Tight Lipped Ice Tactics

By Ben Leal

We’ve all experienced it… a day we load up and head out full of anticipation of a great day out on the ice. You’ve dreamt of that ice rod bending as you set the hook on yet another slab crappie or 10-inch plus bluegill…Vexilar screens lighting up with fish on the first drop. Then…reality sets in. You’ve punched your 20th hole through the ice and you’ve yet to bring a fish topside. And at this point, you’d be happy with a 5-inch bluegill!

This is a day where the fish just don’t seem to be interested in any part of any presentation you offer. If there was such a thing as a filet mignon for fish, you’d offer that up and it still wouldn’t work. Ah well, there is good news though, this my friends is only but a temporary condition. So what do you do when conditions are tough and the bite is hard to find? We’re going to have a look at conditions that create these conditions, both above and below the ice.

There’s no doubt that weather, whether its open water season or hardwater season, plays a factor on how the fish will react or bite. A prime example for me was a few years ago while helping with a kids clinic out at Easter Lake. This lake, at the time, was full of small crappie and bluegill, but great for kids because of the abundance. Arriving at the appointed time we began to set up for a day’s fishing with eager and enthusiastic kids. It was a beautiful sunny day, blue skies and hardly a breath of air moving. One of those days you’d pick to introduce young anglers to ice fishing right? Well, Mother Nature really didn’t help us much because we were on the backside of a high-pressure system. The big H was sitting over the state and that created some very unfavorable and finicky fish.

What’s the barometric pressure have to do with how the fish are biting? I’m glad you asked…atmospheric pressure actually creates pressure in the water column. I once heard it described as a large hand, pressing on the surface of the water creating in, a sense, denser water. Fish slow down and aren’t as likely to feed during high pressure. Sure, they’ll still take a bite or two, but not the kind of bite you are hoping for. The following day I fished in a derby on the same lake, the high pressure lifted and it was snowing…the fish were on fire! Barometric pressure does affect fishing. Below is a short guideline for your reference and I would welcome you to cut it out and put in your tackle box/bag, you know, just for future reference.

Under the Ice
So now we know a bit about what happens when atmospheric conditions change and how it affects fishing. Let’s take a peek beneath the ice and have a look at what might affect fishing there as well.

Here’s the short answer…the effect is exactly the same! There are, however, some other factors to take into consideration as you start your chase on the ice. Weeds – lively weed beds will hold fish and when the fishing gets tough these are great areas to target. Snow cover – the more snow that sits on the ice the harder it is for sunlight to penetrate and keep things green. Whether you’re fishing open or hard water, dissolved oxygen (DO) will always play a role in where those fish are going to be. As weeds and vegetation die-off under the ice, they will consume the DO and fish will move to find oxygenated water. These fish will also be lethargic and hard to entice.

Slow Down
When fishing gets tough, the tough get going right? There are a lot of ice anglers out there that love to run and gun. Drilling as many holes as possible in search of the quarry for the day. However, when your fishing late in the season after there has been a lot of snow covering the ice or you’re fishing tough post-frontal conditions hunkering down and picking apart key areas to fish will lead to greater results.

Pick apart structures and cover that you know are likely harboring fish. You can systematically fine-tune a plethora of presentations until you find the right combination that will entice those fish to bite. When you’re running and gunning you’re more likely to spend more time punching holes and trying to figure out what will work for that set and then pick up and move on, pretty unproductive when the bite is tough.

Slow down your presentation. In some cases, you may need to simply dead-stick fish for a while. Change the size of your lures to smaller presentations with a small profile. Subtle movements will work and it can be almost no movement. One lure that comes to mind is the Dave Genz Drop-Kick Jig. It was designed to provide you with a perfect cadence with little to no movement of the rod tip. Another factor and one that the new level wind reels have dealt with is line twist. When fish are super finicky line twist spells disaster. Because the level wind reels deploy the line straight off he spool you have little to no line twist. Spinning gear will induce line twist, especially if you’ve recently landed a large fish that pulled on your drag quite a bit. Give those new reels a try if you haven’t already.

Ice fishing during tough conditions can be rewarding, but patience truly is the key. It’s one of those times where we truly say we are fishing and not catching. Location is also important as noted in the previous paragraph, find those areas that you historically know will harbor fish. If you’re fishing with a partner you can both pick several lure/bait presentations until you find one or two that are consistent, then bring em home.

Remember that there is no such thing as safe ice. Always tell someone where you are going and when you plan on returning. Keep safety equipment close at hand and keep your ice picks around your neck, they could be the one thing that makes the difference.
Take someone new ice fishing this year and introduce them to the joy of pulling a nice bluegill up through the ice on very light line. Limit your catch don’t catch your limit and remember to harvest selectively. We want to preserve these great resources in the state of Iowa for generations to come. Tight line all!