Ice is creeping over lakes in the north, safe ice is only days away if it hasn't arrived already. As ice anglers make their way onto the ice they largely return to trusted spots for an early bite. What about anglers on new bodies of water? What about when the trusted spots don't produce? How do you find fish ice fishing, on new water, when your mobility and access to the water is limited by a half-foot of frozen water? That's exactly what I asked Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame member Steve Pennaz.
Pennaz, the host of Lake Commandos, might be the best person to ask about such things. For those that haven't seen the show, the entire premise is pitting world-class anglers against each other on unfamiliar water. No pre-fishing, no local help. Simply show up, and find more fish than the other guy. When it comes to finding fish under ice, Steve had five areas he focuses on:
Maps and Sonar -"The advances modern mapping and sonar have made in the last few years have completely changed the way we approach new water. Mapping software can eliminate a lot of area right off the bat, by allowing angers to focus only on areas like points, breaklines, flats, grass and bottom transitions that offer the highest probability of holding fish. Once in these spots, sonar units let anglers fine-tune their approach to the overall area. When you can research new water, before or during a visit, you can save a lot of time and energy by not fishing low-percentage areas."
Depth and Cover -"Find the weedline, if there is one, and work from there. Water clarity will dictate weedline depth. Clear water might mean you're working in 20 feet of water or more. Dirty water might mean the weed line is as shallow as five or six feet of water. Working that transition is going to be the most productive. Key on those areas where the weedline is adjacent to points of deep water basins. If the area has a softer, muddier bottom, I'm fishing it hard, as it it supports forage like bloodworms and other edibles. Winter fish, especially crappie and perch, key on invertebrates more than people think, and that muddy bottom is the place to find them. Once I find this sort of a location, I'm drilling 15 or 20 holes and looking for fish with sonar.
Fish Aggressive -"I'm looking to trigger bites. Small spoons are dynamite for everything including panfish. The treble hook is going to increase my chance at hooking up. Not to mention the lure itself is more likely to trigger bites.
Underwater Cameras - "If I've learned anything from using underwater cameras it's that ice anglers get bit way more often than they think. Winter fish rarely attack a lure; most slide up slowly to the bait and try to just suck it in. You might get bit eight or ten times before a fish gets the whole bait in their mouth so make as easy as possible for them to feed. Use light lines as they move easily in the water. Also, horizontal jig put the hook in the best position for light biters. Treble hooks are also dynamite.
"If you have an underwater camera, don't be afraid to tilt it up when you are looking for fish. Especially as winter drags on it's common to see fish within a foot or two of the bottom of the ice. You'll never see these fish with sonar."
Plastics - "The use of soft baits is growing on ice and I like the trend. They key with soft baits is to remember that you are the one that provides the action so you must fish them more aggressively than when fishing live bait. As a bonus, many soft baits are scented, and when the fish are studying lures as long as they are during ice season, any extra bit of appeal I can add, I'm going to do it."
"Lighter lines let the lure move more freely. When light-biting panfish are nipping at a lure, if the line is heavy enough to slow the motion, it may be enough to turn them off."
"Nothing is a given on the water, especially when the lake is frozen over. But if you can put this approach to work on new lakes this winter, or even familiar waters, you just might have the best ice season of your life."