I consider myself fortunate for having the opportunity to fish with, interview, and become friends with some of the most innovative and experienced ice anglers on the continent. You learn a lot hanging out with pros and guides. And, while researching my book on the subject, I dove deep down the hard-water rabbit hole with the brightest minds on the hard-water scene.
The following tips are a collection of truths, shortcuts, tactical tips, and lessons learned from my own adventures, plus others with decades of ice-fishing experience.
When regulations allow, fishing with multiple lines is to your advantage. #deadstick #tipup
Oily dead-bait on a quick-strike rig under a tip-up tops the list for winter pike presentations. Try smaller, 5-6′′ bait to coax mid-winter northerns to chew, but upsize to 10′′ or more at late ice. A trophy fish won’t hesitate to eat a 1½-lb dead-bait at late.
When jigging suspending fish or when shallow, jig a metallic-finished lure directly below the ice and in the ice hole to create a strobe-light effect and draw in fish.
Waterboatmen, scuds, and other invertebrates coming up the ice hole are a clue to fish high in the water column.
Banging rocks and “poofing” soft bottom attracts fish.
If a guide is explaining how to jig a lure, give them the rod and ask them to demonstrate. Watch and learn.
Like the silence between notes that makes great music, the timing and length of pauses are just as critical to getting bites as the manner of jigging.
The very act of holding a finesse rod can impart micro-movements to a bait that can turn-off ultra-fussy panfish. Resting the rod across a pail or on your knee, and watching the rod tip for a bite will catch the choosiest of customers.
Use the pencil grip for finesse jigging.
Fishing two panfish ice jigs spaced 12- 30′′ apart is a great way to work slightly different depths. Experiment with profile/colour. Double-bug it up!
Tight-lining is a skill worth mastering.
Sink rate is an overlooked detail. Up-feeders, like crappie, are very aware of a bait falling way above their heads. Go slow and keep it natural.
Never underestimate downsizing. When it’s tough, micro baits get bites.
From drilling holes, to walking, to talking, you’re louder than you realize on the ice. Keeping quiet rarely hinders an ice angler.
Noise exception: pike. I’ve seen an ATV driven around a tip-up spread and hole drilling stimulate pike activity. But, don’t overdo it because I’ve seen too much noise shut down trophy northerns.
Hole hopping can find active fish, but after locating a productive spot, it’s sometimes just as effective to stick around, be quiet, and call in fish.
Arrive early for time-sensitive bites. Showing up at a popular area at prime time and firing up the world’s noisiest auger really isn’t cool.
The shorter the transducer cord, the less likely it is to get tangled in the line when playing a fish. You can land big fish on light line. Be patient.
It’s best to tire a fish away from the ice hole, rather than quickly reeling it up and dealing with a spunky, green fish just below the ice. Do not lean in and look directly over an ice hole when playing or helping a friend land a fish. If the hook pops free, there’s the risk of getting a bait in the face. Sunglasses for eye protection are a good idea.
Line management is important when hand fighting a fish on a tip-up line. Store retrieved line downwind and on compact snow so it’s unlikely to tangle.
Tips and tricks
Understanding the preferred forage of a target species is a critical step to finding fish, fishing the right depth, and using an appropriate bait.
Don’t fish in silos. Work as a team, sharing info on fish locations in the water column, what bait and colour are catching ‘em, and other tips. Everyone wins with this approach.
Cut off the nose-hook on jigging minnows to prevent them from snagging the bottom of the ice hole when landing a fish.
Cutting a night crawler into pieces and using it to tip small jigs is a great, but overlooked, panfish presentation. Ditto on a hook and split-shot rig on set- lines for rainbow and other trout.
Tipping jigs, spoons, jigging minnows, and other lures with a minnow head or pieces of a minnow adds scent, gives fish a target, and dramatically increases bites in almost all scenarios.
Glow baits are your best friend in deep water or during low light or at night for walleye and crappie.
