Ice Fishing Scenarios
By Nick Johnson
It’s easy to think of life below the ice as a cold, stoic environment, unchanged by the outside world. Creatures living life at a slower pace, biding their time until the spring thaw comes. While some of this is true, and maybe even more true for certain species, the general notion is quite false. In fact, life under the ice for many fish species is dynamic and constantly evolving. Where you find fish one week may change at the snap of a finger the next. There are so many variables that influence winter fish patterns including forage patterns, weather, fishing pressure and spawning preparation just to name a few of the heavy hitters.
These types of influences are most often observed in lakes and larger bodies of water; however, ponds still experience changes throughout the ice season, most notably weather related. The topic of discussing ice fishing scenarios is pretty open ended because of the differences in the species being targeting and how they interact with the environment at hand. Let’s take a dive into some topics to aid in the quest for icing more Iowa game fish.
The Three Seasons
I like to look at ice fishing in terms of three seasons, meaning early, mid and late ice. It can be tough to determine the exact timing of the transitions but in general terms, early ice runs from the start of freeze-up through about early January. Mid ice goes from this period through mid-February and late ice from there on out. Of course, this all depends on mother nature and without question, keeping safety in mind especially on the early and late portions.
Early ice in my opinion is a dynamite time for panfish and walleyes. Species like bluegill, bass, perch and even walleye can be found in shallower water relating to the edges and pockets of still green weed growth. The fish are in these areas to feed on baitfish and aquatic insects that also relate to the weed growth. You will also find crappie here along with fish holding deeper in basins. An underwater camera is a great tool for locating this vegetation and fish. One important thing to note for those who fish into late fall, the locations where you caught walleye, crappie or other species will often still hold those fish into early ice.
Mid ice has a reputation for being a little more difficult to locate and catch numbers of fish, notably in lakes and larger water bodies. As the vegetation dies off, fish previously relating to this kind of resource now move around a bit more and locate themselves deeper in many circumstances. I tend to fish more ponds this time of year and focus on the deepest section first and move around from there. In lakes, any type of main lake structure is worth a look. Deep breaks, the edges of humps, points, deeper inside bends, rock piles and sunken timber become focal points for many species. Crappies for instance become very basin oriented meaning they will relate near the deepest water in a given basin whether suspended or near the bottom. Lots of information out there on this topic so definitely do some digging.
Late ice in a sense mimics early ice to a slight degree. Certain species respond to this change by moving shallower again for various reasons. For species like bluegill, perch and even crappie, they move up to forage on minnows and aquatic insects. The larvae of certain aquatic insect species who spent the winter rooting around in the sediment begin to emerge which in turn draws in minnows and predatory species. Bigger predators like walleye, bass and pike will also capitalize on the smaller fish in response. In addition to the available forage, walleyes, pike and perch are also staring down their spawning season so they bulk up on food in preparation. Not all species will be shallow however so depending on the species, look for the first deep transitional location to shallow water or spawning habitat.
It’s no secret that weather affects fish in open water but it also greatly affects their behavior under ice. This was surprising to me when I learned this many years ago but it makes sense. The best fishing often occurs during periods of stable low-pressure weather leading into a front, and even during the frontal event. Where the fishing becomes tough is during those cold, bluebird high pressure days post front. This pattern cycles many times throughout the winter and it really pays to watch the forecast and barometer when planning a fishing trip. Even in ponds where the fishing may be excellent all season you will notice this change. Some of my absolute best days of ice fishing have occurred when mother nature is dishing out her worst. Don’t be afraid to fish during a snowstorm either! Something about this weather change triggers predatory fish to feed and become active.
Take for example any given day out ice fishing and when the most bites happen. Morning and evening, right? This is because predatory species are more successful at hunting prey in lower light conditions. Now translate this into weather fronts where the skies are gloomy or even falling snow and you capture a feeding window that may last for 24 hours or more.
We are blessed in Iowa with thousands of farm ponds but many of those are not accessible to the average angler. Unlike our neighboring states to the north, Iowa has a relatively small density of publicly accessible lakes and ponds to fish which can sometimes bring an added amount of pressure to those systems. Fish feel this pressure and locations that would normally be a hot spot for the given time of season get wiped out and force those fish to change their patterns or avoid popular angling tactics.
For whatever reason I generally cringe at the idea of fishing with the pack where you have a multitude of shacks positioned over a specific spot. Unless the spot is fresh I have not had great luck chasing the crowd in this regard. This added pressure and noise may push fish off a location so look for secondary options such as a bottom contour that either dips or rises 100-200 yards from the “pack”. Even a change as miniscule as a foot or two could be enough to congregate some of these fish. If there are no elevation rises or dips to pinpoint, look for the nearest inside or outside contour bend, possibly even a change in bottom composition such as mud to hard bottom and don’t hesitate to drill around until you find fish.
Another option here when fishing a pressured hot spot is to try something different from what local lore is saying about what fish are hitting on. This may be scaling back the presentation to a finesse option, or being more aggressive and pounding the bottom to elicit a strike. You can try these and see what works and you can also think outside the box and fish to the fish’s attitude. Think about what a group of fishermen leave behind. Dead minnows and minnow heads that sink to the bottom. Walleyes and other species are most certainly not afraid to capitalize on this food resource. Having a dead stick rod with a minnow head or live minnow on the bottom can be a deadly pattern to employ in a situation like this.
Unless you are fishing from a permanent ice house, it generally pays to be mobile in the quest to find fish. I usually hit the ice fully expecting to drill 20-50 holes in search of a good bite. Some days you strike gold right off the bat, other days it takes a grind to find the location of active fish. This generally is a good practice after the morning rush when the bite dies off and you are left empty handed for an hour or better. I don’t like to wait that long however, I’ll get up and move, using the Navionics lake map on my phone and start punching holes. Fish for 10-15 mins and if nothing comes in on the flasher I’m up and moving again. Look for transitions, isolated structure, anything that would draw fish in and concentrate them from an adjacent area.
Use A Camera
Not everyone may have space in their budget for an underwater camera but these days a basic handheld unit, which is all you need for scouting, is pretty affordable. I have used mine with great success locating weeds, bottom composition, edges and fish. It’s also a fun tool if you take the kids ice fishing for them to watch their lure and fish interact. When the fishing gets tough this tool can help monitor the attitudes of the fish coming by your strike zone. You will be able to notice subtle changes in their behavior in response to varying your presentation such as bouncing the bait off the bottom, dead sticking our changes in jigging cadence.
The overall subject of ice fishing scenarios is so broad and diverse and even changes from lake to lake so this topic could be discussed in grave detail in many directions. Keep a focus on the weather and changes of the season. Don’t be afraid to explore and drill lots of holes and use the tools you can afford along with local knowledge to your advantage. Think outside the box too! Good luck on the ice this season.