Ice fishing has come a long way in recent years, with advancements in tackle and tactics helping anglers across the Ice Belt catch more fish and have more fun.
To help you put more fish on ice this winter, we offer the following selection of timely tips for targeting walleyes, panfish and trout.
Let’s start on the walleye scene, where anglers have traditionally tipped their jigging spoons with minnow heads and other elements of baitfish anatomy.
Such tippings tempt hungry ‘eyes by adding scent and bulk to your presentation, but Berkley pro staffer and world walleye champion Korey Sprengel says artificial softbaits like Berkley Gulp! raise the bar even higher.
After serious experimentation on the icepack of mighty Lake Erie, he’s convinced baits like a 1-inch Gulp! Minnow and Gulp! Leech boost catch rates for these marble-eyed beauties even higher than live bait.
“Convenience is a huge benefit,” he says. “You can stick a bag of Gulp! baits in your pocket and go. You never have to worry about buying bait or keeping it alive in harsh conditions. Plus, artificial softbaits stay on the hook better, especially during aggressive jigging.”
Sprengel says artificial bait also engenders a wider variety of jigging maneuvers. “You can get away with a lot softer strokes, and also jig erratically to make walleyes think they’re looking at a baitfish trying to escape,” he explains.
Gulp! baits are already oozing with deadly fish-attracting scents, but Sprengel likes to up the olfactory ante by soaking them in Gulp! Marinade. While he often uses stock flavors such as Minnow or Shad/Shiner to match the forage base, he also mixes different Marinade flavors together to create custom blends that trip the triggers of the local walleye population.
Sprengel notes that old-school walleye fans may scoff when they first see you using softbaits on ice, but he says the ribbing doesn’t last long. “My fishing buddies called me crazy when I said I wasn’t going to buy live bait anymore,” he recalls. “But Gulp! is so easy to use and caught so many fish, they quickly ate their words.”
Softbaits aren’t just for walleyes, of course. If trout are your game, consider the high-percentage approaches of veteran guide Bernie Keefe. When sag-bellied lake trout suspend high in the water column, he tips a 4/0 to 5/0 jig hook with a 7-inch Berkley Gulp! Alive! Jerk Shad and yo-yos the combo aggressively.
“There’s no finesse about it,” he says, noting that exaggerated three- to four-foot rod lifts help animate the bait and draw the attention of lakers lurking nearby. “Just make sure to hold onto the rod tight, or a big fish might rip it right out of your hands,” he adds.
Keefe also chases rainbows and brown trout, and says these succulent salmonids cruise shoreline shallows all winter long. “Structural sweet spots like drop-offs, sunken islands and boulders the size of Volkswagens are all worth fishing,” he says.
Lush weedbeds that remain green beneath the ice are also hotbeds of trout activity. “The inside weedline can be a hot zone early in the winter,” he says. “But open pockets are also worth checking.”
To fish a promising area, Keefe drills two holes 30 inches apart. He swims a small jig or spoon in one hole and deadsticks a second jig in the other.
Tackle considerations are straightforward. He spools a 28-inch, medium-action rod with 4-pound-test Berkley Trilene XL monofilament and ties it directly to the lure.
When working the active presentation, Keefe drops the spoon or jig to bottom or the top of the weed canopy and slowly reels it toward the surface, subtly shaking the lure as it rises. When the bait reaches the ice, he reverses the process and fishes back down the water column.
Panfish are popular wintertime targets, and near-shore weeds often hold big numbers of these tasty fish as well.
Even while many ice anglers march out to fish deep mid-lake basins, healthy vegetation such as coontail or cabbage offers an attractive mix of cover, food and oxygen that attract crappies and various species of sunfish.
Since depths may run 15 feet or less, silence is golden on top of the ice. Keep noise to a minimum as you approach the fishing area, and likewise limit your drilling. Punch a handful of holes at key places in the bed—such as the inside weed edge, end of a point and the deep weedline—to reduce the chances of spooking skittish panfish.
While your auger cools down, tiptoe from hole to hole using sonar to look for fish. Even if you don’t mark anything, however, it’s still a good idea to drop a lure down to check for panfish holding just outside the sonar cone.
A variety of jigs and spoons take weedbed panfish. Small tungsten jigs that fish heavy for their size are particularly effective for punching through vegetation and triggering inactive panfish to strike.
As with walleyes and trout, a variety of live baits are common tipping choices, but artificial baits including the PowerBait Ice Wishbone, Ice Dogbone and Ice Whipworm have become the preferred choice of many hardcore panfish anglers.
Experiment with different shapes, colors and jigging cadences until the panfish tell you what’s on the menu at the moment.
If you fail to find fish in the weeds, gradually work your way into deeper water. Check breaklines, rock piles and sunken islands until you reach deep basins where panfish often gather as winter progresses.
Armed with these tips and a willingness to test the latest artificial softbaits for yourself, it’s possible to enjoy great catches all winter long.