A tube-tipped treble on a spoon is another deadly modification for whitefish, walleye, and perch.
Opening up the hook gap on jigs by 10 ̊ improves hook-up ratio.
Cold? Drill some holes. That’ll warm ya up.
Don’t underestimate the morale booster of hot food and coffee on ice. Using vacuum bottles is one option, but a cookout is a lot more fun.
Pro tip: a metal ice skimmer doubles as a BBQ spatula. Wrapping sandwiches in tinfoil and heating them on the top of a propane heater also works.
If your vehicle is outfitted with a remote starter, park it facing the ice. When returning at night, start it from afar and use the headlights to find your way.
The arrival of a weather front can deliver incredible on-ice action.
I’m not recommending it, but it is possible to jumpstart a car battery using a 12-volt battery from an ice sonar.
Invest in moisture wicking technical apparel and dress in layers. Leave cotton clothing at home.
Insulated work gloves found at hardware stores are inexpensive and well suited for angling in mild to average winter temps.
Flip mitts are amazing for fishing.
Always carry extra gloves. Keep them dry in a plastic bag.
Pac boots are incredibly warm, but waterproof, insulated hunting boots are
more comfortable for anglers who walk a lot.
Having a spare change of clothes is a smart move.
Gear & baits
Treat yourself to a high-end, sensitive, lightweight graphite rod — but know, too, it’s hard to own just one.
Don’t skimp on a reel. A good one with a smooth drag is a must.
A rod outfitted with a spring bobber or noodle tip is a must for detecting and catching light-biting fish.
Use rod socks and lure wraps to prevent line tangles and lures from snagging in clothing.
Organize rod combos based on fish species or blank power, using different coloured tape to wrap a reel to the rod handle.
Protect combos by storing them in an ice-rod case.
Tungsten jigs are the real deal. Try them if you haven’t already.
Snap hooks, popular in fly fishing, are strong, compact, and perfect
for making quick lure changes when targeting small- to medium-
Using a snap swivel or tying in a small barrel swivel 12′′ to 18′′ above a lure curtails line twist.
Different ice lines perform better than others. I use PowerPro Ice-Tec braid, Seaguar, and Gamma fluorocarbon, and Trilene monofilament.
A plastic ice scoop won’t last as long as a metal skimmer.
If you don’t know the starting procedure of a fishing partner’s auger, let them get it running.
When someone is drilling holes, follow them and clean the holes with an ice skimmer and check depth with a sonar. Be a team player and don’t start fishing until this work is done.
Don’t store an ice auger in a half-drilled hole as it could freeze in place and
removing it may cause damage.
Scouting a new lake is easier in a boat with a sonar in the fall than walking around on hard water
Go through your sonar owner’s manual or watch videos on the subject to understand how to interpret the display, as many anglers often misread what’s happening on the screen.
Swing a transducer forward and back and side to side while watching the screen. Fish signals can reveal the direction of fish based on the direction the cord sways.
Keep lithium auger batteries warm to extend battery life. Store them inside a jacket pocket.
Lithium batteries are lighter and pack more power, but are initially more expensive than lead acid. Consider them for large sonar units requiring a lot of power.
Turn down sonar LCD screen brightness to extend battery life.
Charge your batteries after every outing.
If relying on a fish finder/GPS combo for navigation, carry a hand held GPS or compass for backup.
Don’t let a transducer bang around in a sled or drag on the ice when hole hopping, as it risks damage that may impede proper operation.
Using an underwater camera isn’t always about getting a perfect picture of what’s below. Sometimes it’s enough to see and identify the faces staring back at you.
Ice is never 100% safe.
Never trust other people’s tracks. Test the ice as you go by drilling holes or using a spud bar.
Wear a PFD, survival suit, or floating ice fishing suit.
A pair of ice picks are essential for self rescue should you fall through the ice.
Carry a throw rope.
Store a spare set of ice cleats in your shelter or rod bag.
