Listen—The Ice Will Tell You Where to Fish

by: Mark Martin

A frozen lake has something to say. Listen – with your eyes, not ears – and it will tell you where to fish.

When ice fishing it’s just easier to go to the exact spots you did last year, and that’s okay. Whether it’s a coordinate entered into my Lowrance GPS the year before, a 75-pace walk off the birch tree next to the tan house, or a two mile run north via snowmobile to the break in 17 feet of water, it doesn’t matter – more than likely, the fish will be in some of the same places year after year.

But the ice looks different each and every time I fish, even those place I’ve been a hundred times before. A ridge of broken-up Great Lakes ice towering feet into the air, running along shore as far as you can see; a mound of snow piled onto the ice of an inland lake; a sheet of clear, black ice snug against ice that’s frozen cloudy white; these oddities in the ice are telling you something. The ice never forms the same way twice. It has formed the way it has for a reason.

Sure, a lake may skim over overnight, but it won’t all thicken at the same pace. Water currents, wind, and snowfall throughout the season all hamper the freezing process. These areas, differing from the surrounding ice, just might be the place you want to fish. Read on, you’ll see what I mean.

First-hand experience

February 2007’s Ice Fishing School/Vacation proved the ice can tell you where to fish. After a how-to seminar put on by Mike Gofron, Mark Brumbaugh, and myself, our students put their new-found knowledge to the test for three full days of intense fishing on the frozen waters of Michigan’s Saginaw Bay. We all caught fish all throughout the next three days, and lots of them. But it didn’t start out that way. It wasn’t until we paid attention to the formation of the ice that our numbers improved.

The morning of our first day out I bundled myself tight in my winter gear—heavy boots, StrikeMaster HardWater Wear parka and bibs, Due North E-Z Lok Hood, thick Ice Armor mittens – then hopped onto my snowmobile and lead the group on a trek from Linwood Marina (Hoyle’s Marina, at the time) to our fishing spot.

With my Lowrance GPS /sonar leading the way to my pre-entered icon, we headed to a spot we three teachers had found while pre-fishing. I followed my pre-plotted trail 5 miles north along the shore, then 4-1/2 miles east out onto the bay. The headlights of our more-than-a-dozen quads and snowmobiles must have been quite a sight by those not in the school who were already on the ice.

With a Navionics chip in the card reader of my Lowrance sonar/ GPS – the combo showing me my exact location over the hydrographic map of the bottom bellow – I was able to stop directly over a breakline that went from 12 to 14 feet.

The ice was glass-flat, and slick as a wood floor covered in ball bearing. We were all wearing Sure Foot Get-A-Grip Xtreme’s, so walking on the super-slippery surface was not a problem.

I started my StrikeMaster power auger and drilled several holes along the breakline. The student’s followed suit. Within fifteen minutes of stopping, all our holes were drilled and portable shanties erected. A student and I sat in my Fish Trap Yukon and started jigging. He had chosen a lure that sat vertical in the water – a Northland Buck Shot Rattle Jig – so I chose one with horizontal look – a Jigging Rapala. Both lures were tipped with a lively minnow.  

As the morning light shown over the horizon, the bite started on the sand breakline. Teachers and students were catching walleye all around us. But as quickly as it started, it stopped. It seemed the fish were here only for a moment – then gone. The screens of both my Lowrance sonar and Aqua-Vu proved that to be true.

The late-morning sun was rising higher in the sky. I peered out the window of my Fish Trap and could see a line in the ice only 50 yards away. It was where the glass-flat sheet of ice we were fishing butted up to a huge mass of rough chucks. With the bite now slow, some of the students headed over to the oddly-formed ice. It wasn’t long before they started catching walleye while the rest of us sat idol. Little by little we all had moved into the rough ice.

What was so different here compared to where we started? The camera of my Aqua-Vu gave it up; rock – and lots of it – strewn about the bottom. The walleye were holding tight to the rock. The lake had frozen differently over the rocky bottom, more than likely the dark coloration of the rock absorbed heat when the sun was out early in the season and this area froze later than it did over the sandy breakline. The ice was rippled here because it was thinner, had broken up during a high wind, floated out into Lake Huron , and then back in.

Was the rock the only reason for the walleye being here? This chunky, snow-covered ice also added cover to the area – like a swim raft does in a small during open water. Fish feel comfortable under the broken-up ice as sunlight penetration is diminished. It was a possibility, too, that the fish we had caught at dawn under the clear ice swam back under the cover of the ice chunks after sunrise. It would be similar to fishing during open water on a calm day verses when the wind’s blowing. The bite on a windy day is always better than during a calm day as there is less light penetration into the water.

Other formations

It doesn’t have to be a massive ice formation to hold fish. A small mound of snow on the ice, just a few feet across and mere inches thick, can have the same swim-raft effect. No matter what species you are fishing, don’t be afraid to drill a hole on the outer edges or in the middle of a snow mound.  

Small patches of cloudy ice are good places to fish, too. Small springs bubbling up from the bottom might be what caused the water to freeze differently here. A flow of water almost always attracts micro organisms, thus baitfish, and then predator fish.

Like those rocks did on Saginaw Bay , the still-green weeds of an inland lake can cause heat retention, thus the ice over weed beds may form differently than the surrounding ice. This is another good reason to fish these oddly frozen areas.

Pay attention

It all boils down to this: the ice can tell you a lot about what’s happening under a lakes frozen surface. Pay attention when ice fishing and fish the ice that looks different than its surroundings. Like we did during the Ice Fishing School/Vacation on Saginaw Bay , you may find it leads you to more fish.


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