Pay Attention to what goes on Under the Ice!
By Rod Woten
Every ice season, there is so much emphasis on what goes on above the ice. Are you using the newest whizz-bang this season? What portable fish house are you using? Will you be using the latest and greatest custom rod? Is your ATV ready to hit the ice? Will your auger start on the first pull? All of these are important, don’t get me wrong, it just seems funny to me that so much attention is paid to what happens on top of the ice, when the really important thing is what happens UNDER the ice. After all, that’s where the fish that we chase live. That’s where we attempt to attract these fish to our lures and entice them to bite. It’s as important, if not more so, that we understand the things that happen under the ice as it is the things that happen on top of the ice.
Start With A Salad
Every winter, as the ice forms on top of our lakes, most fish, especially panfish, begin a migration from their deeper water haunts that they have been occupying as summer turned to fall. Understanding this activity that is happening below the ice is key to being able to find the fish when we hit the ice. Almost always, these shallow areas to which the panfish are transitioning have an abundance of weeds. As long as there is enough sun light reaching the weeds and the weeds remain green and upright, the panfish will continue to inhabit these weeds. As the season progresses and these weeds begin to die off, a couple of things will happen. As they die, the weeds turn brown and can no longer stand upright. The other thing that happens is that these now dead weeds will start to decay which consumes oxygen in the immediate area. As both of these things happen, panfish not only lose the cover of the weeds they had enjoyed earlier in the season, but they will also become starved for oxygen. With both of these things working against them, they will begin to migrate away from the shallow weedy waters and back into deeper, more oxygen-rich water.
Sticky Bottom Areas
Many of the fish that transition out of shallow water and into deeper water after the weeds die off head to “sticky bottom areas”. These areas are called “sticky bottom” because back in the good ol’ days before sonar was widely used, these bottoms could be found when the depth bomb used to determine depths would often stick slightly in the bottom before it would pop free as it was being reeled back up. These sticky bottom areas are usually pretty easy to find at the base of sharp breaks. These areas exist because of the years of sediment that finds its way down that sharp break and settles at the base of the break. The fish love sticky bottom areas because they can be a smorgasbord of aquatic insects. That sediment that makes up a sticky bottom area is the perfect consistency for burrowing aquatic insects; soft enough for them to burrow into easily yet firm enough that their sediment does not collapse on them as they burrow. Because of this bugs converge to sticky bottom areas and the fish are never too far behind.
Once you understand where the fish are moving under the ice and where they can be located at different times of the season, it’s time to focus on getting them to bite. One of the most critical components to drawing fish in and triggering the bite has to do with the speed and movement of your jig. It’s important to understand what your jig looks like under the ice at many different speeds and with several different jigging strokes. If you are using a fast cadence or an aggressive jigging stroke on negative fish, chances are very slim that you will trigger a bite, so it is important that you know which jigging strokes in your arsenal impart an aggressive action to your jig and which ones yield a more subtle action. You should be pretty confident that you know exactly how your jig is dancing under the ice at any cadence and any jigging action as this will allow you to match that dance to exactly what the fish are wanting in that instance. This is exactly the reason that I am such a proponent of sight fishing. Sight fishing allows you to actually watch your jig and see exactly what that dance looks like for every cadence and jigging stroke you use. Sometimes an aggressive jigging action or fast cadence is required to attract fish to your jig but a slower cadence or more subtle action is required to trigger a strike. Unless you know exactly what your jig is doing under the ice, it’s very difficult to make the switch between the two presentations without scaring the fish off.
Working An Angle
Understanding how the cone angle of your flasher transducer functions under the ice can make one of the biggest impacts on your hardwater success, but it is also one of the least understood concepts by most ice anglers I encounter. Generally speaking, the deeper you fish, the larger a circle your transducer cone covers on the bottom. That means in deeper water we can get by with a narrower cone angle because it will have the same coverage area on the bottom as a wider cone angle does in shallower water. A wide cone angle is actually undesirable in deeper water because the coverage area would be so large that the dial of the flasher would be too cluttered with data to make sense. A wider cone angle is also more susceptible to interference because it “listens” to a larger area which can greatly increase the chances that it would “hear” stray signals that create that interference.
