We are fast approaching a time that is loved by many and also hated by many, hard water season. This time of year, if it gets cold enough in your area, the top layer of ice starts to freeze over. If you’re lucky enough it will get thick enough that you’ll be able to walk on it and take advantage of some phenomenal bites. It can however be extremely boring and frustrating if you don’t do your homework and use the proper gear however. It’s important to utilize the many different mapping and underwater chart systems to highlight areas of interest before you ever even step foot on the water. This will allow you to have a primary game plan as well as several backup plans to be able to cover water efficiently. Utilizing mapping charts is only part of the battle however, you also need the right gear to be able to find the fish. Flashers are not mandatory to catch fish, but they are a must if you plan on being able to consistently stay on top of and catch fish. These units allow you to actually see and interact with the fish, making it much easier to see what the mood and attitude of the fish are. In this article I will go over types of ice units and what to look for when using different types of underwater topographic charts.
Ice Fishing Units
Now, the first thing I want to go over is what I mean by ice fishing units. This term covers a whole variety of fish finders that people use to locate fish through the ice. The biggest aspect to these units is the vertical transducer. The transducer is the part of the unit that goes into the water that sends down ultrasonic pulse waves to detect the swim bladder of fish below, the bigger the swim bladder, the bigger the fish. The lower you put the transducer into the water, the narrower the cone angle. So, keeping the transducer just under the bottom of the ice is key.
There are many different types and brands of fish finders that can be used. They all have their advantages and their disadvantages. There are units referred to as flashers that show the fish only as long as it is relatively below you. While there are also standard units like you would find on a boat. These units show the history of what was below you as well as what is currently below you. Then there are also underwater cameras that allow you to see what is actually going on, if the water has the proper visibility.
The flashers, like the Marcum M5, are excellent for a fast reading of what depth the fish are at and how many of them there are. They also work very well in more open water situations to be able to hole hop fast and efficiently. It can also easily detect different fish and shows the entire water column very well, depending on the brand you get. However, these units make it harder to tell the size of the fish. They also make it hard to decipher fish from vegetation in the water, especially if you are fishing around brush piles or grass.
Standard sonar units, such as the Marcum LX-6, work well for a variety of reasons. I prefer them when fishing in shallower water around grass and vegetation. This unit shows you the history of what was below you, allowing you to see changes in what is below you in the vegetation or the wood. This also allows the user to see the different behavior changes of the fish as the user is using different baits. This can help you see what cadences worked or didn’t work. These units typically make it harder to zoom into different water columns however, depending on the units you buy.
Underwater cameras, like the Marcum VS485C Underwater Viewing System, can open up really cool opportunities to truly see fish behavior towards the baits you are using. It can also help you see what is going on around vegetation or brush piles as well. The only downfall is the water clarity has to be prime and the camera can only point in one direction. This can be problematic when looking for cruising fish. These cameras do however allow you to see the bottom and allow you to see rock breaks or grass lines, etc. This can make it much easier to get on the “spot on the spot’ without wasting a lot of time.
Probably one of the most overlooked tools in the game of fishing, online mapping has truly changed the game of how we look at water. We no longer have to spend hours and hours trying to find that sweet spot. We can now have a really good idea of where we need to be and maybe spend an hour on a spot to truly find the “juice”. It is, however, incredibly under-utilized by most people. I spend hours looking at maps of a lake weeks in advance before I even just go fun fishing. Some of the best days I have had on the ice were not by going to my go to spots and smashing them but by struggling at my first spot and knowing what was around me and making quick judgment calls that paid off. It’s all about knowing the areas around where you are fishing to be able to make those fast moves to try and stay on top of the fish. In my opinion there is no better mapping charts than the Navionics charts. These charts are offered for mobile devices that allow you see the direction you are walking but more importantly they have accurately detailed maps that show the underwater contours of most all bodies of water. All too often I see friends of mine fishing an area and then I ask them why they are fishing it and they have no idea. I am constantly asking myself why I am fishing an area and if I can’t give myself a rational reason as to why, then I move. It’s all about understanding fish movement and mapping is the first step to try and understand the routes fish will use to travel to feed.
Now that we have gone over what electronics that you can, and should, utilize when out on the water. Obviously, it all depends on what species you are going to be targeting as to where you’ll want to fish. Different species are going to be feeding on different forage bases and are going to be using different types of cover or structure to do that. It’s important to have a good idea about the species you are going to be targeting. Knowing their habits and forage bases are important in figuring out where these fish are going and where they are coming from.
If you are a panfish guy, you are going to look for a few different things depending on the body of water you are fishing and the specific species of panfish you are targeting. For crappies and bluegills, there are a couple things I look for when I’m scouting out an area. The first is deeper flats that will have the warmest water for these fish to hold in. Crappies tend to get onto these big flats and roam looking for baitfish and small microorganisms, and most often I can find bluegills mixed right in with them. Generally, the flats I’m looking for will be in the 20-35-foot range. You need to be cautious though if you are not planning on keeping what you catch. Anything over 28 feet is usually a no go for me if I’m planning on releasing what I catch. To locate these fish, I will drill dozens of holes and use my Marcum Showdown to see if there is anything anywhere from the bottom to suspended 15 feet off bottom. If there isn’t anything then I’ll just keep checking holes, it is important to have your sensitivity setting bumped way up when looking for fish. Once you’ve found them then you can dial it down a little.
