Breaking It Down Under The Ice

By Rod Woten

Fishing a new lake through the ice for the very first time can be intimidating. While the layer of ice covering the lake gives us unrestricted access, it also makes it much more difficult to effectively eliminate unproductive water. Gone are the sunny summer days where we can just drift or troll around in our boats dragging crankbaits, crappie rigs or spinners until we contact fish. Notice that I said the ice makes it more difficult. What I did NOT say is that the ice makes it impossible. What separates good ice anglers from average ice anglers is their ability to minimize the damper that a layer of ice makes on their ability to efficiently cover water and find out where the greatest concentrations of fish are. If you can work a few of these techniques into your ice fishing strategy, you will realize much greater success on waters both new and familiar.

Ice Trolling
Ice trolling is the term often used by ice anglers that are highly mobile and cover lots of territory every time they’re on the ice. Run and gun is another term you hear often in ice fishing circles that means nearly the same thing. Regardless of the term you use, the concept is still the same…drill lots of holes and fish them quickly not stopping until concentrations of fish or the desired structures have been located. The goal, essentially, is emulate open water trolling as much as possible even though there is a sheet of ice covering the lake.

Another way to think of it is to consider each hole you drill as the equivalent to a “cast” during open water. If you cast to a spot and don’t get any bites there during the summer, would you continue to cast there all day? Of course, you wouldn’t. The same principle applies to the holes you drill. If you fish a hole that shows no signs of fish, do you stay there all day and continue to fish that unproductive column of water? Absolutely not! You would “cast” to a different spot, which in this case means drilling a new hole in a different spot and checking for fish there. The main thing to keep in mind is that you want to spend as little time possibly fishing non-productive water and maximize your time fishing productive water.

This begs the question, how long do you fish any given hole until it can be determined as non-productive water? The short answer is, it depends. Let’s say I’m fishing for roaming perch or the impending walleye bite that ramps up as afternoon turns into twilight. In that case I’m likely to stay a bit longer…especially if I’m sitting on top of sure-fire walleye or perch structure and I know it’s only a matter of time before they wander through. If I’m probing weed beds for hungry bluegills or covering vast basin areas for suspended crappies, I sometimes won’t even stop to drop a line until I mark a fish with my electronics. Generally speaking, I start to get restless if I haven’t gotten a bite in any given hole in about 5 minutes.

Seasonal Movements
Another thing that will help you locate fish under the ice at any time of the winter, whether familiar water or new water, is to consider the seasonal movements that fish make throughout the winter. Generally speaking, most fish will follow a shallow-deep-shallow progression throughout the winter. Knowing WHY they follow these patterns can give you great insight as far as what types of structure or conditions the fish are looking for when they move. Typically, fish are shallow when the lakes first ice up. The weeds under the ice are still lush and green, they contain high concentrations of forage, and are busy taking carbon dioxide out of the water and turning it into life-sustaining oxygen. By midwinter, the lack of sunlight to these aquatic plants has them either dead or dying. This means the forage is disappearing as it loses the hiding places that live vegetation provided it. This also means that the predator fish are moving to other areas for forage. The other complicating factor is that as these weeds decompose, they consume oxygen which provide forage and predators yet another reason to vacate the shallows in search of more hospitable conditions. For most fish, this means moving to deeper water. Bluegills and perch will often move to soft bottom areas to hide below the sight line of roaming predators and feed on burrowing aquatic insects. Sometimes crappies will join them, but crappies are well known for suspending over some of the deepest water of the lake. Here they can just hang out, relatively safe from predators and take advantage of any baitfish or insects in the water column. As spring approaches, melt water runoff will begin to trickle into the shallow areas that the fish inhabited at early ice. The shallow bottom will also hold heat from sunlight and warm up much faster than adjacent deeper water. This jumpstarts plant life and aquatic insect activity in these shallow areas. It also injects new oxygen into these areas. The fish are well aware of this and as they wake from their mid-winter near suspended-animation state to realize they are famished, and they migrate towards the shallows to feast and breathe fresh oxygenated water.

Read A Map
One of the best ways to find out where fish may be under the ice is to learn to read a lake map. If you can couple what you know about the inter-seasonal and intra-seasonal movements of fish with a lake map, you can narrow down likely fish in a concentrating structure. Understanding the information contained in a lake map will also serve to make your ice trolling MUCH more efficient. The lake map will enable you to drill significantly fewer holes, because it shows you where the critical structure is that should be the focus of your drilling efforts. Without a lake map you spend more time looking for the structure which puts a big dent in the time you can spend actually looking for the fish. If you can learn to identify a handful of structure type on a lake map, you will drastically reduce the time it takes to locate fish on waters that are new to you or waters you are more familiar with, but the fish just aren’t where they usually are.

