Become a Better Hardwater Angler

By Rod Woten

Are you new to ice fishing and want to shorten the learning curve? Are you a seasoned angler that wants to take your game to the next level? Are you frustrated with catching few or small fish…want to catch more and bigger fish? When I first started tournament ice fishing, I was in the same boat. I spent a lot of time studying the top teams trying to figure out what made them just a little better than the rest of the field. Here are 10 things I’ve observed that make those top teams better than the rest and have incorporated into my hardwater “system” to improve the way I fish.

Fish with Plastics
Smaller fish are much more hesitant to take a plastic bait. Why is this good? It’s good because it helps keep the smaller fish off your hook and the bigger ones on. Smaller fish eat mainly for nourishment; often they’re left fighting for the scraps of whatever the bigger fish eat. That means unless your bait is an actual bug, larva, or baitfish of some sort, smaller fish are less likely to eat it. Bigger fish, on the other hand, often eat because they ARE the bigger fish and it’s their job to be the first to food and eat it before the smaller, less dominant fish can. They’re less likely to refuse an artificial bait, and eat it just so another fish can’t. Fishing with plastics won’t necessarily catch you MORE fish, but it can definitely tip the odds in your favor that the fish you do catch will be BIGGER!

Balance Jig to Line to Rod
Regardless of whether you’re a tightliner or a spring bobber fisherman, a balanced setup is essential to controlling your jig and detecting bites. Un-balanced setups are easy to spot because the line hangs in coils. Not only does this cause jig spin, which scares fish off, but it also makes it impossible to feel when the fish bite because the coils have to be straightened before the strike will register at your end. By that time, it’s too late and the fish is usually gone. The size of line must be balanced with the jig so that the line hangs taut under the weight of the jig. This telegraphs bites directly to your hand and also puts you in precise control of the action of your jig. Once the jig and line are balanced, the rest falls into place by matching the line with a rod & reel rated for that weight of line.

Eliminate Jig Spin
While an un-balanced setup can certainly lead to jig spin, it is still possible to have jig spin even with a balanced setup. As discussed before, jig spin is so undesirable because it is a huge turn-off for wary fish, especially big bluegills. The wise old fish have usually seen enough jigs in their lifetime and know full well that nothing natural spins in that manner. Jig spin in a balanced setup can be due to many reasons such as reeling against the drag, or a small spool on your reel that puts tight coils in the line. Either of those can be corrected by stretching the first four to six feet of line before lowering the jig back down the hole. You want to apply just enough tension that you can feel the line get slightly warm as you pull it between your thumb and forefinger. This softens the line, relaxes the memory of the line and straightens out the coils. A plastic threaded on the jig incorrectly can also cause a jig to spin. This is why I always drop the jig just into the hole and jig it for a few strokes to ensure it is tracking straight before I lower it down to the level of the fish. If it is not tracking straight, I reel up, reposition the plastic and check it again, repeating the process until I achieve no spin.

Learn to Read a Lake Map
Many anglers fear reading lake maps because they think it is too difficult. Not only is it fairly simple if you look for a few key structural elements, but it can be an essential piece of developing a game plan BEFORE you hit the ice so that you can execute that plan once you’re on the ice and maximize your fishing time. If you can identify neck-down or funnel areas, sharp breaks, mud flats, and weed flats on a map, you’re already well on your way to mastering lake maps. If I can identify and fish several areas on any lake that match these categories, I will almost always manage to find and catch fish.

Sight Fish
Sight fishing is a GREAT way to become a better ice angler. Sight fishing means you actually look down the hole to watch your jig and see the fish that approach it. Obviously this takes very clear water and we are blessed as Iowans to have West Okoboji, one of the planet’s premier sight fishing lakes, within our border. Sight fishing is possible even in stained water though through the use of an underwater camera. So why is sight fishing such a great way to become a better ice angler? Sight fishing allows you to study fish behavior. Instead of looking at lines on a sonar screen, you’re seeing actual fish and how they react to your presentation. It also allows you to see what your jigging stroke looks like under the ice. Many anglers fish their entire lives without truly understanding how the motions they go through above the ice translate to their jig below the ice. It only takes an afternoon of watching big bluegills turn their noses up at a spinning jig to realize how educational sight fishing can be!

