Here's a piece on ice fishing published in The Fisherman last season. Lakes mentioned are in New Jersey.
First Ice, Best Ice
Reaction Strikes for Tip-Ups and Jigging
First ice, best ice—this is what so many descriptions of early ice fishing amount to for mysterious reasons that no one knows for certain, me included, although have an idea. It’s not a theory separated from practical success on “black ice,” ice newly formed, free of any snow or milky-white false layer. It’s an idea that works.
Very many years ago—I was 16—an older mentor and I had December ice in Princeton Township. We got out two or three times on a 4 acre pond for phenomenal largemouth fishing before snow covered clear ice—and the number of flags decreased by a ratio of 10:1. Curious the first day, but one or two more days of that contrast got us thinking hard.
We reviewed the conditions: the first days had been cloudless, the ice clear, water clear, and most interestingly, a number of bass had taken shiners, run off about five yards of line, and dropped them. We were sure these were not sunfish hitting large shiners, and we never had this happen on snow covered ice. Largemouths normally take a shiner under ice because they mean it, and they will strip a tip-up spool if you let them.
Why Cold Front Conditions are Best
I don’t remember which one of us had the illumination, but the idea seemed certain since the bass had been hitting shiners with highly reflective scales in brilliant sunlight through clear ice in very clear, fairly shallow (8 to 10 feet) water. Reaction strikes. Just like a bass slamming a high speed crankbait on a tough day in the summer. I wanted to believe this is true, but it’s a good supposition. You can count on it to frame your approach in December. By whatever cause, or combination of causes, bass and other gamefish tend to hit better just as the season starts. It may seem counterintuitive to pick a cloudless day and clear water shallows to go after largemouths, but these conditions tend to be best for black ice. It’s a good idea to pick a shallow lake like Musconetcong, Budd Lake, a pond with clear water, or otherwise a shallow, weedy flat like Hopatcong’s State Park area, and take along jigging rods with silvery spoons as well. Standing directly over fish on clear ice jigging might spook them, so if water in the five foot range is very clear, rely especially on tip-ups.
Fascination & Reaction
I don’t believe the classic cold front condition does the opposite of summer and turns bass on during winter. It’s clear to me that if a bass takes a shiner and drops it, the interest wasn’t to feed. Bass obviously feed less in winter; being cold blooded, they metabolically require less. And with high pressure and intense light, my guess is that in shallow habitat, like State Park, they tend to go into what weeds remain. In our relatively shallow Princeton Township pond, we fished the deepest water, over which we could begin to make out the bottom we set shiners a foot above. But bass travel about a pond even during winter. That’s plain to see as a tip-up spool spins. And a shiner flashing before them as they approach, reflecting abundant light, fascinates and incites them to strike.
It isn’t that under snow covered ice, bass, pickerel, or other gamefish have no way of sensing a shiner. It’s very dark under thick, snow covered ice, especially with an opaque false layer. But fishes’ lateral lines are extremely sensitive and allow them to directly target prey in darkness. So I ask how much sight has to do with arousing a strike even when fish are not actively feeding. It’s as if they are mesmerized by the sight of that baitfish emitting light from those scales—which normally serve as protection for schooling shiners, serving to confuse predators by so many random flashes of light. But here’s a single shiner sending a beacon that now serves the opposite of nature’s intention. The bass hits.
Large Shiners, Small Hooks
Use large, or even extra-large shiners if you can get them, for the obvious reason. The bigger the bait, the more it will swim and turn in the light, and the more light its scales will reflect. I’ve seen ice fishermen impale shiners on what looked to me like 2/0 hooks---those shiners pretty much stayed in place, straitjacketed by thickness and weight of metal. It’s not impossible to catch a fish that way. (Northern pike will hit dead bait in winter.) But it’s much less likely without active flashes. Size six straight shank, or circle hooks, are all you need. Go with “light wire” and play out a big fish. If you are targeting muskies, you will need to refer to other techniques, but for bass, pickerel, and northern pike—go light and let shiners work for you. Step light, too. Don’t come stomping to a tip-up. Especially under these conditions when fish are skittish, bait gets dropped.
Unless you are well seasoned ice fishing, 5 inches of clear, hard ice is a wise rule. Why? Ice thickness is not uniform on New Jersey lakes. We all have access to plenty information that will tell us a 250 pound man can stand safely on 3 inches of ice, but 3 inch thickness along shore does not mean it exists further out, perhaps an inch or two does. Who wants to be a total greenhorn at this, poking about a frozen lake with a split bar to test hardwater that may kill him in a moment or two? If ice is relatively thin, you are an enthusiastic beginner, and snow is coming tomorrow—take a little advice. Don’t take this so seriously. Find a guide or wait until later in the season when ice is very thick and safe, get used to ice fishing, and at some other, safe opportunity try for reaction strikes. Someone I knew in high school died an awful death as a result of ice fishing—to fall through is serious.
Every year people across the northern tier of the nation die falling through, and I wonder what percentage could have lived if they simply wore a pair of ice spikes around their necks. By whatever cause, if you go though, fasten your fists around the grips, dig the spikes into ice, pull yourself out, and crawl away to thick ice. Otherwise, unless you can at least use your car keys to similar purpose (not as sure), try climbing out of ice water onto ice with wet hands. It may not be impossible, but certainly is unlikely. A throw rope that your fishing partner could toss to you would reduce your amount of crawling effort in such an extreme situation.
Ice fishing comprises some of the most rewarding outings I have all year. I love it when dawn greets zero degrees, and welcome colder to see even more steam rise from holes. Get out, brave a new world! And don’t doubt it—be safe.