"Lessons I've Learned"

By Dave Genz

For the past ten years or more, I've traveled a lot to fish through the ice on new waters. It has become my full-time job in the winter, a dream come true for a kid like me who grew up loving ice fishing.

When I packed tackle and gear for my first log-distance trips, I also brought along my own set of experiences. I was pretty smug about how effective my friends and I had become, and assumed that we had the best approach figured out for any water that iced over.

You might guess what happened in more than one case. We'd go into a new area and have trouble catching fish with our "sure-fire" methods. Local guys would be catching fish and we'd struggle...at least at the beginning of the trip.

Good thing for us, we're not stubborn. We drove along ways in many cases, and we wanted to know what these guys were doing that we weren't.

While the things I had learned on my home-state waters of Minnesota will always be the core of my approach, I've learned to head into new areas expecting that the best local anglers have worked out important details necessary to catch fish on their waters.

I still bring what I think I need, but I go onto new turf with a wide-open mind. I found out that if you ask questions of the local hotshots, and listen carefully, and watch closely, you can add important insights that will help you catch fish no matter where you go.

I've dedicated this winter to passing on an idea that I've learned that is really important: broaden your horizons if you want to become consistent.

This means a lot of things, but one of the most important is watching and listening and learning from the best anglers, whether you're fishing on your home waters or a brand new pond.

The best local ice anglers in any area have spent many hours figuring out how to catch fish. They may not have fancy names for what they do, but through a process of trial-and-error they've arrived at a winning formula.

Here, as a few examples of what I mean, are some of the valuable details we picked up just the last couple of years by traveling to new areas and learning from the local hotshots:

Clear water calls for natural, horizontal, swimming lures.

We went to Okoboji, Iowa in search of big bluegills, along with the other fish the area offers. Because of the extremely clear water, the locals had figured out that a horizontal presentation is important.

These fish can see your lure, and they've seen it all. You had to use light line, you had to limit the amount of light penetrating through your hole, and the bait had to be swimming naturally.

A tiny ice jig with the eye positioned on top of the lead head (as opposed to on the end) was the right lure. And you had to position the knot so the lure hung horizontally in the water. If you snagged a weed or hooked a fish, you had to check the knot, and re-position it if it had moved..

The best locals went so far as to begin jigging and swimming their lure just under the ice, and slowly settled it into the depth the fish were. A lure that plunged quickly to the right depth and then started swimming won't fool the local bluegills, they believe.

(In dirtier water, it often takes a "vibration" lure to call in fish and trigger strikes,)

Fish that are tight to bottom might not show up easily on sonar, but can be caught.

Now, we're up in Canada, on Lake of the Woods. We're after walleye and saugers. We're fishing with good locals who know where the fish are.

The locals, many of whom don't fish with sonar, just go along catching fish, by presenting their baits tight to the bottom then slowly work their way up. They use maps to decide on location looking for narrows and humps. They've learned that's where most of the catchable fish are, much of the time.

We use Vexilar's FL-18, extremely sensitive flashers that display in 3 colors. If anything can show you fish tight to the bottom, the FL-18 can. We learn to fish tight to the bottom and not just believe fish are in the vicinity. We learn to notice a thickening of the bottom signal, showing a fish that is being tempted upward to our bait. We try to tease the fish up to strike, but don't raise the bait too far if they don't willingly follow.

There are ways to deal with heavy underwater currents.

Now we're on Lake Erie, after the big walleye out there. Current was a huge factor. I'd fished current in other areas, like rivers in winter, so I knew it was had to use depthfinders.

Your lure is never directly under your hole, because it gets swept down current. You can try rotating the transducer in the direction the current is taking the lure, but it's still hard to see tight to the bottom, because of the "dead area" you create in your sonar signal.

One good idea: drill a second hole in the direction your lure is being swept, and put the depthfinder in that hole.

When current is strong, fish will be tight to the bottom, just like they are in rivers. When the current was roaring through Lake Erie, those walleye were tight to the bottom. But when the current would slow or stop (which happened), the fish would rise higher.

Hot spots don't stay hot forever.

Now, we're in Nebraska, on some sandhill lakes, after big bluegills. The lake we're on is shallow and weedy, and the lesson learned can apply to any similar waters.

The lake is about 4 miles long, and about 4 to 8 feet deep. There were scattered areas of cabbage weeds, you could catch 1 or 2 big "gills,"some of them over a pound! But that would be all the big ones for that area, for the time being.

To catch more big fish, you had to find a new patch of weeds. Returning to your old holes only produced small fish.(We only kept a few of these big fish; most of them went back. Big bluegills are a precious resource that's almost impossible to bring back if you take them.)

First printed in 2002

Winter Fishing Systems, Inc 2019