Obviously ice fishing is a lot more fun if you are catching fish, not sitting there freezing your butt off wondering where the fish are. Follow these helpful tips to find fish under the ice, even when no one else is catching any.
This article is not about finding any particular species of fish, but about general locations of all fish during the winter months after a body of water has frozen over.
Most ice fishermen usually go where others are fishing, figuring the other guy must be catching fish where he is. Sometimes you will see a little “village” of ice fishing shanties pop up because everyone is in that “monkey-see-monkey-do” mode. They may all be catching fish, but sooner or later the bite will slow down or even stop totally. Now what? Do you pack up your gear and head home, or do you relocate and hope you find more fish?
What many ice fishermen don’t realize is that all fish respond to fishing pressure, and fish under ice are no exception. Another factor in fish location is “seasons”. Just as fish in a lake move around and change locations between spring, summer, fall and winter, fish under ice do the same thing from early winter to mid- and late winter. Their feeding habits also change during this relocating.
The “villages” mentioned earlier will eventually become “ghost towns” not because all of the fish have been caught, it’s because they have moved away to another location. The good ice fisherman will know where to go to find them again, and keep on catching fish.
In your mind try to separate the winter into three “seasons”. Early ice, midwinter ice, and late winter ice. If you fish in a particular lake in the late fall, and you find an area holding a good amount of fish, mark that spot with GPS or on a map, or mark the spot in your memory using shore features. Return to that spot after the first ice and chances are the fish will still be there.
Most of the time when a lake freezes over for the first time, the fish will still be located in the same general area where they were before the freeze. There is no sudden exodus of movement after the first ice. Even if the fish are hanging out in deeper water, they will move up into shallower water to feed. This is usually where the “shanty village” will appear. These locations are usually shallow flats near deep water, summer weedbed areas, underwater brushy areas or spots with flooded timber. Underwater ledges with cover are ideal for holding fish during this period.
Another good spot to try at this time is steep drop-offs where shallow flat areas descend into deeper water. The fish may be staging on these drop-offs, but head up to the flats to feed on baitfish. Depressions in flat areas will also hold fish.
A good rule of thumb to remember is that all fish like to be near some sort of structure, and if you can locate these types of areas that have some sort of cover during the spring, summer or fall, remember those locations so that you can return to them after the first ice.
If you are ice fishing on a lake that you have never fished, a map of the lake will help you find the types of areas mentioned above.
As the winter progresses, fish tend to migrate into deeper water. The warmest water in a frozen lake is at the bottom, and this is where the fish will go. Their metabolism slows down as their body temperatures drop, and they will not swim as far as before to feed. Use this fact to your advantage.
After some time, depending on the thickness of snow accumulation on the surface, the oxygen levels on the bottom will begin to drop. When this happens, the fish will suspend higher off of the bottom. Fish will sacrifice body temperature for oxygen, and they will go where they can “breathe”. On lakes with a lot of vegetation, this occurs earlier than on rocky, hard-bottom lakes. Large lakes hold oxygen longer than smaller ones. Therefore, fish location can vary quite a bit from one lake to the next during the same time frame.
When the snow cover begins to melt away, and the lake gets wet on top of the ice, we are now in the late winter ice period. Melting snow cover allows more sunlight in, warming the water and increasing the oxygen. Fish will now begin moving back up into the shallower spots, eventually reaching their pre-spawn staging areas.
As the lake water and, consequently, the fish themselves, warm up, their metabolism increases as well. This means they will eat more, and will strike at your jig, lure or live bait quicker and with more vigor. The closer fish get to the spawn, the more energy they have, until they are practically “exploding” on baitfish or anything else that resembles food.
The most important thing of all to remember when ice fishing is SAFETY. Always check the ice thickness, dress appropriately, and use the buddy system. Before you go, read some great ice fishing safety tips here.