Different Strokes for All Folks
By Rod Woten
I am a huge proponent of tournament ice angling. Much like any other competitive sport, tournament ice anglers are constantly looking for an advantage over their competition. This relentless drive often leads to innovative new products, outside-the-box-patterns and torture-testing of longstanding equipment and patterns. Tournament ice angling is also one of the best ways to become a better ice angler. Learning to unlock a lake’s secrets in only a few days of pre-fishing will improve anyone’s ice angling success. Being able to share, or observe, tricks and tactics with other competitors will also broaden your ice fishing horizons. I think this exchange of information is one of my favorite parts of tournament ice angling. I get to interact with anglers from nearby regions such as The Dakotas, Minnesota, Illinois and Wisconsin and the Sandhill region of Nebraska and from further flung locations in New England, Michigan and Indiana. The really great part about being able to exchange information with and observe anglers from these other regions is that many have techniques, unique to their region, they use to catch fish through the ice. Being able to add bits and pieces of these other techniques have definitely allowed me to have a larger bag of tricks and employ tactics that may better fit any given situation in which I may find myself.
Many Iowans are familiar with the technique called sight fishing. This is largely in part because we have the privilege of having only one of three “blue water” lakes in the world right within our borders. Because they are fed by subterranean springs rather than surface runoff blue water lakes are known for their crystal clear waters…often referred to as “gin clear”. West Lake Okokboji in Northwest Iowa, along with Lake Louise in Banff, Canada and Lake Geneva in Switzerland are the only three blue water lakes in the world, and it is on Okoboji’s gin clear waters that many Iowa ice anglers cut their sight fishing teeth.
Sight fishing, as the name suggests, relies on sight to detect the bite. Basically, sight fishing involves looking straight down the hole while in a darkened fish house. This allows the angler to watch the entire presentation—jig, fish, bite and hookset—much as if fishing in an aquarium. A few pieces of equipment essential to this technique are the darkened fish house because without a dark background, the show below the ice is almost impossible to see, and short ice fishing rods – typically around 12 to 14 inches. The short rods allow the angler to sit directly over the hole, and look down while jigging. Sight fishing is not without its challenges. Because of the ultra clear environment the fish live in, they are often highly educated about what they should and shouldn’t eat, so anything less than a perfect presentation will be refused. The angler must also be very careful not to alert the fish of their presence above. Bright colors, reflected light or sudden movements can all tip off a bluegill that has spent its life swimming in gin clear waters that a quick retreat is in order. While Iowa is known for having some of the best sight anglers in the sport, Michigan also sports enough sight-fishable lakes to gain a reputation as a hot bed of sight fishing experts.
This technique is reputed to have been born in Michigan and most of the best tightliners in the industry still hail from there. Tightlining involves watching the line just below where it enters the water for any type of irregular movement or slack being created in the line. Irregular movement typically indicates some type of an aggressive or downward bite, while slack indicates an “up” bite, which is typically a fish taking the bait and moving towards the angler rather than away. More often than not an up bite is a crappie.
The most essential piece of equipment for the tightlining technique is a high visibility line. Hi-viz line is what makes it possible to monitor any changes in the first few inches of the line where it enters the water. Historically the line of choice has been gold Stren because that was really the only colored line available during the infancy of tightlining. The “Michigan Rig” is a very popular way among tightliners to setup their presentation. Many bass anglers might consider a Michigan Rig as a type of drop-shotting setup, and with good reason. The Michigan Rig consists of an ice jig tied to the end of the main line and a small fly tied to a tag of line a foot or 2 above the jig. The jig serves as an anchor for the presentation and creates the tautness in the line that enables bite detection by the angler above. The fly above creates a weightless presentation that panfish usually can’t resist. Any bites on the fly are immediately detected up above as well as any bites on the heavier jig below. Tightlining does take some practice, but it can be a deadly technique for bringing panfish topside, and it is truly an experience to watch a master tightliner in action!
Illinois and Indiana as well as parts of Wisconsin are fairly well known for their long rodding ice anglers. Long rodding, as the name suggests, uses a long fishing rod. Compared to an open water rod, these rods look to be about the same length, but compared to your typical 20” to 32” ice fishing rod, they are much longer. Long rods for ice fishing often have a line through the blank design and a simple spool with a handle to hold line. This “reel” is kept simple for a reason, when long rodding you never actually reel line in, or pay line out, for that matter; the reel is only a place to store line. Long rods also typically have a spring bobber at the end for bit detection.
Long rodding is best suited to shallow water applications. The angler will pay out enough line to fish at the desired depth. They will then move from hole to hole, lowering the jig into the hole by lowering the rod. If the spring bobber indicates a bite, the long rodder raises the rod to set the hook and then lifts the rod to raise the fish from the hole and continues to raise the rod until the fish swings into their waiting hand. Long rodders often use barbless hooks so that unhooking the fish is one quick fluid motion. Once the fish is unhooked, they lower their arm to swing the jig back into the hole and try to entice another fish to bite. All of this takes place several feet from the hole.
Obviously, long rodding is a quick way to fish lots of holes and cover lots of water because all of the reeling and un-reeling is eliminated, but that’s not even the true advantage of long rodding. The long rod enables you to fish shallow without being right on top of them. This means you aren’t casting any shadows or making any overhead noise that might scare fish off or dissuade them from biting.
At the opposite end of the spectrum from long rods are palm rods. They come to us from our ice fishing brethren in Eastern Europe, Russia and Scandinavian countries and are specifically designed for the way they fish and the fish they pursue. The species that are used for tournament fishing in these countries are usually quite small by American standards, typically being the size of American bait fish, so they are not ideally suited to predator species such as pike or walleye. In skilled hands, however, decent sized pike and zander (walleye’s European cousins) are landed on a regular basis with palm rods by our overseas counterparts.
Palm rods are typically fairly short glass or plastic rods mated to a small spool that fits in the palm of your hand. They almost always are tipped by a highly sensitive spring bobber. Where the palm rod really shines in North America is for highly negative or very lethargic fish. With a palm rod, an angler can super-downsize their presentation but still have ultimate control and sensitivity. Simply tracing small ovals in the air with the tip of the palm rod imparts the perfect slowly undulating swimming motion to even the tiniest of jigs. Likewise, the ultra-sensitive spring bobber at the end will indicate even the lightest of bites.
Try Them All!
As you can see, each of these techniques has their strengths and weaknesses. They also have situations that they are ideally suited for. During tournaments, we may often use variations of one technique or the other or even combine techniques; palm rods lend themselves very well to sight fishing for example. Having all of these techniques in your bag of tricks will make you a more well-rounded ice angler by giving you specific strategies to match any angling situation you may come across.
Ice anglers are a creative lot, and tournament ice anglers are possibly even more so. Every tournament, I witness teams experimenting with new techniques for using underwater cameras, or introducing new technology like side-imaging. This type of innovation, whether it be with equipment or techniques is one of the reasons that I feel tournament fishing is a moving force behind the growth of the ice fishing industry. It’s also one of the main reasons I say that tournament angling is one of the best ways to become a better ice angler. Even if tournament angling isn’t your thing, you owe it to yourself to add some of these alternative techniques to your ice fishing bag-of-tricks. You don’t have to be from Iowa to be a good sight fisherman or from Michigan to be a good tightliner, but you can use the techniques that have come from these regions to improve your success on the ice!