Shallow Water Ice Fishing
During recent winters, I’ve been focusing on studying fish movement and activity on small lakes, such as the 150-acre lake in North-Central Minnesota where my family has a cabin.
I like to get my kids out on the ice and make sure they enjoy good action, which keeps them interested. This lake, like many others across the Midwest, has extensive flats that runs from 4 to 6 or 7 feet, and they’re pretty much covered with a variety of aquatic plants, including tobacco cabbage, elodea, clasping leaf pondweed, and coontail.
I’m a big fan of using an underwater camera, such as the Aqua-Vu, to examine cover under the ice and to scout for fish. It’s been a revelation that many of the bass, crappies, and bluegills we’d catch there in fall remain during the early winter. It’s fun to scout for fish this way and the kids are fascinated to see how bass are actually attracted to the camera and often peer into the lens out of curiosity. To find groups of fish on these flats, I drill a lot of holes to start. One tool that’s made that job a lot easier is my Strikemaster Lite-Flite Lazer battery-powered drill. The blades are chrome-alloy stainless steel, but the flighting is made of synthetic resins, so it’s extremely light for the early part of the season when you still may have to walk out.
In this situation, crappies are always on the move, typically in groups of 5 to almost 50 fish. If you catch a few in a spot, be prepared to move. This kind of fishing is vastly different from the traditional basin bite, where anglers head to the deepest areas to scout for crappies suspended above deep water with sonar. Those fish can get pounded by angler pressure and the bite soon tuns tough. Far fewer anglers take advantage of a good shallow early ice bite.
One key to this shallow bite is having good vertical weed cover on the flats. Plants that are dead and all bent over will not hold fish. Look for standing plant stalks.
Green leaves are really good, but as long as they’re standing, they can hold fish. In some small lakes, this pattern disappears in late January, perhaps because the oxygen level in shallow water tends to drop then. To target crappies during early ice, I use larger lures than are traditional, in part to discourage the many small bluegills and perch that will pester you all day if you use small ice jigs with waxworks or maggots.
My favorite lure has been the #4 Rapala Slab Rap, which is 1.5 inches long and weighs 1/8 ounce, about the same size as a crappie minnow. You can quickly drop it down the hole and the fish can’t resist it.
When targeting crappies, though, don’t fish too deep. Most of those marks near the bottom are ‘gills and small perch, while the crappies ride higher, often just a few feet below the ice. Earlier in the year, fish may bite all day, but cloudy days, and the traditional early-morning and evening periods are best.
As safe ice forms this winter, give this pattern a try. As I mentioned, it helps to know the layout of a lake, so you can define areas where there will be good vegetation. Cut more holes than you think you will need and it will pay off with a fun and productive bite for bigger-than-average fish, with some bonus bass, which are always a blast on tiny ice rods. Have fun out there and bring a kid or two along for some extra excitement during this early ice bite.