The other structure I am looking for is grass and brush piles. If you can find green, live grass then the panfish, of all species, won’t be too far off. This is where a camera can be very handy to try and find groups of these fish. I’ll first start looking for grass edges and scout those out before I start making my way into the grass. The next thing I would look for would be patches of grass. Fish will relate to these patches to try and ambush their prey. It can be tough to locate these fish quickly in shallower water though. Once you drill a hole the fish can scatter for a short period of time, so generally I give a hole a few minutes before moving onto the next hole. This is why I pre-punch a dozen holes or so a time to try and rest them before I fish them.
As far as baits go, I have almost exclusively switched to straight plastics, such as Trigger-X Plastics. I have had incredible success with these baits and they last for dozens of fish, making it a much more affordable option. I simply got tired of having to try to keep bait alive. That being said it is hard to beat maggots on a jig head. I almost exclusively use VMC Tungsten Tubbies and their various other VMC Tungsten Jig Head models. The tungsten makes the profile much smaller and more compact. I will also use small spoons and small rattle baits, especially for crappies. My go to rattle bait would be a Ultra Light Rapala Rippin Rap. It all just depends on the mood of the fish and that can take time to read. I generally start with small rattle baits for the sole fact that they catch bigger and more aggressive fish. So, if I can get the bigger fish without having to try and sort through the smaller ones first, I’m all about that. This will also allow you to draw fish in from a further distance, if they’ll eat it. You can tell within a few minutes whether or not they will eat it or not though if you’re on top of fish. After a few minutes of no luck then ill switch to a 13 Fishing Jeffrey Superior Soft Plastic in pink or chartreuse and this will get more than enough bites. If all else fails I will then downsize and use a couple maggots on a smaller profile jig head. When in doubt switch colors and sizes and sooner or later you’ll hit the magic combo.
What most people don’t really realize about larger predatory fish is that they all generally relate to very similar, and most often the same, types of structure. Thus, I will be covering general game fish that includes walleyes, smallmouth, pike, and muskellunge. Notice I left out largemouth bass. This is because generally they will be in the same areas as the panfish covered in the section above. This goes with perch as well; they will act as either panfish or walleyes depending on the amount and type of structure in your body of water. So, doing your homework on what the lake has is important. Now onto the other game fishes.
The biggest things to look for when targeting game fishes are ambush point/cover and then a forage base. This is what is going to dictate where these fish move and feed. Now cover can be in the form of rock outcroppings, grass edges, or simply depth changes. Deep water is one of the most overlooked forms of cover that larger predatory fish use. So, areas that have deep water access can be points of interest when looking for areas to target.
For early ice these fish have had a rest period of at least a month or so between when people could fish in open water until the ice is thick enough to be able to walk on. This is where you need to capitalize on the lack of pressure these fish have seen. This is where you look for the most obvious structure that usually has a ton of pressure during open water and now you take advantage of the lack of pressure. Being some of the first people on a spot can yield huge success. To take advantage of this start with loud and or erratic baits that have more action, such as Rapala Rippin Raps or Rapala Jigging Raps. These fish will generally be more than willing to eat so using bigger baits early on can catch trophy class fish. Now for larger predatory fish tip ups with larger sucker minnows or actual suckers can yield big rewards. No matter if you are using tip ups or jigging gear you still need to drill at least a dozen holes and use this to your advantage. Set the tip ups all across the area you are fishing, making sure to set some in deeper water and some up on the shallower areas. If you’re using jigging gear then just hole hopping after a 5-10 minutes with no marks, seeing fish on the graph, to other holes scattered across the structure you’re fishing is crucial. Using artificial baits will be similar to fishing for panfish in that you need to read the activity level of the fish to see how willing they are to chase and how they react to certain baits is critical. This is where you make small adjustments to try and put the most fish on the ice as possible.
It’s important to constantly be measuring the fish’s level of attraction toward what you are using. In the low light periods, they are going to be more curious and aggressive. This will mean you can get away with using the more aggressive baits. As the prime feeding times dwindle you might need to switch to more subtle presentations, such as jigging spoons tipped with a minnow head. It is all about letting the fish tell you what they want. If you find yourself getting surrounded by other anglers, this is when you need to make a switch. I like to either go oversize or under size with my baits, meaning I’ll go with something slightly different than what everyone around me is using. This could mean going from a number 7 jigging rap to a number 9 or a number 5. It all just depends on how the fish react or don’t react to what you are using. Color changes can also be crucial, as a general rule of thumb I start with either UV pink or green and then make adjustments from there. If you have fish coming in but simply just not committing, I will switch how I work the bait first and then go to a different color. If they still won’t commit then ill switch sizes and eventually baits. It’s all about reading the fish and trying to adjust accordingly. There will never be a set guide on what to do because fish change by the minute so just learning how to adjust can take time.
Overall, ice fishing can be one of the most fun and exciting sports to be a part of, in my opinion. However, it can also be one of the most frustrating days of your life if you’re not willing to change and make the necessary adjustments in order to put fish on the ice. When in doubt change it out, don’t be afraid to drastically change from what you normally use or what others normally use. It’s always the guy that figures something out first that has the best days on the ice. It just takes being willing to move around, sometimes constantly, and willing to change. So, with that, I wish everyone a safe season on the ice!