It’s hard to believe we’re on the cusp of another ice fishing season. I’m not complaining, mind you. I actually prefer short summers. In fact, if I had my way, we’d have 4 months of spring, 4 months of fall and 4 months of winter. The last I’d heard, we’re actually expected to have a more “normal” winter, which means there should be plenty of hardwater action this coming season. With the approach of the new season, it’s hard not to notice all the new-for-the-season ice fishing products that are starting to hit the stores. While it’s hard not to get wrapped up in all the new-gear hype, new gear is just one of the many ways to “refresh” or add something new to your upcoming ice fishing season. I plan to talk about both, and challenge you to try out some of each this coming hardwater season.
Try a New Technique
Are you a sit-in-the-same-spot-all-day kind of ice angler? Are you a split shot and bobber type of angler? If either of those describes you then I challenge you to try a new technique this season! None of these techniques are “new”, per se, but have until the past few years really been in geographic niches. Now other ice anglers are discovering the effectiveness of these tactics and using them to their advantage. The first of these techniques is sight fishing. If you are from Iowa there’s a pretty good chance that you’ve heard of sight fishing before or even tried it. That’s because one of the geographic hotspots for sight fishing is in the northwest corner of the state in the Iowa Great Lakes region. One of the lakes in that region, West Okoboji, is world-famous for its “gin-clear” waters. Basically, this means that the water is so clear in the winter that as long as you have a dark background like the inside of a fish house or even the hood of your jacket, you can look down the hole and SEE everything going on below the ice. Your, jig, the fish, weeds…you can see it all, oftentimes in as much as 20 feet of water! The BEST part about sight fishing is that it will make you a better ice angler regardless of where you fish, because you actually get to see what your jig looks like under the ice and see all the different ways fish can react to different presentations.
Part of what kept sight fishing such a niche technique for so many years is that you need very clear water to do so. Underwater cameras have changed all that though. Today’s cameras are so good that even in stained water, you can usually get a camera close enough to the action to sight fish. One of the keys to using the camera effectively, however, is to “down view”. That is to use the camera pointing straight down. This allows you to see your jig as well as fish coming in from all directions. Much like actual sight fishing, this allows you to take in the WHOLE picture rather than only the slice of what’s going on down there that using the camera horizontally affords us.
The second technique is called long-rodding. Until recently, this technique was limited to small areas in Wisconsin, eastern Illinois and Michigan. Thanks to the growing popularity of ice fishing tournaments however, this technique started to spread rapidly once competitors from others areas of the ice belt were able to see it being done effectively. As the name suggests, it involves using a long (in ice fishing terms) rod, typically 40 to 48 inches long. Long rodding is especially effective on wary shallow water fish because it allows you to fish them without being directly overhead making noise that will spook them. The rod must have a sensitive spring bobber on the end to detect bites because often this technique does not rely on a flasher to show when fish are at the jig. When a fish is hooked the angler simply raises their arm to lift the fish from the hole and then swings the fish into their waiting hand. Once the fish is unhooked the jig is simply lowered back down into the hole. Once the correct depth is set no reeling is required, it’s quick, efficient and deadly on shallow water fish!
A palm rod is a third technique that is relatively new to ice anglers in The U.S., but it has been around for generations in Europe and Russia. As more Americans are beginning to compete on the world ice fishing circuits, more palm rods are slowly beginning to make their way stateside. As the name suggests, it is held in the palm of your hand. The rod and reel are typically one unit with the reel is pear or teardrop shaped to fit nicely in the palm of your hand and the rod being 6 inches or less in length. The reel is usually lightweight foam or plastic and the rod is either fiberglass or plastic as well. This technique allows for ULTRA-finesse presentations and gives you the utmost control of your jig. When a fish is hooked, the entire palm rod is usually thrown forward and the fish is then brought in hand over hand, very similarly to how a fish is brought in when using a tipup. To resume fishing, the angler simply feeds line back down the hole, inching the palm rod back towards their hand in the process. Once the palm rod is back in their palm, they know that their jig is now back at the same exact depth where the last fish was caught.
Try an Electric Auger
Electric augers have been around for a while. But because they were heavy beasts that relied on being tethered to a high capacity power source, they were often relegated to use with permanent hard sided fish houses. The past couple years, however, electric augers have become such a viable option for those addicted to hole making that many tournament anglers are now making an electric auger their hole-puncher of choice. Nobody drills more holes than a tournament fisherman so the fact that they are starting to make the switch speaks volumes. One of the major driving forces behind the emergence of lightweight, efficient electric augers is the advances made in battery technology. There are several advantages to going electric and with the new battery technology and proliferation of powerful, lightweight, high-torque drills now on the market, most of the disadvantages are virtually non-existent. With an electric auger you no longer have to worry about mixing gas or ever having to deal with the gas odors again; rather than having to bring a can of gas along, we simply bring a couple of batteries to get us through the day. Electric auger setups are also considerably lighter than their gas fueled counterparts with some of the lightest systems out there weigh almost 50% less than a typical gas auger!
