Gwizdz: Fishing in ‘first ice’ brings challenges – Lansing State Journal
SPRING LAKE – I hadn’t been fishing more than about 30 seconds when I got bit. I set the hook and pulled the critter (a keeper-sized pumpkinseed) through the hole in the ice when it flopped off and escaped. So that’s how this is going to go, eh?
In a word, no. Two hours later, the three of us – pro angler Mark Martin, his buddy Larry Wagbo and I – trudged off the ice with our 25-fish limits of panfish.
It was excellent fishing, on Lloyd’s Bayou, non-stop action that took two hours to complete simply because we tossed back so many that were deemed unworthy of the filet knife. But Martin, who had put together this excursion, was totally unsurprised; that’s how it’s supposed to be at first ice.
Winter weather was a long time coming this year, but when it arrived, it did so with a vengeance. We went from open water to ice in a couple of days. (But remember, never assume the ice is safe. Take a spud and probe the ice as you go. If it’s iffy, you’ve gone out far enough.)
We were fishing in about five feet of water not far from the house where Martin grew up and we were fishing where he says he remembers going when he was a three-year-old.
“First ice is always the best time of the whole season,” said Martin, who made his name as a walleye angler, but has shown me over the last couple of decades that he knows a thing or two about panfish, too, “except for last ice. You have a very good bite because the fish are in shallow, the ice came on, and they haven’t moved out yet or been depleted. They’re accessible.”
Finding them is easy if you know where to start.
“If you’re fishing in open water a few days before ice and you’re catching fish – and I don’t care what kind of fish: bluegills, sunfish, crappie, even walleye — that’s the place you want to go to. Most often it’s that way for a week, maybe two weeks, then it’s going to start dissipating, depending on how much pressure is on the area. If you get a mass of people out there, in less than a week you’re going to see a drastic reduction in the fish you catch – they either catch them all or sore-lip them all.”
We were fishing with ultralight – as in monofilament sewing thread – line on whippy rods, dropping the tiny baits down in the water column. Martin was using a 1/100th ounce VMC Waxy Jig, I was using a tiny tungsten jig, both tipped with spikes. Often the bait didn’t make it to bottom before a fish – pumpkinseed, bluegill or crappie – had it.
“At first ice they see something falling and they grab it at any depth,” Martin said. “A lot of the bigger fish come within a foot or two under the ice.”
The cold water doesn’t seem to shut down the fish as much in winter as the lack of dissolved oxygen. Early in the season (i.e. first ice) dissolved oxygen is at its highest until last ice and run-off from melting ice recharges the oxygen level.
“If you can find green weeds, that’s where you fish, because it’s giving off oxygen,” Martin said “There are bugs in there and they attract the minnows and they attract the other fish. As it gets later you have to move out deeper and deeper until spring begins to come and they move back in shallow again.”
If you haven’t been fishing right before ice up – and really, not many folks have — then start where you left them at last ice last winter, which is typically shallow.
“Don’t walk over fish to catch fish – always start shallow, then go deep,” Martin said. “Never start deep early in the year. Fish in the back bays that are shallow or in cuts off the main basin. Later in the winter, the fish’ll pull out of those bays and go to deep water, but never start in deep water.”
That goes for every fish you’re pursuing, not just panfish, Martin said.
‘I’m probably as guilty of it as anyone,” he continued. “When I go to Saginaw Bay, I like to go out deep because that’s where the walleyes are supposed to be. But guys are catching them in four to seven feet of water in Saginaw Bay, right away, because they can’t get out any farther. And I know guys that never go any deeper than 12 feet or so and they catch fish.”
Martin said he starts out fishing in the same areas he fished when he was a lad going with his father. Techniques have changed, but the results haven’t, he said.
“Back then we fished with Dacron line and cat-gut leaders, with small gold hooks using corn borers and goldenrod grubs for bait. We didn’t have any of the things that we’ve got today – little tear drops or sewing thread for line. We were fishing with small bobbers – there were no spring bobbers or anything like that.”
If anything, Martin said, the fishing’s gotten better with the new gear and accessories – how many guys had depth finders 50 years ago? But the biggest change is knowledge. We know now when the ice first forms, the fish aren’t far from the bank.
Martin will be putting on two ice fishing schools this winter, at Houghton Lake and Saginaw Bay. Check it out at http://www.fishingvacationschool.com/ice-fishing-school.