How to Choose an Ice Fishing Spot?
Ice fishing is a popular winter hobby among anglers. However, it’s more challenging than sitting comfortably in your shelter and waiting for the fish to bite. On a frozen lake, the biggest challenge is how to choose an ice fishing spot.
To choose an ice fishing spot, you need to start searching open waters in the fall. In winter, fish typically remain in the same sites where you find them in other seasons. Vegetation, certain structures like rock piles, depressions, and transition areas are favorite places for fish congregations.
In the rest of the article, we’ll outline how to find the best ice fishing spots. We’ll tell you favorite depths for popular species and the technologies you can use in finding the best ice fishing spots.
Start Small and Early
Early in the iced-up period, it’s better to fish in small lakes because it’s easier to find fish in a smaller area. Look specifically for deep parts of the lake. In small lakes, most of the fish stay in deeper basins.
But later in the winter, finding fish in small lakes gets more complicated. That’s because of lowered oxygen levels that make the fish stressed and hard to catch because they’re too sluggish to bite your lure.
So, as winter wears on, it’s better to move to bigger lakes. The problem with large bodies of water is that you can’t search the entire area. So, you should look for signs that indicate the presence of fish in a specific spot.
Start searching for hot fishing spots before winter starts. That’s because, during the ice-over period, you can’t have as much mobility as you have during regular fishing seasons.
Also, fish tend to stay in the same place all year long. So, wherever you find fish before winter, you’ll most likely find them during the frozen season. It’s customary among anglers to mark these areas on maps to remember to go back to after the water freezes.
What Structures to Look For?
Frozen water won’t let you check every spot you wish. You need to pick a place to drill and search for fish gatherings. Naturally, you can’t afford to drill a hole in any spot. Look for signs that show higher concentrations of fish to increase your efficiency.
Any attempt to find the right spots for ice fishing requires a close examination of the lake. Study the contour maps of the lake to find deep and shallow places. Typically, fish gather in places like bays, harbors, and backwaters. Because these areas are shallow, they freeze earlier than deep places. That’s why many kinds of fish gather in these places in the early season.
Here are the most popular structures among anglers:
One of the best signs is green weeds. If you drill a hole and see green weeds, you can be sure to find fish there. The presence of weed indicates sunlight can penetrate that area.
Aquatic plants, similar to land vegetation, start to die as winter approaches. Since they’re sources of food and oxygen for fish, they’re good indicators of fish concentration spots. Fish also use plants as covers to hide behind and surprise their prey.
Fish like to feed off plants in shallow areas. But during winter, when these plants die, they will go deep. Look for vegetation where fish feed. They typically grow in rocky points, reefs, sand bars, and deep, soft-bottom flats.
In mid-winter, look for rock piles, sand deposits, and depressions. Deep basins with soft-bottoms are also good places for fish food.
2) Rock Piles
Rocks and gravel are favorite structures for fish to congregate on. Since water on these structures is clear, it’s perfect for lagers to spot fish. Plus, fish can see the lures better and are more likely to bite them.
3) Transitions Areas
Although fish have favorite places to gather, they don’t stay there for a long time. They move around to various places during the day to find food. It’s a good idea to look for edges between two structures, for example, from muddy to sandy. Fishing pressure can also make fish move to the edges. Thus, move away from places with groups of anglers to find more catches.
4) Inlets and Outlets
Inlets and outlets are also good places where fish stay during the frozen season.
When water enters a lake through an inlet, fish can find good sources of food there. But you should act differently when spreading tip-ups in those areas. Baitfish spread around inlets in a larger area, so you should put your tip-ups in a wider radius.
On the other hand, outlets create pressure to send water from the lake to the river. Thus, they concentrate on the baitfish at that point. However, don’t set up your shanty in a place near the outlet because the ice is thinner in that area.
5) Sticky Bottom Layers
Most anglers fail to check sticky bottom areas in lakes. Other places like ledges, deadfalls, rock piles, and other formations are typical spots where fish gather. These sticky areas are in mid-depth spots, 15 to 30 feet (5 to 10 meters) deep.