Try Some Tungsten
Tungsten has also been gaining steam for the past several years, but there are still many who haven’t made the jump yet, largely due to price. When tungsten jigs first became available to American ice anglers, the cost was often prohibitively high. In contrast, the tungsten jig game today has many players in it, so casts are going down every year. The other advantage of having more players in the tungsten game is the explosion of sizes, profiles and colors available to us now. There has never been a better time to start using tungsten. Tungsten is beneficial because it weighs 30% more than the same amount of lead. This allows us to down-size our jig when fish get finicky while still maintaining enough weight to get that jig down to the fish quickly. Another nice feature of tungsten is that because it is so heavy, it makes your line hang just that much tauter which greatly improves bite detection.
Try Some Plastics
Micro plastics specifically for ice fishing are in the same boat as tungsten in that they are certainly not new, but there are still lots of ice anglers out there that haven’t taken advantage of all plastics have to offer. Also like tungsten, the sizes, shapes and colors of fishing plastics available now have never been better! There is a plastic available to fit almost any situation available and to match any mood a fish may be in. While plastics may not necessarily increase the amount of fish you catch, they definitely have a tendency to catch the largest fish from any given hole. Plastics also allow the angler to impart the appropriate amount of action to the presentation, whether it’s an ultra-finesse quiver, a steady undulating Okoboji-swim or a full-on in-your-face aggressive pound. Probably my favorite part of fishing with plastics is that it allows me to quickly and easily change colors until I find the one the fish want. I can tear one color of plastic from the jig and thread a new color on in a fraction of the time it would take me to tie on a new jig, and that means I can more quickly eliminate the non-productive colors and start catching fish.
Try A New Body Of Water
I try to fish as many new bodies of water as possible every hardwater season. Not only does it save me from getting burnt out on the same old lakes around home, but it forces me to learn how to figure out new water quickly. It also helps me become a more well-rounded ice angler. I’ve caught lake trout in 200 feet of water from Lake Superior as well as from three feet of water in South Dakota. Because I am constantly seeking out new bodies of water, I get the opportunity to fish fertile prairie potholes as well as infertile oligotrophic lakes in northern Minnesota. I’ve fished the cribs of Wisconsin and the brush piles of Iowa and just about everything in between. If you make it a goal to fish at least one or two new bodies of water every year, you will be amazed how much more versatile and well-versed it will make you as an ice angler.
Try A Tournament
By now, you’re probably starting to pick up on a theme running through every challenge I’ve made so far; each one of them will help to make you a better ice angler. With that in mind I challenge you to give an ice fishing tournament a try. Fishing in tournaments allows you to fish many new bodies of water in any given season. Because time is usually very limited, you also learn very quickly how to dissect a lake and determine where non-productive water is and focus in on productive water is. The old 80-20 rule definitely applies to ice fishing in that 80% of the fish are found in only 20% of the water. As a tournament angler you are constantly refining your skills to find that 20% of the lake and catch the biggest fish that inhabit it.
Go To A Show
One of the newer developments in the ice fishing world is the proliferation of ice fishing shows. They range from one day-affairs at local bait shops to weekend long events at major ice fishing retailers to full blown multi-day trade shows. Sure the granddaddy of all ice fishing shows that takes place in St Paul every December has been around for many years now, but it is no longer the only show in town (pardon the pun). Both Blaine, Minnesota and Milwaukee have a St. Paul caliber event. Fortunately, as Iowans we have been blessed with some smaller scale ice fishing events that we can attend without leaving the state. In November, Kabele’s Trading post in Spirit Lake typically hosts “Shop with the Pros” day in their store. Hank’s Bait Shop in Waterloo usually has an ice fishing event in January. This season Clear Lake Bait and Tackle will also be hosting an event in November. While not in the state, the event that Thorne Brothers puts on in September in Blaine, MN and Dakota Angler’s Ice Institute in November in Sioux Falls, SD are both relatively close and well worth the drive to attend. So you’re probably starting to wonder why I would challenge you to go to one (or several) of these events. Well, not only are these shows a great place to figuratively kick the tires of some of the newest and coolest ice fishing gear, but they’re also a great place to learn things that will help you become a better ice angler. Every single one of these events I’ve been to, whether it’s at a local bait shop or at the big show in St Paul, have a full slate of seminars put on by some of the best in the business. When I was coming up through the ranks of the ice fishing industry, I made it a point to attend every seminar I could. I got to listen to the likes of Dave Genz, Chip Leer, Jason Mitchell and Brian Brohsdal and I took notes and asked questions. Without fail, I always went home with at least some nugget of information that I could apply to MY fishing and incrementally improve my fishing success.
So often the focus at the start of every new season is on the newest gear, but there are LOTS of new things out there to try in addition to the new gear. Don’t get me wrong, I love new gear as much as the next guy (maybe even more so…), but when you get to try out new gear on a new body of water, or buy that new gear to try out a new technique, you’ve just taken it to the next level. So consider yourself challenged. Give it a try….I dare you!