Thursday, February 2nd, 2023
Thursday, February 2nd, 2023

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Let’s talk early ice-fishing basics

By Jeremy Smith / Contributing Writer

Across much of the ice belt, the hard-water season has arrived. Whether you’re ready or not, it’s here!

The early ice-fishing season is a special time of year. While many folks wait to fish until there’s enough ice for driving, the anglers who venture out early can take advantage of some of the best bites of the year. 

At first ice, shallow areas still are often full of life – and thankfully for ice anglers, these are most often the first areas to freeze. 

In my opinion, one of the most common mistakes that ice anglers make is heading too deep, too early. There’s no doubt that fish can be found on deeper structure or roaming basins, but anglers are walking over a lot of premium fish real estate to access these areas. 

My focus during the early season revolves almost entirely around shallow bays. I spend the majority of my time in 6 to 10 feet of water and on the search for healthy vegetation.

Vegetation is one of the biggest factors that dictates fish location during this timeframe. Anyone who’s spent any time reading about early ice bites has heard about the importance of finding green weeds. However, my experiences have shown that tracking down vertical standing weeds is even more critical. 

Unlike deeper-water bites that frequently relate to edges created by contours or topographical changes, these shallow-water bites typically relate to edges or pockets created by cover-like vegetation. 

Early-season vegetation bites are some of the most consistent bites you’ll find throughout the season. It can, however, require some serious legwork to uncover these prime spots, especially on large flats with consistent weed growth.

Historically, ice anglers have relied on underwater cameras to inspect these areas from above the surface, and that’s for good reason. There’s no better truth detector than an underwater camera.

If you want to know if weeds are green and standing or if fish in are in the area, an underwater camera will tell you just that. 

That being said, technological advancements, like forward-facing sonar, drastically have changed the ice-scouting game. For example, Humminbird’s Mega Live allows anglers to see 100 feet or more in any direction and quickly locate fish, pockets, and edges of weeds. That means drilling fewer holes than ever before. 

Early in the season, most areas are limited to foot traffic only. As a result, one of the best pieces of advice is to pack light. It’s easy to over-pack, but it doesn’t require a lot of gear to catch fish, especially this time of year.

My early-season arsenal consists of a few rods, some tackle, a Strikemaster 24V, a Helix 7, and an underwater camera. Because my early ice pursuits are dominated primarily by panfish – crappies and bluegills in particular – I pick my gear accordingly. When it comes to rods, I employ two models in the 26- to 32-inch range – a light power and medium-light power.

I rely on lighter models to fish small jigs with plastics or live bait and heavier models to fish more aggressive presentations, such as Slab Raps, Rippin’ Raps, and spoons. 

It wouldn’t be fair to discuss early ice and not mention ice safety. Safety should always be a consideration, but it’s particularly important at first ice. Precautionary measures such as spud bars, ice picks, cleats, and flotation are vital tools to make sure you have a safe and enjoyable experience. 

I’ll admit that I was skeptical of float suits at first, but continuous improvements have made them more comfortable and useful than ever before. It’s also important to remember that first ice isn’t the best time to explore to new bodies of water. You’re far better off heading to familiar locations – and don’t forget to bring a buddy.

For ice anglers, this time of year is hard to beat. Anticipation runs high and fish are pretty cooperative. Focus on the shallow stuff, remember to pack to light, implement the appropriate safety measures, and enjoy yourself on the ice.

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