Mobile Ice Strategies to Plan, Locate and Stay on Fish

By Nick Johnson

During the hardwater season, finding fish can be one thing, staying on them as they transition throughout the day is a whole other beast. Each species can be different in this pattern and it pays to burn some gas, battery or muscle, and drill holes in pursuit of a moving school.

There are a lot of factors that play into how fish behave under the ice. Water depth, water clarity, time of day, time of year, forage available, bottom structure, just to name a few of the heavy hitters. A school of crappies in one lake for example may move and behave differently than crappies from another lake. You are beginning to see that a written script of fish location and movement just isn’t cut and dry.
There are however a few tips that can cut out some of the guesswork in an effort to catch more fish. Put all of the ingredients together and work in increments. Often times a small move of 20 yards even if the depth change is slight can make all of the difference.

Initial Planning
Even if I am fishing a routine body of water, I still form a game plan and tailor that to the species I am after. I look at the weather and take into consideration the time of year. If it is earlier in the season I know that walleyes, perch, and bluegills are going to be a little shallower, for the most part. Mid season I focus on deeper basin areas especially for crappie, perch, and walleye. Other species like yellow bass and white bass will also pull out to more of a basin area and utilize bottom contours like points, humps and inside bends to hunt prey items. Late in the ice season I look for softer muddy bottoms that warm quicker and support emerging insect larvae that bluegill, perch, crappie and even walleye key in on.

In many cases at any given point in the season, walleye will be a little deeper during daylight periods and push up shallower during low light. Crappies will display a similar pattern and often times the school will move up in the water column in low light to forage on zooplankton and minnows. Ponds differ from lakes a tiny bit in that any structure will tend to concentrate fish and the deeper potions of the pond are also one of my focal points, most notably for catfish, and crappie.

One tool that I use a lot especially when fishing a new body of water is the Navionics Boating app. This is an amazing tool but be warned, if you have community edits on and place a waypoint, it will becomes public knowledge. I use this solely for finding bottom depth contours and knowing my location while keeping an eye on information others are sharing. It is very accurate and only costs about $15 to install which is a lot cheaper than buying a GPS unit and the corresponding lake chip. If you choose to go the GPS route you have the advantage of not burning phone data and actually setting private waypoints which can pay for itself.

For bluegills at any given point in the season it pays to find remaining weed growth, structure like submerged trees or some type of pinch point leading into shallower water. For walleyes, crappie, yellowbass and perch, key in on places that offer adjacent deeper water, humps, points and inside bends that may give forage a place to concentrate around. As we all know, crappies also like submerged trees so if you can find this it can be a gold mine. In places like Brushy Creek or Three Mile where submerged timber is a surplus, look for schools of crappie around standing timber in deep water, especially mid-season. On Brushy I have caught crappies along the trunks and branches of huge oaks in as deep as 45 feet.

Stay on the School
In some cases when targeting species like perch, yellow bass, bluegill and even walleye, mobility can pay out to stay on a school of active fish. This can be pretty tough because unless you have an underwater camera you have no idea in which exact direction the school is moving. You will see this type of pattern with schools of fish most often during the day.

When I get to a spot I want to try I will drill a number of holes that encompass the vicinity of the area. Spend only a few minutes in each hole and move on to the next if nothing is happening. This is an abbreviated version of ice trolling and utilizing a flasher depth finder is a must in my eyes. Not only does this tell you the depth and reveal your lure location, it shows you if any fish are present, what structure is down there and even the mood of the fish if they come in to inspect your bait. There have been many times where I have found fish like this and either had to slow down my presentation or downsize my baits to trigger a strike all by judging the attitude of the mark of the fish. You would never know this by fishing without a flasher or camera.

If you stop at one hole and catch a few fish and the action drops out, move to the next one you drilled and so forth. Theres no saying you cant sit in the same spot and wait for the school to swing by again, but if you can stay with a school and keep catching them then why not. Most fish unless you are in very shallow water are not spooked by an auger so drill away and find their pattern.

When I plan my drilling pattern I like to put holes around the perimeter of whatever structure is present, whether that be a point, hump, downed tree or inside bend. I then stagger a few leading up on top if fishing a hump or point, or if fishing an inside bend lead a few up shallower in the crease and long the sides. If fishing the top of a flat, scatter holes along the edge of the first depth break and then a few smack on the flat. This will give you a good starting point and if nothing becomes, move deeper or shallower depending on the time of day or time of year. The key here, stay mobile.

When to Stay
Moving on a school of fish isn’t always the answer. There are definitely times when it pays to stay put and wait them out. I generally move a lot less the closer it gets to dark or first thing in the morning. If you have a good spot and are marking fish, hold on because the bite may be coming to you. If you are in a location any time of day or night where you are marking fish on a regular basis and catching a few, or many, stay put. The old adage goes, don’t leave fish to find fish.

There are also times when you can anticipate fish moving into a certain area during key times of the day. This might be a shallower flat or hump adjacent to deeper water that walleye are coming up on to feed at dusk. This can also be a weedy edge of an inside bend that big bluegills and crappie seek out early in the morning to feed on bugs and minnows. Whatever the situation, mobility should be a forethought when fish are found that have no intention of roaming. Good luck on the ice this season, be safe and plan ahead!