Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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Early ice angling: How to stay ahead of the crowd

(Photo courtesy of Joel Nelson Outdoors)

By Joel Nelson
Contributing Writer


Early ice is pretty nice. Especially now, as the popularity of modern wheelhouses has grown. I’ve noticed fewer and fewer anglers creeping onto first ice with a simple sled and chisel.  


I can understand their patience, because I’m a huge fan of finding safe ice – tested by others using trucks and towing shelters – that I can pull my wheelhouse onto and enjoy with the family. Yet, from a fishing pressure perspective, on most lakes you’ve got fish that haven’t seen many lures or much traffic for months. First ice is great to get after some of those fish and to have spots to yourself in the process.


Next come the wheelers. Some years, especially when the mercury really dips, there’s a first-ice shuffle as the lake goes from a few inches of skim ice to 8 inches of hard, clear ice in the course of a weekend. 


But in years when ice builds slowly, you’ve got time to fish shoreline breaks for walleyes, creep to first-ice panfish weeds, and even maybe sample some basin crappies before the rest of the crowd makes it out in force. ATVs and snowmobiles represent the second wave of pressure (after foot traffic) and when they arrive, small clusters of anglers start to form on structure and over biting fish alike.  


Overhead noise affects fish differently, depending on a few factors, including water depth. I’ve often been my own worst enemy in clear, shallow water while walleye fishing. If you like drilling holes and pacing a lot, doing so over shallow water can be a killer. 


So can traffic from other anglers. 


After you’ve been set up with dead sticks and tip-ups along a break that you’ve carefully scouted and selected for an hour or two, it’s difficult to see folks show up at sundown, stumble into your spread, and pop 20 holes all around you while in the process ruining any chance either of you had to catch fish that evening.  


For that reason, give first-ice anglers some berth, especially if they’ve staked out an area.  


If you think that level of quiet or caution is too extreme, find some panfish to view with an underwater camera and study when the third wave – trucks and trailers – starts hitting the ice. Panfish are generally comfortable with cameras, and it’s fun to study them and see what they’ll do when overhead noise starts increasing.  


Park the camera among a school of fish and drill a hole in the ice 20 yards away or so. They may or may not react negatively. Now, bang that same auger on the ice, chisel a hole, or drill over the top of them, and, especially in under 15 feet of water, you’ll watch them dramatically react to the loudest bangs and pops.      


Back to the trucks …  


I’ve seen species of all kinds turn themselves inside out when a big vehicle causes the frozen lake to crackle and pop. Even from beyond that 20-yard mark, fish don’t love large-vehicle traffic, especially when it first starts invading their lakes. It’s hard to blame them, with sound traveling so much better underwater than above it. Guides I’ve fished with report poorer early-season days when the ice is actively moving and popping – without any vehicles being driven on it.  


So, armed with all that anecdotal information regarding fish reacting negatively to noise, you should be thinking about your early-season moves to both catch fish and to avoid the racket. For first ice, it usually just involves hiking a bit farther than where most of the rest of the people are fishing. That can even save you from ATVs on most water bodies for the first few weeks.  


Of course, a perfect situation is accessing a public lake from a private residence. Chains of lakes, lakes with current, or those that have narrow neck-downs can also feature a built-in advantage when walking (safely) through to the next system past the access. Use a chisel to check the ice while sticking to one shoreline side of the narrows or the other.  


Most of the anglers I know who use an ATV or snowmobile to fish are pretty dedicated to the sport. They invest in electronics to show them more about the underwater world, and they focus on well-mapped locations on any lake.  I typically see structure fill up during the second wave of traffic, with anglers hitting tips of underwater points, inside turns on deep basins, and rock piles or humps.  


That’s when secondary spots really start to get good – maybe not the main-lake point, but the smaller underwater point just down the shore from it. Perhaps not the prominent hump on the lake, but the smaller one on the other end of it.


Of course, when the lake is fully open to big-truck traffic and wheelhouses, the game changes once again. It’s a race to spots that aren’t filled, as well as a move to community-type spots that are often either basin-related for crappies and bluegills, or scraps from what once was a bustling community of anglers on ATVs and snowmobiles.  


Especially on large metro-area waters, small- to medium-sized lakes can feel “full” to most anglers. No matter where you look on an underwater contour map, it would seem that every twist and turn, each major structural element, and every basin bite is covered. You’d have to really crowd in and upset someone just to find a spot.


At this point, I start looking for spots that aren’t really spots I’d tend otherwise to fish. 


If you did some homework during the open-water season for the hard-water one, you probably already have spots like this in mind. Side-imaging and bottom-hardness readings from open water graphs can really help decipher zones of fish movement. And strong knowledge of your electronics, combined with some underwater camera sleuthing, can really pay dividends.  


Keep in mind that locations like these don’t always correspond to attractive-looking contours. They can be along the edge of a flat, a long ways from anything structural, or a simple 1- to 2-foot change in depth.  


While it can be the hardest and coldest part of the winter to find first, then fish, you’re typically much better off in starting with just the drill and electronics, then dropping some lines. Pay attention to what others around you are doing, and have the courage to zig when they zag.  


You very well may miss out on some great bites, but you’ll also have the ones you find to yourself.  

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