How To Choose An Ice-Fishing Lake.. And Find Its Ice-Covered Fish

By Dave Genz

You can't catch fish if you can't find them. It's as true in ice fishing as it is in open water.

There are two things most ice anglers have a lot of trouble with: choosing the right type of lake to fish during the ice-up period, and finding fish once the good "first-ice" bite slows down. Let's address both of these issues in some depth: (Get it? Depth? Lots of fish go deep during the iced-over period?)


Choose The Right Lake At Early Ice

You should, simply put, fish smaller bodies of water early in the iced-over period. It's often fairly easy to locate fish on smaller lakes, because it's a high-percentage move to look in the deepest basin area. Many, if not most, of the fish in a smaller lake will spend the winter in the deepest basin, especially if there's only one, and it's significantly deeper than the rest of the lake.

The problem with many smaller lakes is that they develop an oxygen problem as winter wears on. Where those "small-lake" fish are in a biting mood at early ice, you return to those lakes later in the winter and often find no takers.

The fish are still there, of course (unless they suffer a die-off), but they are often severely stressed due to the low oxygen levels.


Bigger Lakes Stay Better Later Into The Season

We're oversimplifying things here, but it's generally true to say that larger bodies of water will hold better fishing later into the winter season.

One of the most difficult aspects of catching fish through the ice on larger bodies of water is finding them. With so much turf to search, you can feel lost before you even start. One clue is that you should always fish anywhere you drill a hole and find green weeds. As long as sunlight can penetrate the ice, weeds can actually grow, something many anglers don't realize. But if you drop down your lure and come back with green weeds on the hook, make good notes on where you are.

Also, don't just blindly follow the crowds. Many anglers, from past experience, know of good spots. And groups of fish houses pop up over these spots every winter.

Sometimes, even just getting off to the edge of the group of houses, off to the fringe of all the ruckus, can help you find fish that aren't as "on guard." Activity moves the fish, especially at midday.

One of my strategies is to go to the crowd of fish houses just to see what type of spot they're fishing. Is it deep? Shallow? Hard or soft bottom? How close is it to really deep water? By studying the characteristics of the spot, you can often find similar spots by looking at a contour map of the lake, and get off to a new hot- spot that's all yours.

Another hint: At "prime time," when the sun is setting at the tree tops, fish often move right into those "community spots" where all the fish houses are. They are pressured and on guard, but they still return to that spot, because it's where most of their food is in many cases.


Finding Fish At Midwinter

It's probably tougher to locate fish at midwinter than any other ice-fishing period. Here are some high-percentage haunts, to shortcut the hunt:

Walleye-Classic midwinter walleye locations include deep edges of remaining green weed growth, and good-sized hard-bottom points and sunken humps. First find large expanses of deep basin water, then look for these structural elements close by. Fishing pressure will force walleye off the most obvious spots. Check around the perimeter of groups of anglers, even out over deep water. If you find stair-stepping dropoffs, fish each small "stair" or flat.

Northern Pike-Eating machines that bite good in winter. Sorry to be vague, but they can be anywhere the food is. If a bay is full of small panfish, tip-ups can take pike. But also look for them to drop relatively deeper as winter wears on. Check the outside weed edges, but pay special attention to deeper rock and other hard-bottomed areas near good-sized shallow food shelves.

Largemouth Bass-Often disinterested in feeding at this time of year. There are disagreements about winter movements. Considered by some, including me, to be roamers. By working shallow cover such as weeds or stumps you can catch some on small minnows, but don't expect to catch a lot of largemouths very often at midwinter.

Smallmouth Bass-Generally, a much deeper midwinter fish, and more catchable, than largemouths. Smallies like expansive areas of rock or other relatively hard bottom, in "deep, but not too deep" zones from about 20-40 feet.

Yellow Perch-Notorious as bottom feeders, and midwinter is no exception. Keep those baits puffing up or sitting on bottom. They tend to be in deeper water, down to 40 feet or so. Don't look on drop offs, but instead along the flats out from them. Perch feed on insects and larvae that live in the mud, and breaklines tend to be along harder bottom!

Bluegills and other Sunfish-"Where aren't sunfish?" might be a better question. On some lakes, it won't matter where you drill a hole; small sunnies will be there waiting. But in general, organic (mud) bottomed bays and flats the bigger the better hold the most consistent sunfish action. If the areas are close to deep water, so much the better.

If you're willing to hunt for rod-benders, seek out the biggest areas of shallow or deep weed growth. Do your best to get away from the crowds, and be quiet in your approach. And even though sunfish, befitting their name, have a reputation as good daylight feeders, the twilight periods of dawn and dusk are prime big-fish times.

You'll have to fish your specific water, because some lakes hold big sunfish shallow all winter. Heavy fishing pressure, though, can "cream off" most of the big bulls, making deeper weed- or mud-related fish a better bet. We've caught most of our biggest midwinter bluegills in deeper water lately. We look for mud and weeds in 20-30 feet, and sometimes even deeper than that.

Crappies-You will find some nice crappies in shallow flats areas, mixed in with sunfish. But many midwinter slabs are in deep water, often suspended. Look over the areas just away from deep weed edges, or edges of other cover.

Deep points, and deep inside turns, can hold concentrations of midwinter crappies. Searching vast areas of deep water can turn up big schools, but it's a needle-in-the-haystack proposition.

First printed in 1995

Winter Fishing Systems, Inc 2016