Ice Fishing The Unknown: Exploring New Ice

By Nick Johnson

As ice fisherman we all love the thrill of ice fishing new waters. It might be a new body of water never fished or perhaps a stretch of uncharted water on something you have already explored. When success is had in this instance the sheer feeling of accomplishment is worth all of the work and preparation that went into it.

Fishing new waters can be a little bit intimidating to say the least. Often times you are going on tidbits of information and may not have all of the tools to make the job easier. I have had many instances where I wound up scratching my head carrying out an empty bucket, but I have also found great success. With the ice season upon us once again I would like to outline a few tricks that have helped me in the past to catch fish on new bodies of water.

The Internet Is Your Friend
Before I go explore a new lake or pond I always spend a little time browsing the internet to see what I am getting into before investing in gas, bait and supplies. One tool that has been invaluable to me is the fisheries and fishing page of the Iowa DNR website. Many of the lakes around the state have sampling data from fisheries research that shows what species are predominantly found in a specific body of water and the size classes of each species. Now this isn’t necessarily gospel but it gives a good indication to what the lake can produce.

Aside from sampling data there is often a topo map of the lake that shows depth contour and sometimes fishing structure that has been placed. A map and an idea of what lurks beneath the ice are the first two things I look at.

The second would be to explore Google and forums such as to see what if anything is biting. Don’t expect to get exact spots from people but do expect to get at least some insight into what if anything is biting. I’ll often get advice such as what depth are the crappies biting at and I can take that knowledge and run with it. A Google search such as” ice fishing crappies in Iowa” or “ice fishing Perch at Spirit Lake” will also bring up old topics from forums and other sites that may give some clues to further pin down your plan of attack.

Furthermore if you have Facebook, join the group called Heartland Icemen. There are a lot of posts from ice fishermen every day who share pics and knowledge around fishing Iowa and the immediate bordering states. As any forum or web shared page goes, be respectful and share knowledge just as much as you receive. You may be surprised to find new fishing buddies and info shared from common courtesy.

Call A Bait Shop
If I have a lake in mind that looks promising I will then look to see if there is a sporting goods store or bait shop in the nearby area. It may not be in the closest town but generally one in the vicinity will have some information. I have often found that bait shops will give out more info than you can find online. After all, they are in business to make money and if the fish are biting they are usually willing to help give you a head start.

You may also gather information such as what time of day the bite is most prevalent. If you are after a target species this may also eliminate unnecessary fishing during down periods. I can think of one instance where I encountered such an event. My wife and I went up to Clear Lake to try our hand at some Yellow Bass fishing. The bait shop had told us that the hot bite was late in the day just before sunset and in eight to ten foot of water off of a few breaks and points. We had nothing planned that day and decided to go up early just to get out. We caught maybe three fish in the first two hours and then the last hour before sunset the bite exploded and we filled half a bucket.

Not everyone has access to a GPS but if you do it can be an incredible tool for ice fishing, especially one compatible with a Lake Master chip. It doesn’t take anything fancy and most handheld units work just fine. Lowrance has a unit called the iFinder H2O that takes Lake Master chips and can be picked up for a reasonable price. We have one at my grandparent’s cabin in Minnesota and it has proven invaluable on numerous occasions trying to find specific spots.

For those that are real serious and utilize an ATV, snowmobile or UTV, there are mounts out there that you can hook up larger GPS units to that let you find locations on the fly. The investment here is obviously more expensive but there is nothing that will compare.
Furthermore there are now Lake Master apps for your smartphone that you can purchase for mere change compared to a GPS unit. If you go to the app store on your phone just search LakeMaster. Last I saw you could purchase the app for your state for $10. The only drawback to this is relying on phone battery life and cell service. They work well in many applications but aren’t quite as precise as a true GPS unit.

Be Mobile
One tactic that I employ virtually every time I fish a new body of water is to drill a lot of holes and cover some ground, that is, if I am not finding fish right off the get-go. Unless the weather is nasty out I generally spend less than five to ten minutes at a given spot. I am looking for the active fish. This is where a flasher also comes into play to help with seeing fish, if there are fish even present, what depth they are at and observing their mood. Aside from a flasher, a power auger really comes in handy and saves a lot of work also.

Sometimes being mobile will help you follow a school of fish and stay on them if you are lucky enough to drill holes in the right pattern. I have had this happen twice in my life where a school of big bluegill were circling a weed edge in about a fifty yard area. After catching one or two fish the flasher would be bare and I would move ten or so yards down the edge to the next hole. Pretty soon the school would show up and I would catch one or two more bluegill, on to the next hole, you get the idea.

No Information
Occasionally there is a case where no information can be had about the depth, quality or location of fishing in a particular body of water. When this happen, I rely heavily on being mobile and fishing aggressively until I locate a specific depth, pattern and location fish are present. Look at the lake and how the shoreline features interact with the water. Are there points? Is there timber? Are the banks steep leading to believe a sharp drop in water depth? This guessing game is more so found on ponds and small lakes in the state without a topo map. The fishing may have awesome potential but you will need to put in some time to figure it out.

Don’t be afraid to spend only a few minutes at each hole. Start at the bottom and slowly work to a foot or two up, then onto the next spot. Many times when fishing waters like this and drilling a ton of holes I will stumble upon a piece of structure by luck such as submerged tree or rock pile. It pays to drill a lot of holes until fish are found.

Iowa is full of ice fishing opportunities for those that are willing to put a few miles on the vehicle and spend some time on the ice. There are thousands of farm ponds around the state and plenty of public waters to explore. Some bodies of water offer unique experiences for Iowa anglers such as Rainbow Trout and jumbo Perch. Do some homework and spend some time on the internet before your next adventure and try something new. That is the beauty of ice fishing, the adventure makes it fun! Good luck on the ice.