Fishing the deep freeze

When the weather is freezing but the water is open, bait presentations have to be perfect. Of course, icefishing tactics would work, but they’re out of the question…or are they?

Some phone calls have a way of getting your attention, and this was one of them. “No, I mean big pike,” my friend Pete Bellinger said one December night after fishing in the St. Lawrence River in northern New York, so excited his words nearly ran together. “It was really warm after work so I went perch fishing off the docks. The perch bit, but the northerns bit even better. I landed a couple that went seven or eight pounds, and then broke off a really good one. You ought to come up.”

Three days later I did. But near-zero temperatures had turned the river surface to slush ice. We stood there, staring gloomily at the river, as blocks of ice passed by. Angling was out of the question.

Like any anglers shut out from fishing we took our only logical option: We drove around and hoped the weather would be different a couple of miles down the road. It wasn’t, although we did discover that nearly six inches of ice covered some of the shallow bays. Knots of anglers were scattered on the ice, as were shanties, dogs and other accouterments of icefishing.


We soon joined them. And we were not the least bit surprised by our catch of a bucketful of perch and several nice pike. Ice cover means the start of some of the best fishing of the year. Just look at some of the state record books–it’s tough to ignore all of the record fish that come through the ice.

What explains the disproportionate number of trophy fish caught by icefishermen? Is it really attributable to ice cover? Or is the answer related to the fact that big fish become more accessible during the winter–either through pre-spawn activities or shifts in water temperature? Might the answer also have to do with the tactics that icefishermen employ, ones that permit the careful fishing of deep structure and shallows? And, if the above points are true, might these tactics also work without the ice, in open water during the winter months? The answer is yes.

The first rule in winter fishing is location. Most icefishermen start with the premise that fish congregate in winter and that everything–fish movements, interest in lures or baits and so on–slows down. Therefore, locating fish-holding structure is crucial. The best icefishermen are very particular. Because drilling through two feet of ice, skimming holes, sounding bottom, baiting hooks and setting tip-ups is such an effort, icefishermen become like fur trappers: They give a lot of thought to location. Interestingly, Vermonters refer to tip-ups as just that–“traps.” Open-water winter fishermen would do well to adopt a similar approach.

The general lethargy of winter fish also leads icefishermen, regardless of their target species, to pay considerable attention to keeping their bait at a specific depth. Once again, this can be just as important to open-water fishermen. There’s no better example than steelheaders, anglers who often know which lies hold fish but who must contend with water temperature in the 30s. They must keep the bait–generally a cluster of salmon eggs wrapped in a mesh sack–drifting along the bottom, drag-free with the current.

One day several winters ago my friend Lee Ellsworth and I were fishing the slower section of a Lake Ontario tributary. Downed trees and timber littered the stream in this particular stretch, so fishing egg sacks on the bottom meant losing rig after rig. On the first cast, I set my hook on a log.

It was a foul day with gusty winds, and sleet began to patter down on the crunchy marsh grass around me as I got a new rig together. This time I borrowed a float from Lee, adjusting it so that a string of tiny split shot kept the presentation vertical and the sack drifting just off the bottom. I flipped the whole rig upstream and watched it ride the thread of current through the pool without a touch. Did so a number of times.

Perhaps the sack was riding too high. I moved the float up the line and adjusted the string of split shot. I cast upstream, floating the same thread of current, watched the chartreuse float slip past a snag that peaked through the water. Suddenly the float dipped beneath the surface. I struck back and once again buried the hook into something solid. But this time the log pulled back in slow, heavy tugs. Fish on!

In a short time, Lee slipped the net beneath a bright six-pound steelhead, which I released. Ten minutes later he had a fish on, and it became clear that the carefully adjusted floats with the string of shot was the ticket. In a sense, we used the combination of float and split shot just as an icefisherman would use his lightly set tip-up: to keep the bait at a specific depth and to reveal any sort of strike immediately. In cold water, precision is key.

