Method to the Madness: Drilling Patterns for Successful Ice Anglers

By Rod Woten

Ice augers have come a long way in the past 20 years. From the old hand-crank spoon augers to today’s lightweight ice eating machines, making holes in the ice has continued to get easier and easier. Along with that progression, the way ice anglers are able to fish has also evolved. From fishing the same hole all day long because it was so much work to make that one hole, to being able to run and gun today because drilling multiple holes is not only easy, but it’s fun too! Ice drilling has come so far, in fact, that anglers now equate each new hole drilled to a cast during the open water months. It’s not at all uncommon nowadays for ice anglers to drill 20, 30, 40 or more holes per day. While drilling more holes is definitely where it’s at, unless there is a rhyme or reason to where and why you’re drilling you may only be wasting fuel. Smart anglers target their drilling to the situation they’re fishing by utilizing different drilling patterns. While some of these patterns may simply look like randomly drilled holes to the casual observer, there is definitely a method to the madness.

Shotgun
This is probably the most random-looking pattern, but it is a great way to cover huge expanses of water. As its name suggests, this pattern is scattered, but it is far from random since this pattern always targets a specific portion of a lake. Typically it is used to search for schooling fish that roam large main-lake basin areas. Two perfect examples would be midwinter crappies suspended over the basin or schools of perch roaming large mud flats in the basin of the lake. This pattern also works well for walleyes. This is also a great drilling pattern for two anglers working together to quickly open up a large featureless area of the lake. As a general rule of thumb, anytime you’re fishing deeper water you want to space your holes out further than when you are fishing shallow. It is not at all uncommon to leave 20 or 30 yards between holes when shotgun drilling an area. This pattern is meant to be fished quickly, often not even dropping a line down any given hole unless it shows signs of fish on your electronics. Once fish are contacted, if it appears to be a decent concentration of fish, it is fairly typical to drill more holes in the immediate area at a much closer spacing.

Grids
This is an organized or fine-tuned version of the shotgun, but is often more suited to covering much smaller areas of water. To cover as much water as the shotgun pattern does in a grid pattern would simply take too much time drilling. A grid pattern is often the pattern to go to if you decided to dial down on a concentration of fish found when working a shotgun pattern. A grid pattern also lends itself to fishing specific features such as rock reef, gravel bars or weed beds. Whereas the shotgun pattern is suited to covering areas the size of several football fields, a grid pattern is ideally suited to areas the size of a football field or smaller. When drilling a grid pattern, I will try to pre-determine the hole spacing in terms of the number of steps and then actually count those steps out when moving from one hole to the next while covering the specific area as much as possible.

Zig Zag
Any seasoned ice angler knows how important a steep break line can be when looking for fish. If concentrations of fish aren’t found at the base of that break, they can often be found on the top of the break. The zig zag pattern is the perfect choice when searching this type of structure, because it allows you to check both sides of the break along its entire length. Obviously a good GPS is essential to this pattern to show you where the break line runs in order to be able to follow it. Going back and forth between the GPS and the auger can be somewhat tedious, but there is a trick that can greatly speed up the process, especially if there is snow on the ground. Using your ATV or snowmobile or dragging your portable shelter, navigate the break line using your GPS to guide you. When you are finished, you will have a highly visible line above the break that you can start drilling on either side of as you create the zig zag pattern along the break.

Radial – Spokes in a Wheel
When sitting on top of a mid-lake school of crappies or perch, sooner or later they will move on. Often times they are only moving at a walking speed, so it is possible to get out in front of them by drilling out from the hole you were originally catching them in a circular pattern. Because of this, I will often use a radial pattern in conjunction with a shotgun pattern. If fishing with others, I will often have them do some radial drilling as soon as a school is contacted in any given hole. This way we have holes that are ready to be fished immediately as soon as the school begins to move on. By simply repeating this process all day long we stand a pretty good chance of staying right on top of the school.

Straight line – Out and Back
With the advent of GPS mapping, this pattern doesn’t see near as much use as it used to. It is largely a discovery pattern and is a great way to establish depths whenever fishing new waters. Simply start within a few yards of the shore and drill a straight line to the center of the lake. Let your findings direct your hole spacing. If you are not seeing much change in depth in the first few holes then widen your spacing. If the depth changes drastically from hole to hole a closer spacing would be appropriate. If there is snow on the ice, we will actually write the depths in the snow by each hole. Once you have a decent feel for the topography under that strip of ice, move down the shoreline and drill another string of holes, about two to three times your hole spacing, towards the bank. By repeating this several times, it’s possible to get a very good feel for exactly what the bottom looks like. While the GPS has made this exercise unnecessary for many bodies of water, there will always be many smaller bodies of water that have not been mapped where this drilling pattern can be invaluable, so it’s a great pattern to have in your bag of tricks.

Just Drill, Baby Drill!
It’s important when searching for fish below the ice, that your drilling has a rhyme and a reason. You need to have enough holes to find fish and gather the information you need, but not so many that you’re wasting valuable fishing time and gas drilling holes that you may never even drop a transducer in. These patterns are a very good way to make sure that balance is achieved, so keep them in mind to help keep your drilling focused the next time you hit the ice. Practice makes perfect and it won’t take too many trips using some of these patterns that you begin to see the method to the madness as well.