How can you find a sticky bottom? Drill some holes in mid-depth spots. Put a weight on your jig and drop it in the hole. When you draw it out, it shouldn’t stick hard or come out quickly. The perfect composition involves the weight to stick to the bottom briefly.
Depressions are holes 1 to 4 feet (30 to 120 centimeters) deep, which are popular places for fish during mid-winter. They’re rich in food and have higher temperatures and more light. You can find these depressions on depth charts and contour maps. Digital contour maps are highly precise and show even small depressions 1 foot deep.
Follow the Crowd
You can also follow the crowds of fishermen because they’re more experienced and know where the hot spots are. Ask them questions and take their advice. This way, you can make sure you’ll find something and that you’re safe.
You might be tempted to stay in shallow or crowded areas and stay on the safe side. But if you find a new place, you’ll find better and bigger fish.
If you want to find a place of your own, see where crowds of anglers have gathered. Then, study the lake’s contour map and see what characteristics they have in common in terms of depth, hardness or softness, or closeness to deep spots. If you find a common pattern among them, you’ll be able to find a place of your own with the same features.
If you’re not a beginner, and you can afford to roam about and find new places, do it. You can’t sit in one place and hope for fish to come to you. It’s like fishing in open water; you move about and search around until you find the right depth where there’s fish. Drill different spots and look for fish inside them.
It might be difficult for you to move around with all the gear and equipment. So try to go minimal, taking only the essential things with you so that you don’t get stuck in a single place.
Just like you shouldn’t stay in one place, you should also experiment with different depths. If you find a place that seems like a hot spot for fish, try different depths. Dig holes at 15, 20, or 30 feet (4, 6, or 8 meters) to make sure you’ve covered that area thoroughly.
Different Species Gather at Various Depths
Despite the general guidelines for finding fish spots during winter, different species behave differently during winter. So if you’re fishing a certain species, you should know the nuances in their behaviors.
1) Northern Pike
The Northern Pike is a big predator, and it’s like an eating machine. They gather anywhere they can find food. That’s why they’re easy to find for ice anglers.
Use tip-ups with their favorite bait fish like ciscos, goldeye, and shad. They go deeper during mid-winter, like 10 to 15 feet (3 to 4 meters), where they can find weed and vegetation. Rock and hard-bottomed areas are the best places where you can find them.
However, you might find Pike in shallow spots as low as 5 feet (1.5 meters) because they’re frequently looking for food. So be careful not to scare them away because they’re very cautious. When you’re tip-up fishing, set your bait in the hole, and get away from it to avoid making noises and spooking the Pike.
There are two types of Bass you can find in ice lakes. Smallmouth Bass go deep but not too deep. They like to roam rocky or hard bottom areas 20 to 40 feet (6 to 12 meters) deep.
Largemouth Bass are more difficult to find. They like to roam in different depths. Sometimes you can find them in shallow places with weeds. But generally speaking, this kind of Bass is hard to catch during winter.
Walleyes are the most popular fish in the iced-over period. Still, they’re not an easy catch for most anglers. So, if you want to find them, you should know at what depth they live during winter.
If you locate them before winter, you’ll most likely find them in the same location during winter. Shallow areas near deeper spots still have enough food for them. You should key in on healthy weed beds, drop-offs, and reefs, which are basically the same spots where you find them in the summer and fall.
During mid-winter, Walleyes go for warmer spots in deep edges of areas with green weed, mid-lake depths, hard bottom spots, and humps.
If there are many fishing houses around walleyes’ spot, they will go to less crowded places. So, move a little away from the crowds of anglers and delve deeper.
Pay attention to the feeding time since they go from deep spots to shallow areas searching for food. They feed during the night before dawn and at dusk. You’ll find them bite more easily during these times and also when it’s cloudy.
4) Yellow Perch
Even during winter, they feed at the bottom. So, drop your bait to the bottom and move it up to one or two feet. When they still can find plants in shallow spots during early winter, you can catch them at 12 to 15 feet (3 to 4 meters). But as winter wears on, they move to 20 to 40 feet (6 to 12 meters) of water.
