By Rod Woten
By now, any hardwater angler that is serious about catching fish knows that mobility is the key. Rather than sitting and waiting for fish to come to them, smart hardwater anglers know that they have to hunt the fish, much like a deer hunter might spot and stalk a trophy buck. Statistically speaking, the more water they can cover, the better their chances of finding fish.
This reasoning is exactly why we drag crankbaits or Lindy rigs behind our boats in the open water months. The more water we cover, the more fish we will likely find. Trolling has proven to be one of the deadliest tactics that we can employ, so wouldn’t it be great if we could troll through the ice just like we do in the spring summer and fall?
Well, believe it or not, there are some hardcore ice anglers doing exactly that; trolling through the ice. I’m speaking metaphorically, of course when I say that, but what they have done is taken mobility to the next level, becoming so efficient at covering water, that they are as close to open water trolling as they can come on a giant slab of ice. So what exactly are these folks doing that the rest of us mobile ice fisherman aren’t doing? How are they able to cover the ice so efficiently? It requires a specific mindset, a very select set of tools, and the desire to catch more fish than you’ve ever caught before. It’s definitely not a walk in the park. If your idea of a successful day on the ice is catching the ballgame in your hardside fish house as you polish off a 6 pack hoping you get a bite or two, then ice trolling probably isn’t the gig for you. Ice trolling can be a true workout! But, if you’re willing to put in the extra effort, you can definitely reap great rewards!
As I’ve already mentioned, ice trolling is not for the faint of heart or the weak of back. It can be very physically demanding, due to the large amount of hole drilling that can be involved, and the amount of walking that takes place. Often you’re standing and kneeling repeatedly as you move from hole to hole and fish each one. All of this up and down will have your calves and quadriceps very sore by day’s end. Because of this, you need to make a commitment, before you even hit the ice, that you will definitely be ice trolling that day. I often motivate myself by thinking how much more successful my day will be because of ice trolling. The thought of lots of big fish by the end of the day far outweighs the work I’ll have to go through to catch them. You also need to force yourself to keep moving until you find fish…and then to keep moving until you find bigger fish. Keep in mind that when you’re ice trolling you’re actually hunting the fish, and that will go far to keep you on track. The whole time I’m ice trolling, I try to make it the equivalent of trolling from my boat. Obviously it will never be exactly equal to open water trolling because there is more time involved in drilling holes, but the whole time I’m out there I try to make it as close to open water trolling as I can. If you keep that mindset, you’ll be amazed at how much more ice you will cover and how much more successful you’ll be.
Time to make the cheese…Swiss, that is.
The biggest barrier that keeps ice-trolling from being the exact equivalent of open water trolling is the ice itself. The more holes we can put in that sheet of ice that covers the lake, the closer we come to true open water trolling. It stands to reason then that we need to be able to drill LOTS of holes. This makes your choice of auger perhaps the most critical equipment selection you can make for ice trolling. Since you’ll be walking from hole to hole, drilling and then repeating the whole process all day long, the lighter your auger is, the better your trolling will be. Even if you can save 5 pounds of auger weight, by the time you’ve drilled 100 or 150 holes, you’ve lifted 500 to 750 pounds less than you would have with the heavier auger!!! A fast auger is also very crucial to successful ice trolling. Even if you can save 1 second per hole, by the time you’ve drilled 150 holes, you’ve saved almost 2-1/2 minutes! Often times, when we’re ice trolling we don’t even spend that much time on 1 hole, so that fact that you just eliminated 2-1/2 minutes from your drilling time is HUGE. Needless to say, even if you have the fastest auger on the planet, it will definitely slow down if the blades are dull, so be sure to always keep the blades razor sharp.
Dressing for Ice Trolling
If the auger is the most important piece of equipment for ice trolling, then the clothing you wear is the second most important, in my opinion. When we’re ice trolling, we are usually moving so quickly that we never have time to use a shelter. Even the smallest & lightest of portable shelters slow down our ice trolling too much. Quality outerwear made specifically for ice fishing today makes fishing without the use of a portable shelter very feasible. I have fished in temperatures down to 30 below wearing one of these high-tech suits…a feat which would not have been possible 6 or 7 years ago. Granted, I was not as comfortable or cozy as I would have been inside my Fish Trap with the heater blazing, but I was able to keep moving and locate a lot more fish because I was wearing my shelter instead of dragging it around behind me.
