Cashin’ in at Early Ice

No matter how concrete the barrier might appear to us, when ice forms and seals off water from the rest of the world, it is not necessarily a life-changing event for the fish below. That will come, if the ice remains long enough to get thick and covered by significant snowfall.

But in many ways, Dave Genz says that early ice is simply a continuation of late fall, from the fish’s perspective. He should know. The father of modern ice fishing, the guy who invented the Fish Trap, and the box that turns a Vexilar flasher into an ice fishing wonder, fishes hard all fall from a boat, then gets out there as soon as the ice is thick enough to walk on.

“The fish are still trying to fatten up for winter,” Genz says when asked what kind of mood fish are in at early ice. “Food is still available to them, and they are out there cruising around, cleaning up that food source.”

If anything, perhaps a thin, clear coating of ice brings relative calm and stability to the world below it. But in other ways, changes continue to come.

In the ice belt, the sun hangs low in the sky even at its highest point.

“There is no high noon now,” points out Genz, “so it’s easy to fish the prime time, because prime time is kind of all day. The morning bite extends into the evening bite, because daylight hours are so short. That shortness of daylight is one of the reasons that early-ice fishing is so good.”

Genz is a hard thinker, and pays attention to detail. Over the course of many years, he has noticed that, if anything, early-ice fish tend to remain on the move and on the hunt for food, even at midday. Still, despite that tendency, Genz finds it hard to pick out a spot and camp on it—if no fish show up within about 15 minutes.

“I still stay on the go until I locate fish,” he says when asked whether he approaches early ice fishing any differently than midwinter outings. “It can be a good time of year to stay in one place and let the fish come to you. But even a small pond is still a pretty big place, and if the fish don’t show up fairly soon, I go looking for them.”

Stealth is a huge factor at early ice, because a thin, clear ceiling is easy for fish to see through, and tends to magnify movements and noises. Careless walking, scraping and cutting will send fish scattering before you can put a bait down there.

Where to Look

Where should you look for fish at early ice?

“So much depends on what the weather was like during the fall,” says Genz. “If the winds are calm and we have lots of sunshine in late fall, before freeze-up, that can start the weeds growing in the shallow water again. The weeds might die and lay down when the first cold fall weather comes, then here comes this nice weather and they start growing again. Bug hatches can occur in the shallows if the weather is warm, too, and that can make fish stay shallower.”

If there is life in the shallows right before freeze-up, that life will still be there after the ice gets thick enough to fish through. “It’s a chain reaction,” says Genz. “If the bluegills are in there, that brings in the walleyes, pike and bass.”

By no means is he suggesting that every fish in the lake will be shallow, even under the mildest of late fall and early ice conditions. “But there can be a lot of fish shallow,” says Genz, “and they can stay shallow well into the winter, if the weeds are healthy and there’s food in there.”

So now you see the dilemma of the early ice angler: do you look shallow, or deep?

The quick answer: pay close attention to late fall weather. If you don’t know (especially if you travel to fish early ice), then look shallow first, and check the condition of any shallow weeds. If they look healthy, suspect shallow fish.

“But if we have one of those nasty falls,” says Dave, “where it’s rainy, cloudy, snowy, windy, you’re more likely to find most of the fish deeper right away.”

Movements fish make in response to late fall weather patterns, it seems, are not long in distance, but simply to one general depth level or another. In other words, if they are not in the shallow, weedy bays, they might be just outside, even in the deeper weeds, or at the base of the first dropoff.

Here is a list of high-percentage early-ice locations for many fish species. Whether you find the fish shallow or deeper in these spots becomes the essence of the hunt.

Current areas

Wherever creeks run into the lakes, or you find necked-down narrows. Because lake levels are not typically ‘spring runoff’ high, the current is not roaring, but rather just moving along, breathing life into the system. Calling fish.

“This is a good walleye spot,” says Genz. “It’s the same spot you would wade and cast for walleyes right before the ice comes. You have to use caution, because you might have thin ice, or thin patches. But we’re not talking about fast current.”

Shallow and mid-depth bays

“Like the spring spots you fish in the boat,” says Genz. “Bays on the north end of the lake, spots with southern exposure, where the sun can warm the water during the day.”

Deep water close to shore

Anywhere deeper water “cuts close to the shoreline,” says Genz, gets his heart racing. “When I’m looking at a lake map, I look for spots like this on the north and west side of the lake. Because of the warming of the sun, again. Where an inside turn cuts into the shoreline. Fish the places where the deepest water is closest to the shore.”

Fish can sometimes be found in such places all winter, “but fish it shallower at early ice,” says Genz. “At midwinter, I might start in the deepest part. But early, I might start as shallow as a cattail bank, where the deep water runs close to it.”

So, again, the search goes shallower, generally speaking, at early ice. But not after a nasty spell of late fall weather has choked the life out of shallow water.

Deep holes in bowls

In relatively structureless ‘bowl’ type lakes, suspect that most fish settle into deeper holes by the time ice forms. ‘Deeper’ can be a relative term, because this type of lake might have little in the way of overall depth.

“Deep can be 10 or 12 feet a lot of times,” says Genz. “In those bowl-type lakes, a lot of fish set up in the middle of the lake and spend the winter there.”

No matter where you fish at early ice, please use caution as you venture forth. Carry a sharp chisel, and stab the ice in front of you as you move. If you punch through with one jab, turn around and go back the way you came. Always wear a life jacket (it’s a good idea all winter). Dave says he has yet to hear about somebody who drowned after falling through the ice while wearing a life jacket.

Fish with at least one friend, and tell people where you are going and when they should expect you home. But don’t stay home, because early ice is an amazing time to get out there. The fish are roaming, looking for something to eat. Give it to them, and pull back hard when they take it.


First Published on DaveGenz.com December 28th, 2005

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