Ice fishing new lakes! A new adventure! It’s late December and you’ve never icefished a particular lake before, and you have no idea where to put down your first holes. Of course you could join the crowd, if any, putting a few holes down in the same area and seeing first hand if that’s the hotspot for the day. However, the crowds may not be there or they may be angling in barren waters. You can narrow the odds a bit with some pre-planning and forethought.
If you’ve fished the lake during warm weather months, a definite advantage, you have a general idea of bottom contours, weed lines, and other fish-attracting features, such as drowned timber. Lake maps are available from fish and game agencies and geological survey units of government. The wise angler will get these maps and study them, gleaning useful information from even the smallest details. Look for submerged reefs, quick drop-offs, and underwater weed humps, woody debris left from drowned trees or the remnants of some lumbering operation.
Arcadia Lake in Manistee County has large areas of wood slab piles along the western shore of the “little lake”. Having an awareness of this can key the knowing angler into fish in a hurry. Finding the edge of the slabs as they lay horizontally, pointing out to deep water and drilling holes along the edge so the bait hangs over the deeper recesses of the lake just off the end of the woody debris can bring ready strikes from fish ranging from perch to northern pike, and yes, the occasional trout that enter the lake from Lake Michigan through the boating channel.
Shallow and deep water weed areas, easily seen on a lake map, are preferred feeding areas. They also provide ample security cover for smaller fish and larger predator species lurk nearby. These honey holes are well hidden under the ice, but the knowledgeable angler can use a lake map and prior experience during the summer months to help locate them. Of course a sonic fish/depth locator is ideal in this situation.
If no lake map is , the observant angler can use shoreline features such as bays, points, coves, and even lowland swamps, hills, and ridgelines as they meander along the lakeshore. One might assume that a finger of land pointing out into the lake may continue underwater and at least one side of this submerged digit has a steep drop into deep water. Green Lake , in Allegan County , has a very subtle point along its northern shore, across the lake from the public access site in a northeasterly direction. The point extends out into the lake for over 150 yards. Its eastern side, as well as its end, has a very steep decline into the depths. In a matter of 20 yards the bottom descends from four feet down to about 30 feet. Slab-sided bluegills hang out over the deep water, near the bottom from mid-winter on, but suspended during the early season. Summer fishing, as well as the fisherman being keenly aware of the subtle point along the shoreline, is invaluable in finding this area when ice covers the lake.
Fish of every species have their own preference in regards to water temperature. In the winter months the variance in water temps narrows significantly between 32 degrees F. and about 40 degrees at the bottom, unless there is a warm water inlet or underwater springs. This range, of only eight degrees, lessons the concern over water temperature. In ice angling, water temps are not nearly as important as during warm weather fishing.
Fish are in search of the basics: food, protection, and oxygen, no matter what the time of year. The need for food lessens during the frigidity of winter, but fish still must eat from time to time. Even lake trout and smelt will vacate the very deepest recesses of a lake during the winter due to a lack of oxygen. Being denizens of shallower water, perch, bluegills, pike, and walleyes are less concerning with water temperature. They will be found in weedy areas, which provide not only cover, but food sources, and life giving oxygen. Holes cut in weedy bays and their mouths into the main body of the lake should produce.
Keep in mind that some species, northern pike and walleyes for example, are known as roamers. They will cruise at specific depths in search of a meal. Every lake has areas that will concentrate the movement, somewhat like vegetation and/or landforms will funnel whitetail deer. A series of underwater humps, my Dad used to call them “islands” will focus fish movement and narrow the search area. The mouth of a bay will do the same, as will the area between an island and the mainland.
Let’s say that your chosen lake has an island, with an expanse of open water between the island and the main shoreline. Keep in mind that an underwater island (far more common) will offer the same opportunity. Drill your first hole in 10 ft. depths on a line between the shoreline and the island. If there is a point dotting the shore, use that as your target line. Fish for at least fifteen minutes and if there is no action, move out about 30 ft. towards the island, drill a hole and fish. Repeat this pattern until you reach the ten foot depths near the shore. Somewhere in this funnel you should find the fish. Keep in mind that they might be suspended so a change of depth is also required while fishing a hole. You can follow the same procedure when fishing the mouth of a bay.
Schooling fish, such as perch and bluegills, will roam, but remain in the same general area. How often have you fished a hole, iced some dandy panfish, and, after a time, the hole becomes “dry”. The fishing from that spot, once red hot, slows, with only a “now and then” taker, until all action ceases. Move to another hole in the same area, you may find the fish that way. As the action slows, but before it ends, try to figure out the direction the fish tries to swim as he attempts to escape the hook. The natural tendency of a hooked and alarmed schooling fish is to try to rejoin the other members of the group it was swimming with. The direction of a fish’s attempted escape indicates where another hole should be drilled. “My buddies are swimming off and I want to join them”, the fish seems to be thinking (if fish could think)
Knowledge of a lake is vital if an angler has hopes to bring home a tasty meal of fish. Much of this can be garnered by using lake maps, shoreline features, and of course, the presence of other fisherman. Fishing a new lake is an adventure. Successful anglers are willing to explore, learning from each success, and, just as importantly, from each failure. Some holes, like gold mines and oil wells, produce with profusion while others are as barren as Ol’ Mother Hubbard’s famous cupboard. Explore, using bottom features and shoreline landscapes to aid in your search for the ultimate honey hole.