Pinch points – Pinch points are one of the easiest features to pick out on a lake map due to the tell-tale hourglass shape of the contour lines that define them. They are also often referred to as funnels or neck down areas. Pinch points are great places to fish because as fish approach them, they have no choice but to travel right through the throat of the funnel, which concentrates fish and makes finding large quantities of them a slam-dunk. Deer hunters often look for pinch points for exactly the same reason; the shape of the funnel forces everything passing through to take a specific and predictable path.

Inside corners – Inside corners, like pinch points concentrate fish and forces them to take a specific, predictable path because it limits the options for their travel. Inside corners are easy to identify because they look like a curve in the contour lines. Sometimes it’s a nice 90 degree bend and sometimes it’s only a slight bend. In either case, inside corners concentrate fish because any fish traveling along the contour leading into the corner will have to make a decision as to what to do when it gets to the corner….follow the bend, stop and hang out or turn around and go back. More often than not, the fish will simply pause and spend some time there. Because there’s safety in numbers, once fish start to accumulate there, it will only continue to draw in other fish.

Weed beds and mud flats – Almost every ice angler worth their salt knows that weed beds can be gold mines when it comes to fish activity, especially if you can find lively green weeds late in the season. Almost everything that swims will hang out in weeds at some point during the ice season….bluegills, perch, crappie, walleye, largemouth, smallmouth, pike, musky….you name it! While we can’t specifically look for weeds on a lake map, we do know what kind of features weeds like to grow on, so if we can find those features, there’s a pretty good chance that we’ve found the weeds as well. If you’ve been paying attention when you have found weed beds before, you would have noticed that the places that weeds like to grow are almost always flat. On a lake map, flat areas appear as places where the contour lines are far apart. The further apart these lines are, the flatter the bottom is. If you scan the lake map and look for “bulges” in the contour lines you’re well on your way to identifying potential weed beds. There is another variable to the equation, however. Water clarity plays a big part in the maximum depth that weeds can grow in any given lake. The clearer the water is, the deeper the weeds can grow. If you know the water has about 6-foot visibility and you can identify some of those bulges that are around the six foot depth contours, there’s a REALLY good chance that there’s a fish-holding weed bed in that area. So, how do the mud flats factor into all this, you may ask? Well, any of those bulges you find that are deeper than the water clarity for that lake will probably be devoid of weeds but could be a dandy mud flat. Mud flats are important because often they harbor burrowing aquatic insects, and that’s the fish version of a Golden Corral Buffet! When I’m looking for perch or bluegills in mid or late winter, these are the kinds of spots I seek out. Often times you can find crappies right in the mix as well, either suspended off the bottom or right on the bottom with the bluegills.

Drop offs and “sticky bottom” areas – If you’re lucky enough to find two bulges in the contour lines with a series of contour lines between them that are very close together, then you’ve just hit the mother load. Those lines that are very close are indicating a steep drop-off and the bulge below that is very likely a “sticky bottom” area. These areas are so named because of the tendency for your bait to momentarily “stick” in the bottom if you drop it straight down. The bottom in these areas is the result of the sediment that falls down the drop-off over the years and accumulate in the flat below. This material is the perfect consistency for burrowing insects; just firm enough that their tunnels won’t collapse and not so firm that it’s too hard for them to burrow. These kinds of spots make them their first choice for panfish in mid and late winter after the weeds have died off and the fish move to deeper water. Of course, anywhere the panfish go, the predators…pike, musky, bass and walleye…will follow.

Practice Makes Perfect
Being able to figure out where fish are under the ice at any given time of the year is definitely a skill. It’s a skill that will yield great rewards on waters new to you, but also make you a better angler on your favorite lakes. Like any skill, the more you practice the better you become. It can be frustrating at first to look at a lake map, develop some theories as to where the fish are and then try to find them once you’re at the lake. Don’t let that discourage you, however. Sooner or later you will start to get it right, and you will build on that success. Over time you will find yourself getting it right more often. Just like any other skill it’s a learning experience…you get better by making mistakes, realizing those mistakes and doing it differently the next time. Now get out there and find those fish!