A dawn-to-dusk angling recipe for multi-species hardwater action
The shake of a big walleye or northern pike atop the ice begins with planning that begins days, even weeks before hitting the hard water.
The equipment, your position on the ice, your live bait: You’ll be a more successful angler if you iron out these details before even considering leaving your home. Here’s a breakdown to what I’ll call “a day on the lake with ‘Tackle’ Terry’.”
Obviously, you begin by investing in quality winter ice fishing gear. With the fantastic products from the likes of Clam Outdoors and Vexilar today, there’s no excuse not to be comfortable and efficient out-of-doors. Every angler in America, and beyond, has the opportunity to acquire the exact same, affordable gear that Ice Team pros employ all winter long.
Own the gear? Now let’s focus on fishing.
The day or evening before fishing, I select a lake and the species I’m interested in targeting, then quickly focus on prime locations. You need a good printed lake map or digital lake finder to achieve this. Choose four or five spots (only) with variable depth and structure options. Lean on your experiences on this water body (or similar ones) when choosing your top five locations.
Always monitor weather conditions and never miss fishing on stable weather days. A steady barometer is best at 29.8 to 30.2 bpms. I’ve generally enjoyed less success when my barometer is below 29, though a dropping barometer is better than a rising one. Again, stable barometric pressure produces the best fishing in winter or summer. Rearrange your work schedule – by any means necessary – to target these prime days.
The evening before, pre-rig your rods with baits and lures that you’ll use only on that day. Check to be sure bait is lively and healthy. If not, take a trip to the bait shop! Then load up with your gear and double-check everything before rolling out.
When my fishing day arrives, I’m up by 4 a.m., grabbing some coffee and filling my Thermos, then on the road by 4:30 a.m. – no later, so I can be on the ice by 5:30 a.m.
Upon arrival at my destination, I generally ignore negative “dock talk” from other anglers at the access point or at bait shops. My motto: Find your own fish every day and on every lake. Fishing success on lakes and rivers can vary tremendously from day to day and even hour to hour, so don’t allow negativity to damper your enthusiasm.
Heading directly to my top pre-selected area, I’ll search for spots with snow cover because that will reduce noise and sunlight. Then it’s time to drill a couple holes, drop my Vexilar transducer, and check for fish.
Give any area 15 minutes to settle down from the noise of your arrival before moving – maybe even a little more if you are coping with other people coming and going. If you’re not marking fish within that timeframe, then go to the fish. You pre-selected five spots, so use them. Move your equipment and follow the one-rod-to-a-hole ice formula.
Considering tackle, choose a rod, reel or lure that you expect will be a producer. Check your drag system regularly – not too tight or too loose. The night before, you’d better bet I’ve laid out my second, third, and fourth pre-rigged rods. Good organization saves time, keeps me more comfortable in cold weather, and boosts success.
If I follow the above rules, I’ve probably caught my first fish before 6 a.m. This first fish tells me what lure, jig, action, color, and bait to follow up. We now have an indicator into the mood of the fish.
Catch another fish within a few minutes and a pattern is beginning to develop. We can now answer questions like “Why are the fish here and what are they doing?” I’ll continue to duplicate my depth and action as long as it works.
By 6:45 action may be starting to slow, though we’re probably still marking fish. Time to switch up lure color, profile, size, jigging actions. Within 10 minutes or so, ask yourself, “Is color or a new profile the answer?” Consider changing to plastics or different live bait and you’ll catch more fish before 7 a.m.
If you catch no more fish even after changing things up, it’s time to switch locations, especially if you cease marking fish. Move deeper, shallower, or in between to some of those other pre-selected spots. Rely on your fishing experience and gut-feel to select the proper depth and location in the water column.
Fishing is a process of elimination. Patience, a positive attitude, and confidence are the keys, but minor details make all the difference.
At day’s end, load up your equipment and bring home just enough fish to eat. You released all the others, right? En route home, ask yourself, “What did I learn today?” You should see all my notebooks filled with ideas and reminders to myself. Me and my fishing partners definitely consult those notes before returning to that water body.
Once home, unload your gear, but also prepare for your next trip. Check your line for frays, and retie lures.
You should never get skunked. If so, you’ve done something wrong. Sure, some days simply won’t produce the best bite, but work at it and you’ll be successful. Every trip can’t produce peak quantity or quality, but they still can be great days out-of-doors.