The best ice is often first ice. And that's because the water below the hard surface of first ice still holds a good supply of oxygen and the fish are actively feeding. Safety is a must at this time of the year, however. This is when anglers must travel by foot because the ice is too thin for heavier traffic. And also when anglers will have some of the hottest action of winter!
Northwoods' anglers, such as walleye pro Perry Good of Minnesota, are on the ice by Dec. 1 during most years. Wearing an inflatable lifejacket and always going with a buddy, Perry will head towards the weed edges nearest to shore. That's where he'll find crappies, sunfish, walleyes, and perch during the day. Crappies and walleyes move deeper after dark and provide consistent action at dusk and under the stars.
Good travels light. A 5-gallon bucket holds his Vexilar F-18 flasher and rods spooled with 4-pound or 2-pound monofilament line depending on the clarity of the lake he plans to fish.
Use A Portable House
If he needs protection from the elements, he loads everything in a Fish Trap portable house designed by fellow Lindy Legendary Tackle Pro Staff member Dave Genz, the father of modern ice fishing. Genz was among the first to preach that moving often is the secret to ice-fishing success.
"The key is being mobile and going to the fish," Good agreed. "As soon as they leave a spot, you have to re-locate them. In summertime, you don't just anchor somewhere all day. It's the same in winter. You're always looking for active fish."
A small tackle box is enough to hold the necessities. Good's favorite ice jig is the Genz Bug. He likes its profile and its bigger-than-normal hook for better hook sets. The Genz Worm is a favorite for perch.
He always takes small minnows, wax worms and eurolarvae, which are also known simply as spikes. He has all three along because fish can change their preference from day-to-day, even hour-to-hour.
Bigger crappies -- the really slab-sized ones that stretch to 15 inches and more -- prefer minnows, but smaller crappies will take the waxworms or spikes. Walleyes and perch sometimes take the insects, but they also like a minnow head on a Jigging Rap or spoon. Walleyes also like a fathead minnow or shiner on a plain hook.
Try Soft Baits
Good also takes along a selection of Techni-Glo Tails. They're soft plastic baits that glow for several minutes once energized with a Lindy Tazer, which is a high-intensity light. They're great when the water is dingy or stained, after dark, or when the fish just want "something different." His plastic preference is the Nail Tail for panfish. Walleyes and perch also like the Micro-Mino and Split Tail.
Add a few, small Thill Mini Stealth floats and you're set.
Good believes that darkness and the low-light times just after sunrise or before sunset are even more critical in winter than during the summer for walleyes and crappies. Perch and bluegills bite all day, but forget it after the sun goes down.
The location for crappies and sunfish is the same during the magic first-ice period.
"Wherever the fish were in late fall, that's where they'll be now," Good said. "That's usually just off the weedlines even if the weeds are dying."
Observation has taught Good that hatchery-raised walleyes reared in weedy ponds seek out weed edges in stocked lakes. As a result, you'll catch them in the same spots you'll find the crappies. But, naturally spawned walleyes are more often found on hard-bottom rock or gravel bars with deep water nearby. They're usually close to where you'll find perch, and perch like the mud, which holds the insects they eat. They'll also be found on transition areas where the bottom changes from gravel to sand to mud. Some perch will be in the weeds, too.
Fish The Weedlines
Since the weeds are a high-percentage spot, drill several holes at various places along the weedline as soon as ice reaches 4 inches in thickness, strong enough to support an angler. It helps if you scouted the area in a boat during open water and entered waypoints to mark points or inside turns on the weed edge on a hand-held GPS unit.
If your state allows two rods per angler, use one hole for a dead stick with a float, small hook and a minnow. For crappie, start with the bait a couple of feet off the bottom. And then, put your transducer from your flasher in the same hole you'll use a jigging rod, Techni-Glo plastics, and/or live bait.
Watch the unit for signs of fish. Crappies are often those marks suspended off the bottom. Raise your bait above them.
"They'll think the bait is escaping, and they'll slam it -- walleyes will, too," Good said. "You can play with them, and pull it away from them to entice a strike. The flasher turns ice fishing into a video game. I can't imagine all those years we fished without them."
Try different jigging actions, but don't overdo it.
"It's amazing. The one you are working will often out-fish the float rig," he said.
He also advises to switch from one kind of live bait to another and change up colors on the plastic bait to see what the fish want. If you know fish are below you, but you can't get them to bite no matter what, an Aqua-Vu underwater camera is a good tool to have along. You might lower the lens and discover the marks you saw were only suckers.
Move when action stops. Stay along the weed line during the day. But, when fish quit biting after the sun goes down, move away from the weed edge toward deeper water. That's where you'll find crappies and walleyes.
"And, those fish will bite best as the sun goes down," Good said.
Remember, this is a time when extreme caution is needed. Ice may be thinner in places with current or areas fed by underwater springs. Never go ice fishing alone, and always tell someone where you are going, and what time to expect you home. A rope tied to a floatation cushion is also good to have along. Hand held ice spikes are also a must to keep handy.
For a fine selection of ice fishing gear, click here.
For a fine assortment of Fresh Water fishing gear, click here.
Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson write a weekly column for sportsmansguide.com. Ted has many fishing achievements, including a victory at the 1993 Mercury Nationals and the 1995 Professional Walleye Trail Top Gun award. He reached the pinnacle of both angling and business when he was named PWT Champion in 1998 and president of Lindy Little Joe, Inc., of Brainerd, Minn., a year later.
(Ted's sponsors include Ranger Boats, Mercury Outboards, Pinnacle Rods and Reels, Bottom Line Electronics, Minn Kota, Stren, Normark, Flambeau, Master Lock, Gamakatsu, Aqua Vu and Nautamatic TR 1.)