To find large crowds, you need a contour map of the area because they move from shallow flat weed beds to deeper flats instead of drop-offs.
Crappies are one of the most sought-after fish during winter. At different stages of the cold season, crappies move to various depths to find food.
You can spot them at 8 to 12 feet (2 to 3 meters) depths with living vegetation during the first ice. During early winter, shallow area weeds can still supply the required oxygen and food for crappies.
By the middle of the season, oxygen and sunlight levels drop, so crappies have to go further down for 20 to 40 feet (6 to 12 meters). Since they can be anywhere in the deep areas, it’s better to use sonar or flasher to locate them.
Crappies and other kinds of panfish don’t stay in a single depth. They move to different columns in search of food. That’s why you should try different depths to locate them.
If you can’t find any kind of fish in frozen lakes, you can be sure you’ll find trout. They remain active during winter and bite very well. Compared to other fish, trout concentrate on a higher level of water, like 10 feet.
Tap Into Technology
Technology and electronic devices have made ice fishing much easier. They give a clear picture of the depths of water and help you locate fish more precisely. Here are the most popular devices among experienced anglers.
1) Digital Maps
The first thing you need to find the best place to ice fish is a good map of the area to see the lake’s depth patterns. New lake cartography methods create precise GPS contour maps to see flats, drop-offs, or humps. You can use some of them on your mobile phones, making it super easy to use without needing any extra gadgets.
2) Sonar Units
Sonar Units help anglers find the exact bottom depth, hard and soft bottom, transition zones, and different structures such as humps and holes. You can also locate the weed line and vegetation, which is very important in finding fish in ice. Plus, it shows you the fish and your fishing lure. It enables you to watch how a fish reacts to your lure, which you can use to encourage the fish to bite.
There’s a wide range of sonar equipment with various features. It depends on your budget, fishing method, and the species you look for. There are two main types of portable sonar:
The Flasher signals come in different colors, which have different interpretations. An angler should be able to read these signals to get a clear picture of the area. It has a cone that goes under the water, and objects are shown based on their proximity to the cone. For example, a strong red signal shows that the fish is very close to the cone center and ready to bite.
Anglers have long used flashers as their essential device for fishfinding. They offer reliable results and have proven track records. Plus, the technology keeps improving, showing real-time results.
You can use LCDs in different seasons. Anglers can easily switch to a hard-water function by using a conversion kit. They have a battery, power cable, soft case, hard case, and a transducer for ice-fishing.
It also records and shows your activity history — a helpful feature that flashers don’t have. You can use this feature to change your strategies based on fish behaviors.
3) Underwater Cameras
These cameras make your job super easy by taking high-resolution displays of fish and structures. It completely takes the guesswork out of the process, and you can trust their results. They can complement the results of your sonar unit by working efficiently in turbid water and low light.
Safety Measures for Ice Fishing
Don’t forget to take safety precautions before you choose the best place for ice fishing. Before finding the best place to fish, you should locate the safest place for you to stay. So, make sure the ice you stand on is thick and safe enough.
Take a spud bar or an auger and make a hole in the ice. The ice needs to be at least 4 inches (10 centimeters) thick if you don’t have any sleds or cars. It should be a minimum of 6 inches (15 centimeters) for sleds, and for cars, 7-12 inches (17 to 30 centimeters).
Check for any changes in the color of ice since it could indicate rotting. Any cracks, holes, or water flows could be an alarming sign that you should be wary of.
Although ice fishing is a fun winter hobby, it’s more than drilling a hole, throwing the lure and bait, and waiting for the fish to bite. You should have a thorough knowledge of the lake and it’s deep and shallow spots to know where the fish gather.
When you know the fish’s favorite spots, you’ll be more likely to find your perfect catch. The following are good indicators of fish gatherings:
- Weedlines and vegetation
- Transition areas
- Sticky bottoms
It’s also a good idea to scout in the fall and mark the places you find fish on the map. Fish tend to stay in the same spots during winter and just go deeper to find more food and warmth.
Use fish finding technology to make your job easier. Sonar devices and cameras are the most popular tools for finding fish both in fall and winter.
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