Be a Sponge
One of the best things about ice angling is the amount of information and education you can get for FREE! You’d be hard pressed to go to any ice fishing event and not have the opportunity to attend at least one seminar. Some large events like the St. Paul Ice Fishing Expo have multiple seminars every day of the event. As I was coming up through the ranks of the ice fishing industry, I took advantage of as many of these free classes as I could. I took notes, I asked questions and I soaked up every bit of knowledge dished out like a sponge. Even today as a seasoned tournament ice angler I still take advantage of seminars every chance I get and I still learn something every time.

Fish in a Tournament
Tournament fishing incorporates many of the points already discussed and does so at an accelerated pace. During a tournament, and even when pre-fishing for a tournament, there is only a limited amount of time to gather all the necessary information and find concentrations of the biggest target species in that body of water. This means you get very good at doing so. Tournament fishing also gives you the opportunity to watch some of the top teams in action and learn from what they do. Just like any other sport, competing with others that are better than you almost always means you improve.

Get Some Wheels
Ice fishing gives much better access to fishing spots that can only be accessed by boat during the open water months. Even with that fact, accessing all those spots by foot can be a daunting task. It might be possible to easily fish a given area while on foot, but it makes it hard to make big moves to entirely different areas of the lake. Even though ice fishing means much better access, fishing without an ATV or snowmobile is the winter time equivalent of fishing without a boat. Ice fishing “with a machine” will change how you fish, enabling you to cover a lot more ice in the search for fish. This is important because the more ice you fish and the more non-productive water you can eliminate, the better your chances are that you will find concentrations of fish and bring them topside.

I know I’ve been preaching mobility for years. I’m only a recent convert though because Dave Genz has been preaching it for 20-plus years. Many anglers that think they’re mobile really aren’t…or could be more mobile. If you’re not catching fish where you’re sitting then it’s time to move! With a sheet of ice covering the lake, we can’t cast like we do in open water, so each hole we drill is a “cast” in the winter. The more of those casts we can get in, the better our chances are of catching fish and the only way to get in more casts is to move, move, and move. You wouldn’t sit and continually cast to an unproductive spot in open water, so the same should apply to hardwater.

There are lots of things you can do to increase your mobility and most of them have to do with tweaking your “system”. The first would be to eliminate the number of things you set on the ice when you setup. Each of these things serves as an anchor because they are things you need to pick up and pack away before you can move. The more of these anchors you have on the ice, the less likely you are to move. The second would be to lighten your load. If your gear is heavy and hard to drag from spot to spot, you’re much less likely to move. Audit your gear regularly to make sure you’re using everything you bring along.

If you find something amongst your gear that you aren’t using on a regular basis you should seriously think about leaving it behind on the next trip. Using a smaller 1-man Fish Trap instead of a larger shelter will also help to limit the amount of gear you bring as well. Being organized will also help you be more mobile. Having a place for everything and everything in its place will reduce the amount of time it takes you to pack up before you move, enabling you to move more easily. Being organized also makes it much easier to find exactly the jig you need or the exact rod you’re looking for in a moment’s notice.

Time on the Ice
Even with all the things I’ve already mentioned, none of it does any good without putting your time in on the ice. After all, practice makes perfect! The more time you have on the ice, the more conditions and scenarios you get to experience, all of which you can draw upon down the road. Simply put, the more time you spend on the ice, the bigger your bag of tricks. More time on the ice also means you have more time to do all of the things I’ve presented; more time to practice reading lake maps, more time to work on being mobile, more time to sight fish, more time to fish with plastics…the list goes on and on! Even if you can’t do anything else I’ve mentioned above, putting time in on the ice will make you a better ice angler…throwing those other things into the mix will only accelerate the process.