By Rod Woten
One of the questions I hear several times every ice season as I’m presenting seminars or making retail in-store appearances is, “what’s it like to be an Ice Team Pro?” Simply put, it is AWESOME! I get to travel the ice belt and talk about ice fishing with others that are as passionate about it as me. I get to fish some of the premier fisheries in Iowa, Minnesota, The Dakotas, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Illinois. I also have the luxury of knowing no matter where I go in the ice belt, chances are pretty good that I have a fishing buddy nearby that knows the local waters very well. All that being said, I am just a fisherman like anyone else. I have good days and bad days, I have frustrations and I have things yet to learn.
I’ve had lots of experiences fishing many different types of waters and tournaments during the winter months, but even as an Ice Team Pro I am continually learning. Much of my learning has come through observing and fishing with anglers like Dave Genz, Tony Boshold and the late Jim Hudson, just to name a few. Learning in this manner is especially effective because not only can they tell me what they are doing, but I can SEE them putting it into practice and see the end results. Since I can’t take every one of you out on the ice with me, I thought I would share what a typical day on the ice would be like with me.
Doing My Homework
Every trip to the ice for me begins at home and I like to call it “doing my homework”. A large part of my homework consists of going over lake maps trying to identify the structural features that I think will be holding fish. Based on the time of year and the species I will be targeting, I look for contours that might hold weed beds, drop-offs, inside corners, transitions in bottom composition, funnel areas…any of the typical topographical features of the lake that anglers like to seek out. Based on the areas I find, I put together a plan for which areas to cover first, which to cover second, which to cover third, etc. If I can have a plan like this ready to go as soon as I’m on the ice, I don’t have to waste precious fishing time putting a plan together then.
I also spend a fair amount of time preparing my tackle. If we’re chasing basin crappies I load one set of rods to my rod locker; if we’re after shallow bluegills it’s a different set that gets loaded and different sets still for perch on the mud flats or walleyes on rock reefs. I want to make sure that I have the rods with exactly the right action and exactly the right type and poundage of line spooled on them. I also make sure that I have the exact jigs, spoon and lures tied on that I want to start with so I’m not wasting time rigging once I’m on the ice.
I typically like to get on the ice right around sunup and will often fish until dusk. At each end of the day, right around sunrise and right at dusk, there is a one or two-hour window where conditions are just right and fish go on a feeding frenzy. During these magical hours, light sensitive aquatic insects in the water, some of them microscopic, wake up from the state of suspended animation they have been in and flood the water column with activity. This stimulates the baitfish, as well as bug-eating panfish, and gets them feeding and the baitfish also stimulate the larger gamefish and gets them feeding as well. It’s because of this flurry of activity that ice anglers in the know insist on being on the ice at dusk and sunrise.
Ants In My Pants
Once we are on the ice, you’ll quickly discover that I don’t like to sit still for very long. I get bored very easily when my electronics aren’t showing any fish below me. When that happens, I’m very eager to move on and try a fresh hole. Part of this is because I subscribe to the “first drop” philosophy. If you’re paying attention while you fish, you’ll notice a pattern of the biggest fish to come out of any given hole are among some of the first fish caught right after the hole is drilled. This makes sense if you think about it. The bigger fish are the more dominant fish, so they will be the first ones to eat. After all, they didn’t get to be the biggest fish by being late to the supper table. Once those bigger fish are picked off, the size only decreases from there. That’s why I get SO excited about a first drop. I can’t wait to finish up fishing the hole I’m currently on to get the first drop on the next hole. The more you move around the more first drops you’ll get on any given day.
I also REALLY like to drill holes in the ice, which goes hand in hand with my first drop philosophy since you can’t get a first drop until you drill that fresh hole. Drilling holes in the ice is not the back-breaking task it used to be either. The cordless drill setups that many guys are using today are so light that it doesn’t feel like work at all. All you have to do is work the math…drilling 100 holes with a 25-pound gas auger means you’ll have lifted 2500 pounds by the time you’re done fishing. Now consider using a 15-pound cordless drill setup for those same 100 holes and you’ve saved yourself from lifting 1000 extra pounds by day’s end!!! That’s pretty significant if you ask me. Today’s cordless drill setups are also super powerful and lightning fast so it’s no big deal to quickly zip open a dozen holes and start fishing them. It’s almost hard to believe that a little cordless drill is making that hole through the ice so quickly and effortlessly. I still feel a small sliver of disbelief every time I punch a fresh hole, which I think is part of the reason I find drilling holes through the ice to be so much fun.
Because I like to move so much, you’ll also notice that I don’t set out a lot of “anchors” when I fish. Anchors are those things you set on the ice and then must pick up and move every time you relocate to a new hole. Your heater, an underwater camera, a dead stick, your flasher, even your fish house can serve as anchors and the more anchors you have out the harder it is (and the less likely you are) to move. I rarely use my fish house unless I’m sight fishing or the conditions are downright miserable.