Weather is also a factor. This was clearly evident while fishing for walleyes at a tailwater on the Connecticut River. A cold front had passed through the week before and the fishing I encountered had been unmerciful–the change in atmospheric pressure had sent the fish into the sulking mode. But on this day, with cloud cover and the temperature in the 40s, things were different. On the second cast I hooked a nice walleye, the first of the year. Walleye season had officially started.

But reading a barometer is only a start. The most effective techniques for catching tailwater walleyes were developed in the Midwest, and most of them involve vertical jigging with a small minnow trailer–the same rig that icefishermen have long used to take walleyes across the North Country.

Vertical fishing is most closely associated with fishing next to structure–particularly when bass fishermen use jigging spoons to take winter largemouths from creek bottoms or black jig-and-pigs to take them in timber. But these walleyes in the tailwater were less interested in structure than in current speed–specifically the slack water close to the main flow. We started with buck-tail jigs, to which we added minnows, rigging them with “stinger” hooks–No. 12 trebles attached to the eyes of the jig hooks with three-inch sections of monofilament.

Jigging is a good way to catch winter smallmouths, too. Smallmouths in lakes can be vulnerable to leadhead jigs, jigging spoons, Silver Buddy’s, Little Georges and other artificials that work at 30 or 40-foot depths. It may surprise some anglers, but some of the biggest smallmouths in the best big-bronzeback waters in the country–in the mid-South, particularly Tennessee–come to net during the winter.

Ice-free lakes are also worth checking out for smallmouths. Still-water bronze-backs will hold offshore on humps where they can be taken with live shiners fished with slip sinkers. River smallmouths can be taken in the slack water near undercut banks and on the slow side of current seams. Live shiners tossed upstream and permitted to settle into dead-water pockets in the bottom of the pool or alongside undercut banks will often interest even the most lethargic smallmouths (and any resident trout, as well). The rig is quite simple. Use four-pound-test line and pinch on one or two split shot 18 inches above a No. 4 or No. 6 hook. Keep the sinker minimal and the shiner small (less than three inches long), and, most importantly, in front of the fish’s nose. Whether through the ice or along a riverbank, smallmouth takes can be gentle.

Largemouths offers another good opportunity for winter anglers. Cold fronts will send bass deep, but warmer days draw them into the shallows, into timber and weeds in search of food. Basically, this is why tip-up fishermen catch so many trophy largemouths.

Open-water largemouth anglers can mimic the icefisherman’s tip-ups by using a bobber and live bait. My friend Stan Warner has turned winter open-water largemouth fishing into an art form, using floats to keep December shiners swimming just off the bottom.

I watched Stan in action one dark December afternoon. Ice ringed the edges of the stumpy, weedy pond in northern Massachusetts, but otherwise, the above-freezing temperatures kept the water open. Fishing from the bank, Stan rigged five-inch shiners beneath his floats, cast two lines out, and propped the rods in forked sticks. He let the shiners swim around a bit, and after no action reeled in each one 20 feet or so.

He’d just finished moving them when one of the bobbers disappeared. He let it run off free-spool, then engaged the drag and set the hook. A strong fish, the largemouth thrashed to the surface, shaking its big head before making a run at the weeds and timber. But Stan held the rod high and maneuvered the fish past the snags, and I scooped it into the net.

The needle on the De-Liar scale hovered at the seven-pound mark, and Richie at the R&R Bait Shop in Belchertown later certified the fish at 7 pounds 4 ounces. This is how it’s listed in the Massachusetts Sports Fishery Awards program, which recognizes outstanding fish. Stan was not icefishing; I was there.

A couple of weeks later, after some frigid temperatures, we drove back to the lake to check out the icefishing. We walked out onto the ice, and one of the anglers had a good bass of four pounds or more flopping on the surface.

“Nice one,” Stan and I said, nearly in unison.

“You bet it is,” the happy angler said through a crooked grin. “We get some good ones out of here every year at first ice.”

“Is that so?” Stan asked. “Well, we’re mostly open-water fishermen ourselves. But you know, maybe we ought to give this icefishing a try sometime.”


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