usually carry a pair of jigging rods from hole to hole, making certain that I am only actively fishing a single rod at any given time, and each one is rigged with a different lure. By doing this I have the greatest chance of finding active fish as well as hopefully figuring out what they want on a given day.
And what’s even better, while I am bouncing around from hole to hole, looking for fish, my spread of tip-ups with minnows seductively hanging below is also actively fishing for me. When I see a certain flag keeps popping, I can hop in there with the jigging rod to maximize my catch. When drilling the original spread of holes, sometimes I will even drill a second nearby hole for each tip-up to jig through when action arises. This further improves my chances of icing a pile of fish by day’s end.
This is probably the biggest and best way to keep ice fishing fun. Sure I have spent many hours on my own atop a frozen lake, but it’s the days and nights spent with good friends that I cherish. When a group of ice anglers gather, so too often follows a good feast. Regardless of how the catching ends up, my ice fishing friends and I always eat well and share some great stories of seasons past and we often brainstorm future plans for angling adventure.
Add an ice fishing shelter or tent for when the flakes begin to fall or the wind begins to howl and keep those outings extending despite the weather. We often set a spread of tip-ups at night, each flag adorned with a signal light, and positon a tent up-wind of the spread. From here we can remain in the comfort of a heated room, sharing in each other’s company while still keeping an eye to the tip-ups. Just be sure to have a plan established well in advance of that first flag going off to designate who gets to run out and check run-offs. While some nights we fight for the chance to ice that big ‘eye, there too are the nights when no one wants to give up on the comfort of the shelter and fine food.
Try for “Exotics”
Even when I used to ice fish all the time and took it somewhat seriously, targeting the same old fish, day after day eventually wore on me. This pushed me to branch out from my familiar water, which held the usual array of bass, pickerel and panfish. I found that the state had stocked the likes of tiger musky and salmon in certain lakes that were no further of a drive than the ones I was already fishing with regularity. Odds are that review of your state’s fisheries website or annual fishing regulation guide will reveal some unexpected species available in your area, too.
While I will admit that my success on those new species was less than stellar (I never iced a single target species.) it added a new and welcomed level of interest. I was forced to research what tactics might prove successful and I modified my approach to hopefully find success. This was back in the days before the internet, so it took a bit more effort than simply typing the species name into a search engine and made me a better angler overall. In the end I might have fared far better had I stuck at it longer, but this change in target species was followed very shortly after by my aforementioned move across state lines.
With my rekindled interest in ice fishing in recent years, I picked up right where I left off oh so many years before and I added a new target species into the mix—walleye—as they are stocked into 13 lakes in my home state. While lakes in the Mid-west consider walleye to be about as common as bluegill are in our waters, they are somewhat of a rarity in the northeast. They quickly became my target species of choice, and with the infrequency of which I catch them, coupled with the preference for them to feed at night, the challenge has proven to be quite attractive. Walleye can be caught across the range of readers of The Fisherman Magazine, with some great possibilities to be had on through New Jersey and beyond in addition to my home waters in New England.
Other possible exotic species that can be caught through the ice include pike, musky, bowfin, salmon and even striped bass! One of the best parts of ice fishing is that you just never know what you might pull up through that next hole.