Leaving a sled’s rope lying on the ice is a tripping hazard. Tuck it out of the way. Keeping shelters ventilated when heating them with propane or other fuel sources. Carbon monoxide is odourless.
Unknowingly stepping in an unfrozen on-ice livewell or doubled-up auger holes is not fun. Mark these with a stick after leaving so others can avoid the hazard.
Respect the sharpness of auger blades. Keep them covered when not drilling holes.
When hiking into remote lakes, you will sweat a lot. Pack a spare base layer shirt to change into.
Bring plenty of water and nutritious snacks to stay fuelled all day.
Catch & release
Always carry proper release tools in a pocket in your outerwear. Hemostats are excellent for panfish and whitefish.
Selective harvest is important. Consider the number and size of fish caught, and how frequently fish are kept over the season.
If you dream of catching 14′′ crappie, the 12-13′′ fish need to go back to grow.
More from the pros
Fish use travel corridors to get from Point A to Point B. Identifying these underwater highways is a huge factor for success.
-Scott Glorvigen: Minnesota pro
Time your day to fish high on structure early and move deeper as the day progresses.
Limit baits to three or four and learn to use them for different techniques. Sometimes a good bottom bait can make a good chase bait and even call fish
in. Use proven baits and don’t hop on every new fad.
-John Whyte: Ontario ice expert
The first drop down a fresh hole is the most important. Anything can happen. Be ready.
-Dave Genz: Ice godfather
Speed dead-sticking is deadly. Here, set-line rods are briefly jigged, allowed to soak in a hole for a few minutes, then either jigged again or repositioned. Frequent movement attracts fish, longer pauses seal the deal.
Kneeling takes its toll on the knees. Sit to fish or stand and use a longer rod, like St. Croix’s 48′′, when hole hopping.
Be methodical. Clean ice build-up from line and guides. Read just plastics after fish whiffa bait. Meticulousness = more bites.
Drilling a lot of holes over an area is a great way to reveal your “secret spot.” Use GPS waypoints to get on the prime structure and keep holes to a minimum.
Drilling dummy holes over unproductive water and taking the scenic route to a good area is another strategy to keep spot-suckers off your trail.
-Brian “Bro” Brosdahl: Ice pro and Minnesota guide
Drill holes and arrange tip-ups in a straight line. This covers any depth change more effectively and makes it easier to see the spread when using several set-lines.
-Rob Hyatt: Nipissing guide
Cut the sides of dead-bait for pike to disperse scent and make the bait sink faster.
-Dave Bennett: Lake of the Woods guide
A big mistake anglers make after attracting a predator fish is they stop moving the bait. Nothing in nature slams on the breaks when it’s being actively pursued. Big fish want to chase, so keep moving the bait away from them, forcing them to overtake it.
-Eric Haataja: Wisconsin guide
If helping a friend land a fish, let the angler with the rod play their catch. Don’t take over and grab their line as the fish nears or enters the hole.
-Yvonne Brown: Ontario ice enthusiast
Regardless of the fish species being targeted, having a second rod rigged and ready with a different bait/option will produce after your first offering is rejected.
-Lonnie Murphy: Custom rod manager, Thorne Bros.
Colour is more important in winter than open-water. Certain coloured lipless crankbaits consistently work better than others on certain waterbodies, but experiment as every day is different.
Swapping out the standard hooks on lipless crankbaits for a feathered treble can trigger bites
-Alex Keszle: Guide and Lake Winnipeg trophy walleye expert
Pulling a sled with a longer rope is easier than dragging one on a short string.
-“Big” Jim McLaughlin: Pro angler
Rocketing a camera through the water and letting it smash bottom scares away fish. Instead, lower the camera at a medium speed to the fishy zone, then slow down and spin it 360 ̊ to see what’s around.
-Tony Boshold: Chicago ice guide
Originally published in the Jan.-Feb. 2020 issue of Ontario OUT of DOORS magazine