Even when it’s super-nasty out and I am in my fish house, it’s got to be pretty cold before I break out the heater. There are several reasons I use a 1-man fish house almost exclusively. Not only are they lighter and much quicker to deploy and stow, but since there is not a lot of extra volume inside a one-man fish house, they heat up fairly well with just my body heat. I can move quickly from hole to hole with my Vexilar in one hand and my cordless drill auger setup in the other. In the rod holders attached to my Vexilar are 2 rods; one with a search lure and one with a “finesse” lure. With this setup, I can toss a small jig box or spoon in each pocket of my Ice Armor and have everything I need as I move from hole to hole looking for fish.
The Ability To Make Big Moves
Sometimes those ants in my pants want me to move further than the next set of drilled holes. When fishing dictates it, I am not only able but willing to make big moves. Big moves are moves to a different part of the lake, or even another body of water entirely. Any time you are contemplating a move that you would not be willing to walk to would be considered a big move. Obviously, this will require some sort of mechanized travel and the two most popular options are ATVs and snowmobiles. I have one of each but overwhelmingly prefer the snowmobile because it gets around the best in the worst of winter conditions.
My snowmobile will even run on glare ice with some simple precautions, whereas my ATV will not go in the deepest snow conditions where my snowmobile excels. Any number of things could necessitate a big move. Probably the most common scenario for me is as I work through each of the plans I had laid out while “doing my homework”. Sometimes my plan “A” does not yield the results I had hoped, so that usually requires a big move to put plan “B’ into effect. If plan “B” falls short, it’s often a big move for Plan “C”, etc. By being able, and willing, to make big moves, I can cover the widest ranges of structures, depths, bottom content or any other factor that could concentrate fish until I land on the one that is producing on that day. Without that ability, I am forced to work and over-work essentially the same area that largely contains very similar structure, bottom content, yadda yadda yadda…and the same negative fish.
Sometimes a big move is required just to get away from the crowds. It’s amazing how quickly you attract other anglers if they see you having a good day. In no time at all there can be so much fishing pressure being put on a small area that the bite shuts down and the fish move. This is a prime candidate for a big move because it may mean the difference between fishing the community spot with everyone else or being the FIRST angler to discover the NEXT community spot.
Both of my machines are rigged to allow me to move and fish quickly. My shelter is elevated in a rack in order to protect my rods, reels, tackle and electronics that are within. Should the weather become nasty enough for me to want to fish within the comfort of my shelter, I simply lower it down from its rack, have a seat and flip it closed over me. My auger is securely locked into its own rack to prevent it from colliding with more delicate items in my shelter and breaking them. This rack is so secure that I can travel across the lake at as high a rate of speed is permissible without fear of it flying off or breaking components during especially rough trips. Why do I need to go so fast, you may ask? For the same reason that open water anglers like to get the hole shot at the start of a tournament. It allows me to cover vast expanses of water in a relatively short time and spend less time traveling and more time with my line in the water.
Staying On The Cutting Edge
One thing that will become evident very quickly if you were to spend time on the ice with me is that I am a gadget-geek. I love putting the latest and greatest fishing technology to the test. You will notice that I rarely use live bait because I have jumped into today’s cornucopia of ice fishing-specific plastics with both feet.
They allow me to match the hatch, have unbeatable action that I have control over, come in a dizzying variety of colors, shapes, scents and sizes and they won’t freeze or die on me. My jig boxes contain all tungsten jigs because they fish heavier than lead which gets me back down to the fish quicker and allows me to detect bites more easily. I use mapping chips to do my homework which allows me to save waypoints for areas I want to fish on both my machine-mounted GPS and the Navionics app on my smartphone and go directly to those spots once I’m on the ice. It also allows me to make notes and save waypoints for particularly productive areas while I am on the ice. I use the top-of-the-line Vexilar FLX28 because it allows me to find fish in the widest range of conditions and has settings and filters that allow me to adapt it to virtually any situation I might encounter. I sometimes use an underwater camera to confirm things that my Vexilar is showing me or to scout for fish from afar without disturbing them or tipping off other anglers as to what I may be seeing. I wear cutting edge Ice Armor outerwear because it is designed specifically for ice fishing, it keeps me warm and dry and allows me to fish outside of my shelter because it’s like I’m WEARING my shelter.
Keep Conservation In Mind
Something else you’ll notice when you spend a day on the ice with me is that I release almost everything I catch. Although I love to eat fish, my busy schedule doesn’t leave me very much time for cleaning fish. I’m often beginning the 4 or 5-hour drive back to Stuart very late on a Sunday evening and the last thing I want to do when I get home is clean fish. There are exceptions, obviously, and sometimes I do bring home a few panfish for the supper table…. especially if I get into a mess of perch! In those instances, however I would much rather limit my catch than catch my limit. It doesn’t take a lot of fish to make a good meal for Laura and me and if I bring home a half-dozen to a full dozen fish for us that’s plenty for a couple of good meals. You will also notice that I don’t keep the biggest fish when I catch them. I realize how important it is to leave those superior genetics in the breeding pool and would much rather take home the medium-sized fish instead.
That, in a nutshell, is what a day on the ice with me would be like. It’s time to load the Bearcat up one last time, head back across the lake to trailer it and head for home. If you do see me out on the ice sometime, please don’t hesitate to stop over to introduce yourself and ask me any ice fishing questions you might have. I love to catch fish, but I love sharing my ice fishing experiences with others even more.