25 Ice Fishing Tips for the Upper Midwest

February 9, 2009 by  

By Bill Mitzel


Bill Mitzel has been helping anglers catch fish for over 2 decades through his work at Dakota Country Magazine

Bill Mitzel has been helping anglers catch fish for over 2 decades through his work at Dakota Country Magazine

We started out with some strong, quick ice in late November, with several days of below zero weather.

Then, just when it looked like we might enjoy a “normal” winter in the Dakotas, the mild weather returned and ice thickness stabilized over most of the region from 9 to 14 inches. That’s normally good enough for vehicular traffic, but such ice thickness isn’t consistent enough to consider thoroughly safe.

But, ice anglers are still enjoying a good season over most of the region, with a wide variety of fish being caught. With all the advancements in ice fishing tools nowadays, the way we implement our approach to hard water fishing has changed, but the fish themselves remain as they were. They react to the elements, both natural and man-made, and just in case we forgot what that means, here are a few thoughts about it.

• Freshwater shrimp have gained a strong foothold in many Dakota waters, and that seems to have affected ice fishing results on some lakes, as fish seem to have a lot to eat. Devils Lake may be a good example, but the bottom line is that we have to work a little harder to entice them in such situations where natural food is abundant. The rules of mobility on the ice still apply.

• With all of today’s “gadgets” for ice fishing, I wonder how we got along without the depth finder. It shows fish, tells us how deep we are, shows us our bait, and gives us a clue as to whether or not fish are actually biting below the ice or just staring at our baits. A very useful tool, without question.

• On a similar note, the underwater camera is almost equally as exciting. Watching fish in our clear winter lakes via the camera is fun of a unique nature.

• There’s a huge variety of jigging baits for the ice rodder, but in the end, smaller is better than larger, with two exceptions: walleyes and pike. But even for walleyes, we tend to use the smaller baits first. We believe smaller baits and lures are just easier and more attractive for fish, especially on those bait-crowded lakes.

Having an assortment of lures and presentations is crucial when fishing pressured lakes - dont be afraid to experiment

Having an assortment of lures and presentations is crucial when fishing pressured lakes - dont' be afraid to experiment

In line with that, light line is also imperative for more fish. Now, I know fish have no idea what the difference is between 6 lb. test and 12 lb. test, or that they even care what fishing line is. But lighter line will catch more fish. Ask any veteran angler. In addition to the catch rate, you’ll detect light bites easier and enjoy the catching part more.

• Small bobbers are the rule, just enough to keep the bait afloat.

• Light rods, those approximately 24 inches in length, with a fast tip, will give you the most ice fishing enjoyment. A stiff rod is good for pike and big fish, of course, but for panfish, go with the whippy rod. It’ll make catching fish a lot more fun.

• Color of lure or jig simply doesn’t matter.

• If you’re using things like waxworms, keep them fresh. A worm that’s lost its “meat” and has only the skin hanging onto the hook is virtually worthless. Keep those worms fresh. They produce a lot of scent.

• Minnows should be on the smaller side, 1 1/2 to 2 inches, Hook them horizontally just behind the dorsal fin to maintain liveliness.

• Perch will eat both waxworms and minnows, but BIG perch will prefer minnows, unless they’re in a lake that has no food. Then it doesn’t matter. But most of the time, bigger perch will prefer minnows over waxworms.

A general rule of thumb for panfish is to keep the bait, line, and bober as small as possible

A general rule of thumb for panfish is to keep the bait, line, and bober as small as possible

• Bluegills prefer waxworms. Period.

• Crappies prefer minnows. Period.

• Pike prefer most anything, from frozen smelt to car bodies.

• You’re going to be a lot less frustrated if you keep that auger sharp and you can drill through thick ice quickly. This will keep you mobile and more willing to move if you need to.

• Stay in touch with baitshops and other anglers to enjoy current fishing hotspots. Fishing news travels faster than the speed of sound. But sometimes, you’ve got to ask more questions. When you hear of a hotspot, it’s also vital to ask how deep, what bait, time of day, areas of the lake and how thick is the ice. Details.

• If you find a crowd of anglers on the ice, fish the fringe area, just outside the activity. All fish react to pressure, which includes noise.

• Mornings and evenings are times of advanced fish feeding, especially during the winter months. This includes all species.

• We’ve often been amazed at how just moving a few yards can make a difference. Maybe a little closer to the weedline, the shoreline, the rocks or the middle. There’s always a need to explore. Don’t set things up until you’re sure there are fish below you.

• It doesn’t hurt, and usually helps, to keep your bait moving. Twitch it often, pick it up, lower it, just move it. Schools of fish are competitive and it can make one of them hit.

• If you fish a particular lake in the summer, make use of that knowledge in the winter. The same areas you found fish during open water are good bets in the winter, too. Nothing beats knowledge of the lake and that comes by fishing it a lot… year around.

• As a general rule, keep the bait about one foot off the bottom at depths up to 15 feet. Deeper than that, move the bait a little higher off the bottom, say up to 18 inches over 20 feet of water. Fish can easily see above, not below themselves.

• Long-shank hooks are more effective for two reasons: First, they will hold more waxworms, and second, it will make unhooking a fish that is to be released much easier.

• Unkink your fishing line by slightly stretching it as you lower it into the hole. Kinked line is a hassle and a deterrent to success.

• Catching fish anytime of year is rewarding, but in the wintertime, through an ice hole, in the warmth of a fish house, with venison sausage on the stove, it’s special. The excitement works for everyone, regardless of age or gender. There’s still plenty of time to get out there.


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