Tips for maximizing first-ice success
A couple of years ago I began to follow the ducks south for the winter. When the migration begins from Canada I’ll pop into a ground blind for a few days of waterfowling before weaving my way through the Southern states to end up in Florida in time for the tremendous grouper bite before that season closes. Fortunately the holidays bring me back up to the north country to take advantage of the early-ice phenomenon.
Right when the ice becomes safe to venture out, anglers can count on finding hungry fish. Crappies are still roaming in the shallow vegetation before transitioning into the deeper holes by mid-season. Northern pike are also cruising the cabbage and milfoil that is still standing and when those tip-up flags start waving it’s not uncommon for two or three to pop at the same time.
If an angler wants to spend the night in a shelter on the ice with some strike-indicating devices on their tip-ups the potential for some trophy-sized walleyes is there. And, if it’s big bluegills that make you drool, early ice is the perfect time to drop a eurolarvae on a teardrop jig.
Pro anglers with whom I have fished with over the years stress: Don’t fish memories. What they mean by that is the average angler tends to return to spots where they caught fish in the past, even if conditions don’t favor a location like that. Fish respond to certain stimuli like water temperature, forage, current, light penetration, cover options, fishing pressure, and others. These conditions position fish in certain areas, and that environment is prone to change, so one must consider how fish will respond to the factors that drive them to certain spots on a water body.
My problem is I am always compelled to try the spots where I caught a big fish or where I caught a bunch of fish even though I have been instructed not to, by pro-anglers who are a lot better at fishing than me. I have my “milk runs” every year for ice fishing and I generally return to these locations initially because I have had success there in the past. This is why you see concentrations of ice shelters in certain areas each year. Some structural elements are prone to holding fish, and they produce consistent bites.
The problem with these community spots is they get hammered hard and fast and soon the aggressive fish are gone or educated. That’s why establishing some new hotspots is important.
My main point? When early ice arrives, get out often during this peak time and fish all your best hotspots hard, because it won’t be long before they cool off. Use all your tools, like a good auger, sonar, underwater cameras, and contour maps on your smart phone to find new spots where the bite is all yours.