(Bud White is owner and manager for Elkhorn Lures. EIkhorn makes an ice fishing rod and some of the top ice fishing jigs on the market in the hottest and most popular colors. The jigs include the Big Eye, Shrimp, Jigging Fly, Horse Fly, Doll and the Jigging Wooly. Check out these jigs at your favorite sporting goods store.)
Well, it's time to shift from the soft water to the hard, cold water. It's time to put away the fishing vest and put on the winter pac boots. Hunting season is about over and it's time to check out the old summer fishing hole on the ice.
Remember that being safe is more important than catching fish. Check the ice for thickness as this time of year. With cold nights and warm days the ice might not be thick enough. Also, watch for hot springs that might leave thin spots, and current from inflows or outflows that might make the ice unsafe.
Check also that on lakes and reservoirs the water level has not dropped out from under the ice. Do this by drilling a hole close to shore and then a few more as you get further out onto the lake.
Fish feeding patterns have changed now that it is cold. The fish slow down and don't need the feed that they needed in warmer water when they were more active. Also, because of the ice, the oxygen level will be down, making the fish more sluggish. But don't let these changes prevent you from enjoying a fishing outing. All you do is change your tactics — use smaller bait and fish more slowly.
There are two basic ways to fish through the ice. One is to use live bait, and the other is to jig. I feel jigging is the most productive. We'll start first with live bait. The most common baits used are meal worms, maggots, earthworms and dead minnows (live minnows are not allowed in Utah). Cheese and salmon eggs are also good baits.
To fish bait, use a small bobber, bell, or a very light rod as a lot of bites are extremely light. The bait is normally suspended 4 to 5 inches off the bottom. To get an idea where the bottom is, I use a heavy clip-on sinker fastened on my hook. I then drop the sinker to the bottom. When I feel the sinker hit the bottom and the line goes slack, I reel up a few inches, fasten a bobber on and let the sinker pull the bobber under the water. I adjust the bobber so the heavy sinker pulls it four or five inches under the water. That's right where I want it to be.
Then I lay down my rod, pull up the line by hand and bait my hook, removing the heavy clip sinker. I then put a split shot or two on the line, just enough to take the bait down. It will stop 4 or 5 inches from the bottom and the bobber will float. I usually use a 6 or 8 size hook, for fish up to 5 pounds. I use 6-lb test line and set the drag at 4 pounds. This is to help the line as it drags over the bottom of the ice in the hole and puts less stress on the line.
For trout and panfish, fish the bays and stream inlets, as streams bring feed in under the ice. Depths from 3 to 12 feet seem to be the best.
For walleye, you want to fish the main channels of a lake as walleye are hard to find and they are nomadic, often on the move. Walleye are usually found in 20 to 30 feet of water and they are often in schools. They do a lot of their feeding at night and early morning or evening. They move up and down the ledges and inlets, looking for feed. Using minnows works well as walleye are used to feeding on them.
Let's get into jigging. First, light line, especially the magna-thin lines are excellent. Stren Magna Thin or Bagley Silver Thread are two of the best. I don't use a snap swivel as it cuts the action of the lure. I tie directly to the jig, spoon, or whatever I am using. But remember, after catching a fish or two, to break off your lure and retie as the knot will wear and the knot is a major stress point.
I use small jigs, 1/32 to 1/8 oz. They are the most popular. Flutter spoons are also good to use. Color is very important at this time of year. I use a color indicator, but if you don't have one it's not important. Use the top colors like chartreuse, black, pink, yellow, white and olive. You'll want to pick jigs that have a lot of action on the end, such as plastic tails, hair or marabou. You don't want real long tails, though. Also, a little fish scent works well as it helps as an attractant and masks your odor.
Elkhorn Lures has come out with some new lures that work well under the ice. The House Fly, Shrimp, Jigging Fly and the Jigging Wooley are just a few. They have been tested for two years now and are a good action jig and are catching a lot of fish.
When jigging, let your jig go to the bottom and reel it up 6 to 12 inches. Try letting it sit fairly still with just a short jig or bounce your rod tip periodically. If that doesn't work, lift the rod tip a foot or two about every 15 seconds and let the jig flutter down. You'll often get a hit while the jig is fluttering down, so be wary as your line won't be tight and the hit will be hard to detect.
You can improve your fishing success if you're willing to drill a lot of holes. Drill the holes in a circle or in a straight line at different depths. Then jig at each hole for 5 to 10 minutes until you find fish. I usually start at a depth of only 3 feet and go to 10 to 15 feet for trout. When I get a hit I work that hole and area for a while as that is the depth where the fish are located. I then drill other holes at that depth.
For walleye, work the ledges at about 15 to 30 feet deep. Again, drill a lot of holes and keep moving until you find the fish. (It helps to have a power ice auger). When you find walleye, work as fast as you can to drill more holes as their feeding binge may last only a short time. Remember the spot where the fish were as it could be a good walleye feeding place and could be productive on other trips.
There are also a lot of fish graphs that can be used in the winter. A good way to set them up is to get a sled and mount your graph on it with your battery. Take your transducer and chip a pocket in the ice. Put a little antifreeze and water mixture in it. Some graphs will show the thickness of the ice and the fish going by, and the bottom. This can save a lot of drilling and make the day more productive.
Now on gear . . . An open face reel is the best ice fishing reel as a closed-face reel will freeze up quickly. It is also a good idea to clean your reel and remove the grease and oil. Use graphite or thin oil in the reel. The grease or heavy oil will make the reel feel stiff and hard to use.
For an ice shelter, there are several commercial ice shacks on the market, or you can make your own from heavy plastic. Black plastic is the best as it will give you a black room and the ice will be light during the day. You will be able to see down the hole and get a lot of fun out of watching the fish either take the bait or swim by.
You will need an ice scoop to remove the ice crystals that will form in the hole. There are several kinds of ice augers on the market, both gas and hand-powered.
Remember to be careful. No fishing experience is worth a serious accident or even death. Have a good time fishing.