Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Reasons aplenty to get off the couch and get into the fish house

(Photo courtesy of Clam/Ice Team)

By Brian Haines
Contributing Writer

It’s always the same. On a subzero afternoon in the middle of winter, I’ll find myself staring out my picture window at the thick blanket of snow that covers my front lawn. Meanwhile, thoughts churn in my head.  

I’ll be the first to admit that these aren’t any kind of deep reflections. Rather, it’s a constant battle between should I go fishing or should I just stay home? Fish don’t typically bite well during an arctic cold front, but yet I feel powerless to resist the urge of sitting in my fish house.  

To aid in the decision-making process, I’ll carefully pore over weather reports, examining things such as wind speeds, barometric pressure, and forthcoming temperature changes. I’ll check on my bait situation, fishing reports from other lakes, moon phases, and any other tidbits of information that might help push me toward a decision.  

Finally, I’ll decide that it’s just too cold and not worth the effort. I can stay home and spend some time with my family or check some items off my to-do list.  

My wife always seems to know better, however, and I usually catch a little smirk on her face as I lace my boots and button my coat.  

I like to call this time of the season the midwinter lull – that time of year when big game fish become rather lethargic and seem to suffer from a severe case of lockjaw. Through my years as an ice fisherman, however, I’ve learned that regardless of the weather, sometimes you just don’t know when that lunker is going to take the bait.  

Given the right conditions and some luck, a subzero winter day can produce some of the biggest fish you’ll catch all year. Here’s why.

Behavior

Fish behavior, specifically that of walleyes, often changes drastically when the mercury plunges over several days and weeks. Fish that were active and eagerly bit in December and early January have now moved to deeper water and have become somewhat sluggish.  

During early ice, fish feed aggressively to fatten up for mid- to late winter. Now that midwinter is here, those same fish wish not to expend a great deal of energy when feeding and are on the lookout for an easy meal.  

With that in mind, it’s a good time of the season to use shiner minnows or bigger fat-heads.  

Conditions

As is the case during any time of year, a successful fishing trip in midwinter hinges on weather conditions. Midwinter often seems as though it has only a couple of weather conditions: cold and colder. But that doesn’t mean that a slight rise in the mercury, a change in wind direction, or a looming storm front doesn’t affect fish behavior.  

Most veteran anglers can agree that hitting the ice prior to or during a storm can offer increased fish activity. During a week-long cold front, a slight 5- to 10-degree rise in temperature can trigger a bite almost as well as can an approaching storm. 

Put simply, paying attention to even the slightest weather changes can pay dividends when it comes to fishing during the midwinter lull.    

Location and depth

While you may find the occasional walleye cruising a shallow flat, the best bet is to find the fish in deep water. Deep-water structure such as rock piles, drop-offs, and points that descend into the main-lake basin are good places to find walleyes congregating. 

Depending on the lake, these pieces of structures could be anywhere from 20 feet deep to over 40 feet deep. A good tactic is to locate structure and drill a set of holes from the shallowest point to the deepest. Work your way through the holes until you locate the depth at which fish are holding. 

Action/jigging

When it comes to fishing for walleyes, I’m an advocate of jigging. In my opinion, there is no better way to get, and keep, a walleye’s attention.  

That said, there comes a time during the season when careful consideration should be paid to just how much and how aggressively you jig.  

At this time of year, walleyes are looking for an easy meal and are less willing to chase an active lure. I still jig, but only once every two to five minutes at most, and I do so in slow, fluid motions.  

I’ve found that sluggish fish tend to approach a bait slowly and watch it for a while before striking.  

Much like when you’re jigging for panfish, sometimes a simple shake or jiggle of the bait is all that’s needed to trigger a walleye strike. 

Dead stick

The dead stick tactic is one employed by many ardent walleye fishermen. Put simply, a dead stick is a hook baited with a live minnow set under a bobber that’s anywhere from 6 inches to a foot off the bottom of the lake. This tactic can work wonders when fish are too lethargic to strike a jigging lure.  

As a one-two punch, I like to slowly work a jig in one hole while a minnow rests under a dead stick in another. The jigging action will attract the fish while the dead stick offers an easy meal.

Gear

If you’re the type of angler who likes to pack in much gear, this is the time of year to do it. By now, the ice is thick, the fish are deep, and there’s plenty of insulation between on-ice noise and the fish you’re trying to catch. It’s the perfect time of year to pack the truck with augers, radios, propane grills, sleds, and anything else that either helps catch fish or passes the time.  

When it comes to actually fishing, however, you never need more than the basics to catch fish through the ice, no matter the time of year. A couple of good rods, some jigs, and, of course, an auger and dipper are all you really need.  

Another piece of valuable gear is a good shovel. You don’t want to be the guy waiting to be pulled out of a snowdrift. Trust me, I’ve been there.

Safety

Finally, safety is always a consideration, even when the ice is nearly 2 feet thick.  

This is the time of year when hazards such as pressure ridges or large ice chunks are hidden beneath mounds of snow.  

On one of my favorite lakes, the ice can be at full thickness, yet open near shore where a ridge meets the shoreline. A good rule of thumb when fishing a lake new to you is to stay on or near the paths that other vehicles already have made.

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