Ice Fishing Techniques

by Sean Obrien and Debbie Kay for Anglers Club , December 29, 2016

Ice fishing is an unbelievably fun time out on the (frozen) water, and you can wind up with some serious fish as well. We will take a look at some of the gear, techniques and safety concerns of standing on ice and then fishing through a hole you have cut in it. Then Debbie Kay will explore using GPS and bathymetric maps to improve your success.

The equipment required is multi – tiered, as you can get started for a very small amount, or you can go full on with many different updated items and specific ice fishing enclosures, and tools, etc. One of the most important items you will need is a tool to assist in cutting through the ice. After you have verified the thickness of the ice, and that it is safe to not only walk on, but to cut holes in, the method that you utilize to cut becomes dependent on the tools at your disposal. I have used everything from an axe (not recommended) to a hand auger ( works fine but tiring ) to a battery powered auger ( highly recommended, but expensive). The bottom line is that you need some way to cut the ice. After you have created your hole, you have options as far as what you will use to fish with through the hole.

Photo Credit mattcatpurple from Hay River, Canada

I like poles specific to ice fishing, as they are very sensitive, and very small. Another favorite is a tip up, which is basically a line attached to a flag, that will pop up when a strike occurs below the ice. Either way, sensitivity is key for this part of your gear.

Another item that many place a great deal of importance on is some type of structure to fish from inside. Although I can see the benefit of getting out of the wind, I have never used anything and have done just fine. Some structures are little more than a tent or a windscreen, while others may have some type of coal or propane heating system inside. Either way, although not necessary for the bulk of ice fishing, it does get a little chilly out there some days.

Techniques vary depending on the body of water and gear you are using, but there are not a whole lot of options because you are literally dropping line through a hole. One of the better techniques is the use of strike indicators and a very small diameter line, because as the fish get sluggish in the colder weather, they will not strike aggressively. Live bait can work wonder, as can small jigs under the ice. Jigging constantly is a tried and true ice fishing technique, especially for trout. Sometime just twisting the line between your fingers is enough to get a strike. Variety is important, and trying many different lures and baits and motions will result in more strikes overall.

Another key is to stick to the shore, as the panfish and trout in freshwater ponds and lakes switch spots during the winter. The panfish go to the deeper areas of the water body while the trout go to the flat beds in shallower water. For trout specifically, focus on what they would naturally be eating. In the flats, they will dining on small invertebrates, and nymphs, small minnows, and various types of worms and maggots.

Ice fishing can be a great time with the right people and the right preparation. It can also be a cold, uncomfortable length of time freezing your extremities on the ice. Grab a thermos and your gloves, and get out there this winter.

A good set of bathymetry maps and a hand-held GPS can go a long way

There are a lot of ways to use technology to find fish in open water. It becomes more difficult when that water is iced over. A good set of bathymetry maps and a hand-held GPS can go a long way to making it easier, however. Here is a look at what you need, and some of the best places to find fish when the water freezes over.

GPS and Bathymetric Software

There is some precision needed for this technique, so a good hand-held GPS is an important place to start. Read your degree of error on your GPS – it will show you the possible circle of error where your point is actually found. Ten feet is pretty unavoidable, but thirty feet of error may not get you what you want. GPS works by reading satellites, so most lakes provide a clear enough view of the sky to give you a good reading provided you have a halfway decent GPS.

Best Places to Find Bathymetry

The other trick is to have a GPS that uploads the kind of software you want to use. USGS maps, National Geographic software and some others have some decent bathymetry these days, usually enough to get to the spots you’re looking for. Many state agencies have bathymetry available for download too, if you know where to look. If you don’t, a few well-placed phone calls to your state fish and wildlife agency will quickly get you in the right place. It may be a smart play, if you haven’t bought the GPS yet, to find the software you want first and then choose the GPS based on its compatibility with that software.

Using Bathymetry

The best combination, to verify accuracy, is to use bathymetry to choose the location of your test hole, then add a down sounder to verify your bottom. The reason this works so well is that it can get the features that bathymetry is too subtle to catch. By swinging your down sounder in a line, you can extend the width of its view- keep doing this at different angles to get a full idea of the “cone” of area you’re looking for. Clearly, the sign of fish is good news. However, there are three other things to consider in looking for fish:

• Shallow Vegetated Areas: This is the gimme spot. Shallows with submerged vegetation provide a level of protection for smaller fish. You will find them congregated here, but they probably won’t be big. If you want a spot with likely bites but don’t care about size, this is a good choice.

• Muddy Flats: These waters sit deeper than the vegetation, and are flat enough to get a nice collection of silt on the bottom. That silt is perfect for aquatic insects, and will bring in some of your bigger fish. You can test the area for the needed mud by dipping weights on a string into the bottom and seeing what sticks. Even the feeling of stickiness before you pull it up is a good sign.

• Depressions: Within these two areas, the best locations for fish are the shallow depressions. These small natural features may only be a foot or so below what’s around it, but fish tend to congregate to them. Find these spots, and you’ll increase your chances for a good day on the ice.


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