Iowans have a lot to be thankful for. Of course, being a native Iowan, I may be a little biased. Even as ice anglers, Iowans have lots to be thankful for. While Iowa isn’t the “Land of 10,000 Lakes”, we do definitely have some great hardwater fisheries. Probably at the top of my list is the entire area that Iowans proudly refer to as “The Iowa Great Lakes”. Not only is this area a dynamite fishery for nine of the most popular gamefish species in the state, but it also offers some unique hardwater experiences that can only be found in a few places. One such experience…and the principal reason that the Iowa Great Lakes are at the top of my list…is the opportunity to sight fish. Sight fishing is exactly what it sounds like. Rather than relying on electronics to be our eyes beneath the ice, we use our eyes to peer down the hole; under the frozen sheet that caps the lake, and observe the fish that we’re pursuing, much as if we were looking into an aquarium or watching it on television.
Ideally Suited for Ice Fishing
Of the three main lakes that constitute the Iowa Great Lakes region, West Lake Okoboji, East Lake Okoboji and Great Spirit Lake, West Okoboji is probably the best suited to sight fishing. Truthfully, as far as sight fishing is concerned, West Okoboji is the IDEAL situation for three main reasons.
Shallow weedy bays – The Glacier that carved out West Okoboji created several shallow bays that surround the deeper main body of the lake. These shallow bays and clear water conditions promote excellent aquatic vegetation growth which attracts and shelters multitudes of fish across several different species. The shallow bays also provide depths that are ideal for sight fishing.
Abundance of fish – As already referred to, the abundance of aquatic vegetation provides abundant cover for fish to hide in, rear their young in, and also attract aquatic insects and prey fish. These factors all mean that these bays are teeming with gamefish. If you fish for it in Iowa, there’s a good chance you’ll see it while sight fishing the bays of West Okoboji….bluegills, crappie, largemouth, smallmouth, perch, walleye, northern pike and musky are just some of the species that can be found there.
Gin clear water – Unlike most other lakes, Okoboji is fed by an underwater aquifer that was exposed by the glacier that formed it. Lakes of this type are considered “Blue Water” lakes, and only 2 other lakes in the world are considered a blue water lake. Because West Okoboji is not fed by surface runoff as most other lakes are, the water is very clear. Obviously water clarity is a huge issue when sight fishing, so the famous “gin-clear” waters of West Okoboji are ideal sight fishing.
Gearing Up for Sight Fishing
Sight fishing can be done with most of the same ice fishing gear that we use every day on the ice. There are, however, a few pieces of special equipment necessitated by the nature of sight fishing.
Since we need to look directly down the hole to sight fish, we sit much closer to the hole than usual…sometimes even sitting far enough forward that the hole is directly between our feet. Fishing all day this way with a “standard length” ice rod often results in a stiff neck, so we use shorter rods made specifically for ice fishing. These rods are often ultra-light or light action and range anywhere from 14 inches to 18 inches long. Do yourself a favor if you intend to sight fish for any period of time and purchase a sight fishing rod or two. Your neck and back will thank you.
Darkness is another consideration when sight fishing. Much like dimming the lights in a movie theater, fishing in a dark enclosure allows us to see what’s happening on the “big screen” under the ice. It never ceases to amaze me that a hole I can’t see down in broad daylight, becomes a window under the ice as soon as I flip my Fish Trap closed or place my face near the hole and flip the hood of my jacket over it. While not necessarily requiring a separate piece of equipment, the need for darkness might necessitate a modification of some of your current gear, or a slight modification to your fishing style in order to accommodate it. When it comes to sight fishing, the darker the better, so be sure to have a plan for accomplishing that as soon as you hit the ice for some sight fishing.
Sight Fishing Trip & Tricks
If you’re new to sight fishing there are lots of little trick that you can use to make the technique work a little better or make it easier for you. Here are a few tips & tricks that I’ve compiled in the years that I’ve been sight fishing.
