Ten years ago this article couldn’t have been written, if so, it would have been aimed at the furthest reaches of Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan. No so anymore, as Iowa and the rest of the northern parts of the United States have embraced the ice fishing tournament concept. This winter there will be tournaments held most weekends in January and February, and most will not be a very long drive away. An ice fishing tournament will normally consist of two anglers teaming up to bring in a specific number of panfish or other specified species to weigh on a scale after a set number of hours. The partners that have the heaviest fish will win the top prizes. The rules are strict, and might include the following; you must stay within a specific area of your partner, you may only bring in a specific number of fish, for example 10 or 15 panfish, and of course follow all DNR rules. This is a true tournament format, however other events such as “ice-derbies” are out there too. These are more relaxed events with big fish prizes, or prizes for the largest type of fish. In most anglers minds these are the fun events, while the true ice fishing tournament is set up to see which team caught the biggest fish as a whole basket. These types of tournaments really allow an angler to compete against the best anglers in the state to see how they stack up for that particular day and lake. If you choose to fish an ice tournament this winter, the following should lead you to better results.

When preparing for any team tournament, whether its softball, basketball, wrestling, bass fishing or ice fishing, there is no doubt that the best teams always function with the best teamwork. In most ice fishing tournaments, the format is set up to have 2 anglers fishing on one team. This “buddy” format has been used throughout the nation on bass tournament circuits and eventually came over to the ice fishing crowd. Choosing a partner is vital to your success during an ice fishing tournament and must be planned very carefully. Here are a couple of things to keep in mind when choosing your partner for the ice. The first and most important consideration is the overall goal of the event. If you are 100% into the event to win it and be crowned the champion for the day, then you need to pick a partner with that similar goal. Anyone that I have ever met during ice fishing competitions that do well time and time again are serious about the tournament. Having the same goals and mind-set before the event starts is important in teamwork. Another thing to keep in mind when choosing a partner is their skill level. Let’s face it, taking your brother, uncle or aunt out on the ice for the first time ever during a tournament that you want to do really well in is a recipe for disaster. Two people cannot work as a team if they don’t have the knowledge of the competition itself. Choosing a partner with similar goals, and a person with a good skill level with help you and your friend have good teamwork, and hopefully have a great day on the ice.

After you have selected that perfect partner, it is now time to consider your ice fishing equipment. Like and competition, you must have the right tools to compete. The most important tool that you and your partner need is a sonar device. A Vexilar is a perfect choice for this for several reasons. First, they come in five models that will help you catch more fish on any budget, next they are the most dependable/durable ice flasher on the market, and lastly they are so simple to use. The next piece of equipment to pay attention to is an ice auger. Any auger with sharp blades will work, but sometimes it takes many holes a day to find your limit of fish, so a power auger is the choice of many anglers. Power augers let you drill many holes in a short amount of time without getting tired out by using a hand auger. Power augers have really changed the way people ice fish the last 10 years. It is no different when it comes to an ice tournament. Many anglers have power augers to ease the work load of an ice fishing outing, using them during a tournament is definitely an advantage. Vexilar…check, power auger…check, now for the tackle. No matter how many times you have fished a certain body of water, Mother Nature and the fish are still in charge. The bluegills may have bit really well last weekend on that favorite green jig of yours, but come tournament day, they didn’t even turn the Vexilar flasher red. This can, and will happen sooner or later. This is why it is vital that you and your partner have a variety of jigs and spoons ready to go for the tournament. The more different sizes, shapes, colors and types of jigs that you have tied on, the better. As we all know in ice fishing, sometimes it seems there are little windows in the day that the fish come in and bite. It is important to have multiple ice rods ready to trick them with differently looking baits. Don’t forget to pay attention to vertical and horizontal jig presentations, often ice anglers forget that these two different types of jigs look very different to a panfish. Have both styles tied on and ready to fish. Next, make a list of all the things that you will need to be comfortable on the ice. If you signed up for a tournament, it might be 2 degrees out, 50 degrees out, snowing, or even raining! You must be prepared with the proper clothing and ice shack if you choose to use one. Another nice item, but certainly not necessary is ice transportation. Having a snowmobile or four-wheeler will get you around the ice faster, and in turn give you more time to fish, so if you have one, check with the tournament regulations and have that ready to go too. Lastly, don’t forget the bait! All tournaments that I know of allow live bait, so have some waxworms, spikes and minnow ready to go if they won’t bite on plastic offerings that day.

Competition can bring out the best in some and the worst in others. As a coach, competitive bass angler, and ice tournament angler, I feel that failure is the lack of preparation and practice. That brings me to an important step of any tournament, practice. Yes, I’m talking about practice on the specific body of water that you will be competing on. Time on the ice is so valuable, that it cannot be over looked. Before rescheduling work and weekend plans though, it is just as important to have strategy behind that practice time. If you simply go out and fish as much as you can on the lake, you may be wasting your time. You need to explore different depths, and focus in on any lake maps that you can get a hold of. You can do a lot of planning with your partner sitting in your warm house enjoying a meal or a favorite beverage while watching your favorite TV show. Studying the maps together, sharing any information that you have on the lake from previous ice outings, and discussing specific areas to try before getting to the lake is important. The more you and your partner can fish the lake and talk about the lake, the better you will end up after the weigh-in. Remember, no matter what tournament you are in, it is you against the fish. You have to figure out where the fish are before you can catch them.

Now that you have your equipment, your perfect partner, and a strategy, it is time to put all of those things together. All of your knowledge and planning need to come together in one day. That one day, being your final practice day. Ideally, your last practice day will be the day before the tournament. This is ideal because fish can change so quickly, especially the size of fish. When it comes to tournaments, it is ALL about the size. All ice anglers have experienced that day when all you seem to get out of your favorite spot are smaller fish, and we’ve all had those days where that favorite spot yields dozens of big fish. Weather, barometer, fishing pressure, and Mother Nature are all good excuses why this happens, and that is why the closer to the actually tournament you can fish the lake, the better you can understand what and where the bigger fish are. Here are few helpful hints for fishing the day before a tournament. With every “spot” or area that you fish, you want to make it a quick stop. If you are utilizing a GPS unit, this makes your stop even faster as you can locate your specific are quickly with the auger. At no time is your Vexilar unit more valuable than the day before a tournament. It will tell how many fish are in the area, and at what depths they are located. If you have located numerous fish with your Vexilar unit, you will want to drop your lines down for a bit to check the mood of the fish. Note the way they bit and any colors that might have worked the best. You do not want to catch many fish, just a couple at each area to give you an understanding of the size of fish that are using the area. Then it’s time to move on. You will want to repeat this process to as many different spots as you can to come up with a game plan for the tournament. In all my tournament preparations I find it best to make those decisions off the ice, this allows you time to think about the day and discuss it with your partner as to which areas you should fish. The more you think about the locations and the size of fish, the better plan you will come up with for the tournament. You will want a plan “A, B, C, and D”, as many of the best ice fishing spots or areas of the lake will get taken by other anglers in the event. If location “A” gets taken by another team, then you can go to plan B without a hitch or any further conversations. This will allow you to have a good start to your event.

If you have never tried an ice fishing tournament, but love ice fishing, I hope that this has opened your mind to the challenge of competing on ice. There are several events all winter long, the best way to keep up with them is to keep an eye on IowaSportsman.com in the Ice Fishing Forum for all tournament details. One event that has really taken off is the Iowa State Fishing Club tournament held at Hickory Grove Lake, located near Colo, Iowa. Their event will be held February 12th, 2012. This is a great event, with the weigh-in held indoors, hope to see you there!