Anglers throughout Iowa keep a keen eye on the calendar each year, especially those anglers affectionately known as “ice heads”. Iowa’s average temperatures begin to dip in October and continue the downward trend throughout the month. Halloween paves the way for November to roll in and Thanksgiving is not far off. Fishing threads and social media posts will soon follow with the question…”any fishable ice out there yet”?

As any ice angler knows, safety on the ice is paramount. Early ice anglers are always asking about safe ice, where and how thick. Truth is, there is no “safe ice”. As temperatures cool and ponds and lakes begin to ice over, thickness can vary. Use a spud bar as you walk out on to the ice, testing the surface. Strike the ice firmly with a spud bar twice in the same location, and if the integrity of the ice remains solid, you’re safe to step to that location. Also never go alone, wear a PFD, and take a length of sturdy rope that can be used to help pull your fishing partner to safety. Let someone know where you are fishing and when you are expected to return. It’s always better to error on the side of caution than not.

Ponds and small lakes will typically be your first ice fishing spots. “I’ve always said that Iowa has more ponds than Minnesota has lakes”, said Dave Genz, also known as “Mr. Ice Fishing” and credited for leading anglers into the modern era of ice fishing. “My favorite place to start when ponds have fishable ice is where the overflow runs out, take about 30 paces into the pond away from the overflow and you’ll find the deepest part of the pond. That’s where you’ll find most of your fish.”

Using your electronics during first ice is a great way to find groups of fish or structure. If the ice is clear enough you can pour a small amount of water on the ice, placing the transducer in the water, turn on your sonar unit and shoot through the ice. You’ll find fish a lot quicker and won’t have to drill as many holes. “If you have to drill some holes, don’t waste time fishing an area where you don’t see fish. Keep moving till you find them and then send your jigs down”, continued Genz.

“Typically early ice panfish are going to be shallow”, said owner and guide of ColdWater Guide Service Rod Woten. “As long as there are green weeds, that’s where I will start searching for first ice crappies and gills.” Bluegills more than likely have been migrating toward shallower water since the dog days of summer came to an end. Cooler water with good shallow weed beds are tolerable for bluegills. “Right before ice up, they should be there en masse”, continued Woten. “Crappie prefer water a bit cooler than bluegills but will soon follow as temperatures begin to drop.”

Along with the weed beds, especially if you’re looking for crappie, look for a feature with an inside turn of a hook or bend, adds Genz. The fish are looking for cover and forage, first ice is the best chance you have at finding standing weeds with active fish.

“One thing that I like to do is to find these areas that have good weed beds and underwater features like a drop off, bend or hook while fishing with my boat”, noted Genz. “It’s a lot easier to find them while you’re out in a boat than when you’re walking along the ice”. Some fishfinders, like the Humminbird 385ci also have ice fishing modes and have optional transducers. Equipped with GPS and a Lakemaster or Navionics chart, you can locate and mark good active weed beds and features creating waypoint for use on the ice.

If you haven’t already highlighted or pinned this point here it is again, one of the best places to fish during the hardwater season is around and on submerged weed beds. These weed beds are literally a dinner table for forage and predators in the winter. Submerged weed beds are full of aquatic insect life and hold prime forage for minnow, crappie, bluegill and perch. “Shallow weed beds are my “A” number one spot for hardwater gills”, said Woten. “If we have a winter with little snow and we don’t have a significant die off of the weeds, bluegill will probably stay in the same weed bed all winter”.

Crappie will also be right there with the bluegills however they like to have easy access to deeper water. This is where scouting during open water conditions can improve first ice success. Find a good weed bed that is located next to a sharp break that falls in to deeper water and mark it.
“Shallow is a relative term and depends on the clarity of the water”, continued Woten. “For ultra-clear water like West Okoboji, shallow can be as deep as 20 feet.” Lakes with darker stained water you may be fishing in 6 feet or less. Like all plant life, weeds need sun to grow and water clarity will dictate how deep these plants will grow, and in turn will also dictate where you’ll find your fish.

For crappie and bluegill light line, medium light to ultra light rod and reel combinations and small jigs are going to be the preferred method of chasing after these fish. Short 26 to 28 inch ice rods will do the job very well. Rods such as the Wright & McGill ® Tony Roach Power Ice Panfish Rod come with a balanced blank and a very soft sensitive tip. Early ice can be phenomenal at times and fish can be aggressive. Cold fronts will shut these fish down however, and a rod with a sensitive tip that allows you to see the take is essential. Line in the 2 to 6 pound range will work. However, most ice anglers will max out at 4 pounds.

Replacing existing fishing line will help with line twist as well as line memory. “You don’t have to replace 100 yards of line, simply pull off the first 50-60 feet of line and replace that”, advises Genz. Another trick to ridding spools of line memory is to run them under hot water. This will “soften” the line and reduce coiling as you deploy your baits to waiting fish below the ice.

A recent trend in ice fishing and one that will improve your chances for shy fish is the use of level wind reels. Clam Outdoors improved on the level wind reel a bit with the Genz 200 Ice Spooler Reel. “These are great reels, especially for sight fisherman”, noted Genz. “This reel was really designed with West Okoboji Lakes finicky bluegills in mind.” This reel has a longer reel foot allowing an angler to get a more efficient grip and detecting bites more effectively. “Anglers fishing with a Vexilar will see fish coming in and typically raise their rods so fish will chase after and take the bait”, continued Genz. “When you’re sight fishing, a big West Okoboji gill will approach your bait, and as he does you’ll slow the jigging down and stop just before he takes it. Any spinning induced by line twist spells disaster for that type of fishing”.

Early ice panfish are still trying to bulk up for winter, so they are HUNGRY!  Use small jigging spoons tipped with maggots or small hard baits like Chubby Darters or Psycho Shads for the crappies…especially if they’re in that deeper water.  “I will also catch bluegills on the same jigging spoon rig that I’m using for crappies, but my go to bluegill bait is a mid-sized tungsten jig with a micro-plastic threaded on like a Jamei from Maki Plastic or a Nuggie from Little Atom”, noted Woten.

“I love to fish with “spikes” or “maggots”, especially the colored ones and I use them in conjunction with a new jig that I developed called the “Drop-Kick”, which was designed to be the perfect cadence jig”, said Genz. It’s a tungsten jig, which helps catch more fish because of the weight. It aids in straightening out the line improving strike detection. Genz pairs this jig with a 26 inch light action Dave Genz Legacy Series Rod. “This is a great rod, developed over several years and allows anglers to “feel the lure”, he said.

Edges are just as important for ice anglers as they are for deer hunters. Find a good edge and you’ll find a concentration or a heavily used corridor. “For weed beds I like to look for openings within the bed as well as the edge of the bed itself”, said Woten. “Especially, if there is an edge adjacent to deeper water.” Other edges to consider are those with a “sticky bottom”; areas where the base of a break meets a mud flat. Transitions from bottom content to sand, mud to clay, sand to mud, and sometimes the edge can even be a shadow giving way to sunlight. “These kinds of things can be paramount all season long, so don’t over look them” concluded Woten.
Remember… check the ice before venturing out, keep a throw rope or a floatation device handy and stay safe.
Tight Lines!