Hole drilling – I typically try to use the smallest auger I can get away with. For panfish, I really like a five or six inch auger. This allows me to drill a lot of holes very quickly, and makes it harder for fish that might come unhooked to turn in the hole and escape. For sight fishing, however, I prefer an eight or ten inch auger. This size of hole allows for a better field of vision under the ice. Sometimes I even take this a step further and “stack” one hole on top of another so that the finished product looks like a figure “8”. This allows me to straddle the rear-most hole as I fish in it, but still have a large field of vision under the ice…especially in the forward direction. The one thing to keep in mind is that while sight fishing makes it easy for us to see what the fish are doing under the ice, it also makes it easy for the fish to see what we’re doing on top of the ice. If we have too much of a window to look down through, it also leaves less for us to hide behind. The bigger the hole, the more likely that a wily bluegill will spot you, so it’s important to find the sweet spot between hole sizes that gives you good field of vision below the ice, but still limits the fish’s field of vision above the ice.
For much the same reason, it is also important to avoid anything inside your darkened enclosure that might frighten off approaching fish. Avoid bright colors or highly reflective surfaces. If you’re wearing a headlamp, or have a light on the bill of your cap, be sure it’s shut off. Also make sure your sunglasses aren’t resting on your forehead or on the bill of your cap. Any of those things can be easily seen by the fish below and scatter them. I even know some die hard sight fishers that blacken their face, so that they blend in with the darkened interior of their fish houses.
Excessive noise above can also repel fish that may be below you. On windy days, the flapping fabric of a portable fish house can be a definite bite killer. Fish in very clear water can tend to be spooky. Fishing for them in shallow water only complicates that matter because the luxury of distance to muffle sounds disappear, so be very conscious of any noise you make, whether it be your ice cleats clacking on the ice, conversation with other anglers, or the sound of the plastic base of a portable fish house on the ice.
One other thing that sight fishing has taught me is that sometimes I need to lower the rod tip to allow the fish, especially bluegills, to take the jig completely in their mouth. Bluegills will often come in and take only the live bait/plastic into their mouth. Setting the hook at this point only results in a missed bite. Holding the rod tip level only results in the fish spitting the bait out as soon as it feels the tension on the line. By dropping the rod tip, the slack in the line allows the fish to actually take the hook into its mouth with the next bite. Then, and only then, it’s time to set the hook.
Lessons Learned from Sight Fishing
The best part of sight fishing is that it will make you a better ice angler all the way around. The more experience you have with what your jigging motion looks like under the ice and how fish reacts to it, the better you will be at giving the fish what they want. Sight fishing provides you with instant verification of what you are doing at your end of the ice rod. These lessons go far beyond sight fishing and can apply to any type of ice fishing you do. Lessons like learning to drop the rod tip, as mentioned above, can only be learned while sight fishing, but apply to any ice fishing situation. I’m amazed at the number of ice anglers I encounter that are just jigging away, but really have no idea what they’re doing above the ice looks like at the jig on the end of their line. Some of the best ice anglers I know all have one thing in common; they always know what their jig looks like to the fish below, regardless of water clarity. They know this because they have sight fished enough that these things are programmed into them and become automatic. This alone should be reason enough for everyone to want to give sight fishing a try.
Probably the hardest thing for me to convey in print is how much fun sight fishing is. Actually being able to WATCH a 10 inch bluegill slide in on your jig is truly an adrenaline rush. The anticipation as he studies it, using his pectoral fins to “hover” near it, is almost unbearable and the rush as he inhales it and you set the hook is absolutely indescribable. Or, just as often, you will see him slowly back away from your jig and drift out of sight, which can be equally as frustrating…but also exciting in its own way. Fortunately for us as Iowans, we have some of the best sight fishing in the world right here in our own fair state. We get the opportunity to practice this exciting ice fishing technique in our own “backyard”, and improve our skills as anglers at the same time. I can’t believe you’re not headed that way already. I’ll see you up there!