Fishing & Boating News

When Ice Finally Comes

Where you catch fish at first ice will depend on when, exactly, it formed  

by: Mitch Eeagan,

Photo by courtesy Mitch Eeagan
The broad screen of a Humminbird ICE HELIX 5 GPS Sonar reveal both weeds and fish in living color.
Photo by Bill Lindner  
(Dec 19, 2015 - Michigan) Seasonal depression… Disregard the claim it’s a lack of daylight triggering this disorder. Anglers who live in the Ice Belt know what really generates despondency: The absence of ice.
It’s all because first ice is, by far, is the best time for catching most every species that swims in cold water. But during a winter such as this, when El Niño has weather patterns in disarray, lakes may not see a frozen exterior safe enough to walk until we’re well into midseason.
Gloom? Despair? Agony? To say the least. Cheer up…ice will come…
But late formation begs a question about the first-ice bite: Is it so grand due to the sudden change in a waterway’s environment, no matter when the water hardens, or, is it more the time of year when surfaces typically solidify, which happen to coincide with good moon phases, the amount of daylight, fast falling water temperatures and weed decay?
I probed the minds of two preeminent ice anglers to get their opinion. Overall, they feel it’s the latter for the normally hot, first-ice bite. But they also said there’s no black-and-white answer, but rather many gray ones. Both admit, no matter what, it will take some time to find fish when first ice finally comes. And, that having the correct gear with you will speed up the search. 
In short:  Where you catch fish at first ice will depend on when, exactly, it forms.
Start where you left off
In general, when ice forms early, the first place you should drop a line is where you last caught fish in late fall. But whether fish will be there when the ice-making season starts late will depend on the health of the weeds.
“There’s still the prospect off finding fish in your best first-ice spots of the past, if the weeds are still standing and green,” said Minnesota fishing guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl. “But don’t rely solely on past memories and spend all day there if the plants have started dying off. When the foliage is brown and down, the fish will have started migrating towards their midwinter haunts.”
As soon as Bro bores a conservative swath of holes, he deploys his Humminbird ICE HELIX 5 Sonar GPS to check the depth under each one, as well as for any sign of fish. (Bro recommends not over-drilling an area as fish are skittish under a thin and clear veil.) If the latter is seen, he’ll drop quickly. If no fish are present, or they spook, he then switches to his Aqua-Vu AV Micro DT underwater viewing system. Of course he’s looking for fish, but what he’s even more interested in are green weeds.
“Underwater plants do more than give bugs and minnows a place to hide from predators,” said the ice fishing rebel. “When they’re still green, they give off the very oxygen needed to support aquatic life. Decaying weeds, however, produce noxious gasses and repel fish.”
If Bro spots still-standing vegetation, he’ll figure out which direction they are from his hole, then drill more as close to the edge of the foliage bed as possible and give the zone a good half hour before moving to deeper water.
Spoons with lots of flutter and flash, like this Fin-Wing, get noticed in shallow water.
No matter who I talked to in the professional-fishing world, they bring up the Importance of starting out with lures that flutter and flash on the fall. This is because it takes a lot of sparkle to catch the eye of fish buried in the weeds.
Spoons that tumble on the drop—like Custom Jigs & Spins’ Slender Spoons and Keweenaw Tackle’s Fin-Wing—are easy for fish to zone in on as they impart a blaze of reflection, as well as disperse a lot of water, thus the vibration is easily picked up by a fish’s lateral line.   
If panfish are your quarry, smaller offerings like the 1/16-ounce Slender Spoon, 1/4-ounce #-1 Fin-Wing and Bro’s Northland Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon are prime selections. Simply go up the totem-pole to larger sizes of the same baits for predators like walleyes and pike.
No matter what size your targeted species, employ a lift of the rod tip with a quick drop, so the spoon rips up through the water column and then free-falls towards the floor.

Deep thoughts
If your shallow spots dried up by the time safe ice formed, it’s then time to head towards the lake’s main basin. But don’t forget to check all likely spots in-between.
Enter Custom Jigs and Spins’ prostaffer Russ Maddin. This iceoholic is a hole hopper if there ever was one. Armed with nothing more than a Frabill sled, hand auger, couple rods and a small handful of baits, Maddin hoofs it by foot through the deep lake-effect-snow on the ice of Northwest Lower Michigan’s lakes.

“I’m drillin’ holes, lots of holes, as I head towards deep water this time of year,” says Maddin. “Even though it may be first ice, technically, the fish may already be migrating to deep water. But they’re not all going to be there at the same time, rather spread out on structure along the way.”
Maddin’s a fan of heavy jigs for hole hopping, making sure to fish every one whether he sees fish on his sonar or not. Chekai and Majmun tungsten jigs tipped with spikes, waxies and/or Wedgee and Micro Noodle plastics are his go-tos for panfish, while the larger 1/4- to 3/8-ounce Lightnin’ VertiGlo Spoon with a lively minnow lip-nipped onto its hook, or with a Pro Finesse Drop Chain hook tipped with grubs take top honors for bigger predators.

Although he fishes every hole, Maddin doesn’t stay long if no fish show up on his sonar. “The fish can be really spread out when first ice comes later in the season,” he added. “There’s a lot of water to cover, so it’s often just one fish here, one fish there. But the next thing you know, you’ll have a bucket full of fish if you keep moving around.”

When ice finally comes
So where will the fish be when the ice is finally think enough to traverse? That will depend on when it finally formed.

Check out your usual first-ice hot spots, and use lures with lots of flutter and flash. But don’t stay there if the weeds have died off. If that’s the case, head to the lake’s main basin. Just make sure to stop and fish along the way.
Mitch Eeagan is a writer and photographer who not only lives, but survives off the land and water in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.  
Photo by courtesy of Custom Jigs & Spins  
The Lightnin’ VertiGlo Spoon works wonders at foolin’ big predator fish in deeper water.
Photo by courtesy of Custom Jigs & Spins