Monday, January 30th, 2023
Monday, January 30th, 2023

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Plan ahead for putting on ice-fishing miles

(Photo courtesy of Joel Nelson)

By Joel Nelson
Contributing Writer

Although it may seem a bit odd to be planning a February or early March ice-fishing trip before some of us have yet to step foot on solid ice, the time really is now. Popular destinations fill up fast, and the best lodging, guides, and dates will be gone quickly, making it imperative that you act promptly. All venues are looking to maximize their calendar because ice season is a rather short affair. But full is full no matter where you’re looking.  

As we continue to knock dust from our ice-angling gear and rust from our jigging stroke, it’s possible that sometime during the Christmas and New Year’s holidays we may encounter some great fishing. While that might make it harder to focus on far-away options, it’s likely that unless you live near one of the larger fish factories in the state, or near a plethora of untapped waters, you may have to travel during the winter doldrums to get on a good bite. Good populations of fish simply don’t exist in much abundance in certain regions, meaning that it’s just fine to travel to places that do.

I’ve also noticed that during the holidays, when people are getting together for office parties and Christmas gatherings, it’s a great time to compare notes, gauge people’s interest in traveling, and ultimately plan a trip. Here’s just a few things you should be thinking about when considering a destination.

Where to go?

First and foremost in the planning process should be identifying a region or area where you’d like to fish, which may or may not be dependent upon a specific species. 

Some of the best midwinter fishing destinations, such as Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake and Lake Sakakawea in North Dakota, and others throughout the Midwest have incredible fishing for a host of different fish species. That can give anglers some options should the bite go south for one kind of fish or another.

After a general location or lake is agreed upon, it’s time to start talking logistics of your stay. Hotels offer some nice comforts, but they’re usually not on the water and, depending on the site, don’t always cater to anglers’ needs. 

Resorts are great, they’re often on or near a lake’s access, they have bait, and resorters understand what it takes to fish and stay at the same time. 

Increasingly, lodging can be in a wheelhouse or permanent shack on the lake, which can be an enticing option for those looking to fish at night, to have a home base, or simply to enjoy the experience.

To guide or not to guide

Generally speaking, guides perform a number of tasks really well. Not only will they take you to locations where there are fish, but they’ll also give you equipment to use that’s in good working order. And if you’re willing to listen, they’ll you get an incredible head start on how to approach the fishery.  

Even if you hire a guide for a day or two of your stay, you’ll find likely locations, depths, and presentations to replicate. But, more importantly, you’ll be able to set appropriate expectations.  

Many people arrive at destination fisheries during the toughest part of the ice season because fishing back home has gotten tough. A guided trip helps temper expectations for even the best ice-fishing destinations, especially if fishing during a cold front, full moon phase, or in heavily pressured waters.

While I recommend fishing with a guide at least for a day to get an understanding of a lake and to receive basic safety information, it’s easier than ever for a DIY trip if you do some internet research.  

Tourism bureau and other local knowledge through resorts and fellow anglers can prove extremely useful in helping you figure out some basics. Fishing experience for the species you’re targeting certainly helps, but keep in mind that you’ll need to have everything a guide typically does. You’ll usually do better when mobile, and it’s not easy to show up and just drop on fish. Expect to work for it and be happy to adapt.  

The finer points

On-ice travel could be one of the most important points of detail that can make or break a trip, so have a revisable plan leading up to the day you leave for what current ice conditions dictate. That cold mean trucks, ATVs, or UTVs in the weeks leading up to the trip – then snowmobiles the day before you leave if a big storm hits.  

No matter your mode of on-ice travel, you’ll need to have a plan, with quality navigation options via a GPS/sonar combo, an app, or some other means. On big water, it’s not only safer, but it’ll make fishing more productive.

Quality bait can make a difference in regional areas where fish may be biting something that’s not readily available in your area. Shiners are usually at a premium but don’t travel well, so consider better aeration and O-tabs or other water conditioner to keep them alive. Better yet, track down a bait source near where you’re fishing and plan to buy there, provided the supply is adequate.

If there ever was a time for redundancy, it’s prior to embarking on a big trip. That comes into play now, because it’s often hard to find sold-out ice products come midwinter. That could include, but is not limited to, auger blades, extra batteries for your auger or ice electronics, boots, gloves, forceps, or any other vital tools. It’s hard to predict what you may need on a trip, but these are common ones for me, along with some fresh fishing line.

Consider sharing food duties with friends to make it more fun, provided it’s something everyone enjoys. That said, I’ve often been happier with many of the lakeside restaurants and resorts that’ll clean and fry your catch for you after a long day of fishing. What a great way to enjoy fish, for what usually ends up being a nominal cost.  

The better you prepare now, the better the end result will be when you reach your fishing destination. Just don’t wait too long or you’ll come out of this ice season again wishing you’d have booked that dream trip.

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