Electronics are the third element in this trinity of ice trolling. Without our eyes below the surface, we are simply wandering aimlessly on a sheet of ice, drilling lots of holes. Once we’ve opened up our “trolling lanes” with our augers, our electronics help us to determine which holes we spend the time to fish and which ones aren’t even worth dropping a line through. It’s not uncommon for me to check 6, 7, 8 even 10 or more holes with my flasher before I find one that looks “fishy” enough for me to stop and spend some time fishing it. Flashers/electronics are only the 3rd most important in this equation called ice trolling, because you can still ice troll without them. The process becomes much slower though, because without them we have to stop and fish EVERY hole. A good flasher allows us to eliminate unproductive water more quickly, so we only spend time fishing the water that DOES contain the fish. Although I rank them 3rd in importance, electronics are only slightly less important than the first 2 elements because there’s no point in being able to drill lots of holes quickly and move effortlessly because we’re dressed properly and have no need to drag along a shelter if we have to slow down and fish every hole we drill.
Flashers also reduce the time it takes us to dial in our presentation. They show us exactly what depth the fish are at, so we don’t have to spend time fishing the entire water column to determine fish depth. Any time we can eliminate trial and error, we are saving time and coming closer to true trolling. Our flashers also allow us to gauge how the fish react to different styles & sizes of jigs, as well as various jigging cadences and color choices. Again, this reduces the amount of trial and error because we see the reaction from the fish immediately and can fine tune our presentation accordingly.
Underwater cameras can do a lot of the same things as a flasher can with the added advantage of being able to see fish or structure off to the sides of the hole. This kind of information may help to determine the direction we drill new holes. That being said, given the choice between a flasher and a camera, I’ll take the flasher every time. Cameras definitely do, however, have some practical applications for ice trolling.
GPS and lake map chips definitely have a place in ice trolling, too. Using them we can direct our hole drilling. For example, if we’re focusing on basin areas of perch or suspended crappies, a quick glance at our GPS can ensure we’re drilling in the right areas, and indicate other similar areas we might want to try.
Ice Trolling in Action!!!
So we’ve got the mindset, we’re properly dressed and we have all the necessary equipment. Exactly HOW do we go about ice trolling? How is it different from just being mobile? What exactly does ice trolling LOOK like? First and foremost, the biggest difference between just being mobile and ice trolling is that with ice trolling, we are trying to mimic open water trolling as close as we possibly can. Basically, it’s taking what the average “mobile fisherman” does and speeding it up. Ice trolling has a much greater sense of urgency. The goal is to eliminate as much water as possible as quickly as possible, only pausing when we know a fish is present.
Ice trolling also involves drilling a lot more holes. With ice trolling, hole placement can be much more haphazard than what many of us are used to. Sure we’re fishing the same structures….drop-offs, basin areas, weed beds, etc….but we start by just putting our heads down and covering the area with holes, covering football field sized expanses of ice with holes. We’ll often start our hole spacing out at 10, 15, 20 or even 30 feet or more apart, reducing that spacing once we find concentrations of fish or “spot on the spot” type of structure.
Once a nice grouping of holes is drilled, it’s time to start checking the holes for fish. I often move from hole to hole at a very brisk walk. My flasher is set so that a slight lowering of my arm is all it takes to put the transducer in the hole and look for marks that indicate fish directly below me. I only pause at any given hole long enough for the transducer to stabilize in the hole and my flasher to tell me if a fish is down there. If no fish are indicated, I am immediately moving to the next hole. This takes only seconds per hole to tell if it’s worth fishing and allows me to eliminate vast expanses of water in a very short time. As we continue checking holes and catching fish, areas that seem to have higher concentrations of fish will get more holes drilled…sometimes reducing hole spacing to as little a 3 feet. If, and when, the bite starts to slow in these concentrated areas, we again return to checking our more widely spaced holes, reducing the spacing of our hole pattern, once again, as the we find more fish. Sometime we have to cover fairly vast expanses before we condense in on an area and start drilling more holes in it. As we eventually fish all of the holes in our larger hole pattern, it’s time to start drilling more. Putting together what our GPS is showing us, what we’ve observed with the fish we’ve caught, and what we’ve seen on our underwater cameras and flashers, we may swing a new direction, or we may just continue on in our original direction. The key is to never stop moving, and don’t settle for holes that don’t contain fish.
If we could only drift around the lake in the winter, trolling effortlessly for fish, like we do during the open water months. Imagine how successful we could all be as ice anglers. While we’ll never exactly match open water trolling during the winter, constantly trying to come as close to that as possible will go a long ways towards increasing your ice fishing success. The hardest parts of the whole technique is keeping the proper mindset by making the commitment to keep moving, rather than settling in and getting comfy. It’s definitely more work, but the increased chances for success make it all worth it. So what are you waiting for? Get out there, fire up that auger and start drilling! I’ll see you on the ice.