Early Ice Tactics

by: Mark Martin

The first few weeks of ice is some of the most incredible action of the whole ice fishing season.  The walleye are cruising big time and still have the fall feed bag on.  Taking advantage of this time is a matter of interpreting the situation and then game planning your moves for success.   The good news is that the walleye will probably be using the same areas that they did before the water froze.  This makes it very easy to pinpoint their moves and locations. 

The first thing we need to do to put together a successful game plan is to take a map and mark the areas we wish to target. I use two tools to do this my I Finder Pro hand held GPS and a map.  If I am familiar with the lake from the open water season, I simply transfer the data I have that mark underwater points, deep weed edges and submerged humps into my I Finder Pro.  If I don’t have that data I study the Fishing Hot Spots map and take the GPS coordinates of it and put them into my GPS.  Once downloaded and the understanding that the fish will be using the areas I just outlined, then I really need to scope out the area and check out my conditions. 

First ice can really present a myriad of conditions, much like open water.  If the ice is milky and light penetration is inhibited then I need to take very few precautions against spooking fish.  However if the ice is clear and I can see through it, then we need to compensate.  I do this one of two ways.  If there is snow on the ground, I drag a sled of it with me out to the holes.  I spread the snow around me so that fish cannot see my silhouette up on the ice.  In the absence of snow, I’ll use a piece of white carpeting.  Don’t use dark carpeting because it will absorb heat and melt the ice underneath it.  Both of these tricks make me less intrusive into the fish’s environment and result in more bites from less wary fish. 

This leads me into the subject of stealth.  During first ice, the fish can become spooky.  The water is amazingly clear, and light can penetrate very easily through the thinness of the ice.   I travel light and carry a minimum of gear. A critical factor in this is drilling my holes.   I use a StrikeMaster Lazer hand auger to drill the holes, rather than a gas powered auger or using a spud.  If you create too much commotion on the ice, you may spook the fish away for several hours.  The StrikeMaster Lazer hand auger is sharp and cuts quick making it the most silent approaches I’ve found. 

As to the other gear to bring with you make sure you have a good portable depth finder.  I use the  portable LCD because it gives me the programming ability I need along with the definition and sensitivity that helps me detect fish that others can’t see.  The first thing I do is split the screen so that one side reads the whole water column and the other is zoomed to the bottom.  Then I set my sensitivity all the way up and turn the fish ID off.  It is important to monitor the whole water column during first ice because unlike later in the season when fish usually hug the bottom, many times schools will come in suspended.  Being able to see this I can raise or lower my presentation to put my baits right in the fish’s strike zone.  Another piece of electronics that always comes with me is the new PolarVision by StrikeMaster.   This is a depth readout device that works without ever having to cut a hole.  Simply place some liquid on top of the ice and it will tell you if you are at the proper depth before you disturb the area by drilling a hole. 

Baits and tackle that I bring out also fall into the traveling light category.  Key spoons and swimming lures are:  Tingler spoons, Normark Swimming ,  Airplane Jigs FireEye Minnow spoons and the new  Rattle Spoon, with the 3D finish.  As to bait make sure you take out a variety of sizes, from very small up to three inches.   Many times I’ve found that you can have everything right except for the sizes of minnows, and sometimes cutting a minnow in half can be the ticket.  It gives off a different scent, creates an oil trail in the water, and fills the water with scales and entrails that sometimes can be deadly in attracting finicky fish. 

For Tackle, my rods are  Ice rods teamed with  ultralight spinning reels.  There are two different lines I use one being Fireline, and the other being the new  SensiThin mono, in either four or six pound test.  The new SensiThin is a mono that’s designed to have minimal stretch and superior abrasion resistance.  These qualities present in both Fireline and SensiThin are favorable attributes when it comes to feeling the action of your jig or spoon and detecting even the slightest bite. 

Once we arrive at our spot and have our holes drilled, were ready to begin fishing.  When the law allows I always fish two rods, one jigging, one dead.  A dead rod is nothing more than a rod that sits still with the bait presented motionless by the angler.  Either rigged with a good   hook and minnow or a jigging spoon and a minnow hooked lightly through the back, it is simply allowed to sit there with the minnow swimming free underneath.  Keep the rod within arms reach for two reasons.  When you notice that the rod tip has stopped vibrating meaning the minnow is no longer active, (something you can easily detect if using Fireline or SensiThin mono), simply tap the rod tip several times with your rod to get the minnow working again.  The other reason is that if the rod is too far away, it’ll go down the hole when the fish strikes and before you can get to it.  (Boy I hate when that happens !!!!!

Most days when fishing my dead rod accounts for half my catch, and becomes especially effective in the afternoon.  In fact there are days when the dead rod can account for over 75% of the strikes I’ll receive.  It seems as though with very finicky fish, the action of the jigging rod can get there attention and bring them in for a look see, but is too active for there tastes.  With the dead rod right there, the minnow just flailing and enticing them, they can’t resist trying to pick off an easy meal. 

This brings me to the jigging rod, and how to work it for achieving your total potential.  If you’ve ever looked out on the ice, it looks like a dance floor with everyone’s slight variations.  Some jig fast, some constant, some slow, some pause.  For me a simple lift drop of six to 12 inches is as much action as I usually impart.  During this I’ll have many pauses and variations of the pause.  Mostly these variations are just wiggling my rod tip slightly to impart a light frantic vibration to the bait.  A typical jigging sequence for me is raising and lowering three to four times in about 30 seconds.  This type of methodical approach to jigging is the most effective technique I have ever come across.  Bring em in with action, and entice em to bite by hanging a bait in there face.

Well there you have it, my first ice strategies for the upcoming season.  These are things I have learned from many years of experience as a professional fisherman, and I hope they can benefit you.  See Ya on the ice!
 

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