By Ben Leal
There’s nothing quite like getting out on the ice and finding yourself over a stack of fish after you’ve punched a hole through the ice. When this happens your confidence level skyrockets because you’ve just picked the spot! After what seems like an eternity all of the sudden the fish aren’t biting and your electronics are completely devoid of fish. And so you wait, an hour passes and you still see nothing. Peering out of the ice shack you notice that you are all alone in your neck of the ice and there is a small ice shack town a few hundred yards from your spot. One thing stands out to you though…there is a group of anglers that appear on the move. Not settling in on any given spot for too long.
So what are these guys up to and why are they moving so much? When I first started out ice fishing I asked myself the same question and more often than not, I’d sit and wait for the fish to come back to me. But, there is a true and tried method to their madness and we’re going to share that with you so you can be just as maddening in your method.
What’s Below The Ice
I have no doubt that most ice anglers are also open water anglers. With the advent of mapping systems and advanced electronics, we can decide where to fish and depending on the time of year when to fish. Mapping helps us see what’s below the water. Like any topographical map, it shows where the points are, river beds, drop-offs from shallow to deep water and it will tell you what the interval is so you can tell if it’s a steep drop or gradual. All this information is at our fingertips…in a boat.
Well, that has even changed for the ice angler. Most of us carry cell phones now and there are quite a few mapping apps that will give you the same information you have from your GPS unit on your boat. So fishing on the ice really is no different than fishing from your boat, well with the one obvious change, you’re standing on the ice above where you’d be fishing from your boat.
As we’re fishing from our boats we make decisions on where to fish based on the information the map is giving us and for that matter what the fish are doing or not doing. We move, change depths, find points and cast shallow to come deep. The key is moving…easily done with a trolling motor yes? What about when you’re standing on hardwater above that same spot? You do exactly the same thing…you move.
Drill More Holes
And how do you move while you on the ice…you drill more holes. “It’s not at all uncommon nowadays for ice anglers to drill 20, 30, 40 or more holes per day”, said Coldwater Guide Service and Ice Team Pro Rod Woten. “While drilling more holes is definitely where it’s at unless there is a rhyme or reason to where and why you’re drilling you may only be wasting fuel.” So let’s break down some common hole patterns that will help you increase your success out on the ice.
And just like the word implies this is a random pattern of drilling holes. “This is probably the most random-looking pattern, but it is a great way to cover huge expanses of water”, continues Woten. “As its name suggests, this pattern is scattered, but it is far from random since this pattern always targets a specific portion of a lake.” And in the same manner, you move in your boat from one location to another based on the mapping information before you, you can move around a specific point or area of a lake looking for active fish. This is a great method for midwinter crappies suspended over a basin or schools of roaming perch. “Spread the pattern out, maybe 20 to 30 yards apart, and don’t spend a lot of time fishing inactive holes. If the fish don’t show up on the electronics move on”, he added.
This is an organized version of the shotgun pattern. If you’ve dialed in on a school of fish or know a particular part of a lake that historically produces well, this pattern will allow you to fish a specific feature you’ve marked on your map. “When drilling a grid pattern, I will try to pre-determine the hole spacing in terms of the number of steps and then actually count those steps out when moving from one hole to the next”, advised Woten. If you’ve mapped these points from your boat during the warmer seasons, you’ll have a leg up, as well. Marking waypoints at key structures and spots that have produced for you in the past lets you drill holes on those points, as well as the surrounding area.
Figuring out where fish are suspending along a steep break line in some cases can be difficult to determine. There have been many occasions when I’ve been out on the ice and found fish, yet they move off just as quickly as I found them. Picking up and punching another hole just 5 feet from my last location, I’m 12 feet deeper. “The zig-zag pattern is the perfect choice when searching this type of structure because it allows you to check both sides of the break along its entire length”, added Woten. This will allow you to fish varying depths along the break line till you find where the fish are hanging out. “You can use your GPS system along with your ATV or snowmobile to “map” the break line as your drag your shelter along the feature. When you’re finished you’ll have a highly visible line above the break where you can start drilling.”
Along reefs, down a drop-off, or checking a flat, a wide zig-zag pattern of holes is smart. With this strategy, you’ll hit upon key features, like vegetation or sunken timber, which are ideal for holding fish.
This type of pattern starts at a specific point that you’ve marked with your GPS. The first hole is the fulcrum point. From there you’ll fan out in varying degrees and depths. This allows you to cover each side of the feature, get to the shallow of the spine, the deeper base and some basin water that might have suspended fish. You can also create a wheel pattern by completing the fan pattern. “When sitting on top of a mid-lake school of crappies or perch, sooner or later they will move on”, continues Woten. “Often times they are only moving at a walking speed, however, so it is possible to get out in front of them by drilling out from the hole you were originally catching them in a circular pattern.” Woten also noted that when fishing with others, he will often have them do some radial drilling as soon as a school is contacted in any given hole. This way they have holes that are ready to be fished immediately as soon as the school begins to move on.
Straight Line – Out and Back
If you’re like me there’s nothing quite like going out on a small body of water, especially one that doesn’t see a lot of fishing pressure and hooking into some of the trophy bluegills that often call these places home. In most cases you’re not going to have a GPS map of the lake or pond, so the best way to determine depth and the rate of change of that depth is to drill holes from the shoreline out to the middle of the water your fishing. “Let your findings direct your hole spacing”, advises Woten. “If you are not seeing much change in depth in the first few holes then widen your spacing. If the depth changes drastically from hole to hole a closer spacing would be appropriate.” One little nugget of advice he offers is that if there is snow on the ice you can write the depth of the lake next to the hole. By repeating this several times you’ll get a pretty good idea of what the topography is below the ice.
Drill… and Drill Again
Ice augers have come a long way since the old hand crank spoon augers to today’s modern gas and electric machines. You can spend an entire day out on the ice and move just as much as you would in your boat because you can drill…and drill again. Keep your blades sharp so they can cut through the ice quickly. Keep a cover on the auger as well to prevent accidents. If you’re using a gas auger, fill the auger on the shore prior to coming out on the ice and put an absorbent cloth down in the event you spill fuel. This help keep the fuel out of the lake and from leaching down into the groundwater. So now you have a method to your madness. Tight Lines All!