With that in mind, sometimes it is actually desirable to use a narrow cone angle in shallow water, even though the general rule of thumb is to use a wider cone angle in shallower water. A perfect example of this would be using your flasher in shallow water near other flashers. With the wider cone angle, the chances of overlapping the cone angle of other flashers and receiving interference is much greater. By using a narrower cone angle in this situation, the opportunity to overlap is reduced and interference is lessened, if not eliminated. A similar phenomenon happens when fishing deeper water near a sharp break or a large piece of structure nearby such as a boulder or submerged tree. With a wider cone angle, your transducer will probably read both the top of the structure as well as the bottom. Since the display of your flasher is only two-dimensional, it can’t show BOTH depth readings in a meaningful manner, so it shows the higher of the two which would be the top of the structure. Not only can this trick you into believing that the bottom is closer that it really is, but there could also be fish that you can’t see in this “sonar shadow”. By using a narrow beam in this situation, the circle of coverage on the bottom is much smaller so chances are much less that you will catch both the top of the structure and the bottom at the same time. Even if you do, the sonar shadow will be much smaller and some of those “hidden” fish will suddenly become visible! This is why an adjustable transducer allows you the most versatility to adapt to any situation, but it is imperative that you understand what that cone angle is doing under the ice to be able to fully harness its power.
While we’re on the topic of transducers, understanding where to locate your transducer under the ice can have definite impacts on your success. Too low and every fish you reel in will tangle in the transducer cord, too high and the sides of your hole will interfere with the signal and create a gigantic sonar shadow that will hide any fish below you. Traditional wisdom is to set your transducer just below the bottom of the ice, but I like to set my transducer about an inch above the bottom of the ice. This is low enough that, as long as I keep the transducer centered in the hole, the sides will not interfere with the signal. This position is also high enough that even if a fish becomes tangled as I reel in it, it will only be a couple of wraps and I can easily lift the transducer and the fish at the same time and untangle them topside.
Everyone is pretty familiar with the most common ways to use an underwater camera. Probably the most common is what I often call “side viewing”. This simply means that the camera is lowered below the ice in its default horizontal position and panned to the left or right to look around. Sometimes this is done in the same hole that is being fished out of, but more commonly it is lowered in a second hole and aimed to look towards the jig. This works well for watching fish come and go towards the jig. The other method is called “down viewing” and is accomplished by lowering the camera into the hole facing downward in a vertical position.
Down viewing is typically done in the same hole that is being fished and allows a view of the jig and fish coming in from all directions. A few years ago, some creative tournament ice anglers developed a new method for using an underwater camera that greatly improved their success. Their technique, called “up viewing” is similar to side viewing except the camera is oriented at a slight upward angle. The technique is used more in the scouting phase rather than during actual fishing, which makes sense once you understand the advantages of this method.
Because the camera is angled upward, it will contrast the silhouette of the fish against the white background of the ice. Not only does this make fish pop out that would be hidden in the weeds with the other viewing methods, it also allows you to assess the relative size of the fish and determine species based on the silhouette. Both of these things are very advantageous to a tournament angler, but they can also benefit the everyday ice angler as well. Being able to determine if those marks on your flasher are passing bluegills or swarms of 4-inch perch can mean the difference between wasting your time on a spot that only yields frustration or moving on to find more productive waters.
Put Under The Ice At The Top Of Your List
While this is not a comprehensive list of all the things going on under the ice that can increase your success, it is a few of the things that I feel can have a significant impact. If nothing else, I hope what you take away from this is that while you’re worrying about all the things that happen on top of the ice, please don’t overlook the things that happen under the ice and how we can use those thing to our advantage. Under the ice, after all, is where the fish live and where we pursue them, so it deserves at least some consideration when putting together a complete strategy for putting fish on the ice.