The market for mousy grubs in Maine is picking up in recent years.
Ice Fishing Promises Winter Action
Four strong whacks of the splitting bar yielded water. I followed through with cuts in a tight circle, whisked chunks out of the hole with the flat of the blade, and kneeled to reach bare handed under water between surface and bottom, measuring better than four inches of safe ice thickness.
When I get a chance to fish on fresh “black” ice without snow cover, I expect lots of trap and jig action. All varieties of gamefish see live shiner scales or silvery jigging spoons reflect sunlight and strike in reaction. Most of the ice fishing season, however, is a relatively darkened world to fish, yet great catches are made by setting traps and/or jigging where fish frequent. Just as important as sight, a fish’s lateral line is a sensory organ that picks out vibrations from many yards distant. Fish key in upon vibrations forage make to feed under ice.
Compared to the depths trout swim in summer, ice fishing is productive in relatively shallow water. Lake trout dwell deepest, though not as deep as during summer, and often strike quite shallow. Largemouth bass usually get hooked in depths shallower than 20 feet, smallmouths as deep as about 30 feet, and pickerel may strike in three-foot shallows. Yellow perch and panfish often bite just as shallow, although they may feed in depths of 20 feet or so. Depth all depends, if most of the time we don’t know why and just feel happy to find fish.
Every lake or pond offers its own unique structural challenges and opportunities, and to be prepared for them and find fish, you must be familiar with what’s under the ice, have a topographic map, or go with a guide or someone who knows the destination. Choose the fish you want to catch and zero in. Pickerel, largemouth bass, perch and panfish may share the same spots, but trout are another game.
Brook, rainbow, and brown trout feed on shallow flats of five to eight feet or so, especially with drop-offs nearby, since they migrate to and from deeper water, depending on whether not they feed in shallows or rest deep. When devouring minnows, they suspend between ice and bottom, though the water may be especially shallow and the issue negligible. Otherwise, they find invertebrates on shallow bottom, including small crayfish. Jigging spoons like the Swedish Pimple and Kastmaster in 1/10th ounce size, ice flies, Micro Jigs and a whole host of other little lure options produce, although it’s a good idea to experiment. Unless trout feed voraciously—as they might—they’re picky.
You need to be quiet. They’re about as spooky as during warm weather and just a little slow by comparison. Trout best acclimate to cold--better than pickerel. Live bait options include maggots, small minnows, waxworms, and redworms fished under a float. Use the lightest line possible, not because trout see as well as when no snow blocks light, but because sight remains involved to some degree. And believe it or not, trout sense line by their lateral receptors. If you anticipate big trout, six-pound test is needed. But two or four-pound test on a tiny reel and jigging rod is appropriate otherwise.
Lake trout typically suspend under ice and may be hooked near the hole. Main lake points, humps, and mouths of bays are the big attractions. Large spoons fished on hefty jigging rods produce, as do ¾ ounce rattling lipless crankbaits: lakers are drawn through darkness to the commotion. Traps baited with live shiners or smelts are great to space apart by about 25 yards and let be while you jig. Four may be set per man, while each jigs his fifth legal line. 10 pound test Power Pro Ice line with 10 pound test fluorocarbon leader connected by a uni to uni splice can withstand the duress of fighting these great fish. Jigging large spoons or other lures produces noise, so it’s not important to go light.
The Kastmaster effective for trout is deadly for pickerel, quarter ounce about right. A silvery spoon of any variety draws strikes powerful enough to make you forget the chill. When I began fishing as a boy, almost everyone said I needed wire leader to protect against teeth, but I learned from someone who used 20 pound test monofilament tied to a swivel. Now we have fluorocarbon. Fifteen-pound test is just right.
Pickerel ambush forage fish with absolute deliberateness from shallow weeds year round. Fish shiners or jig a spoon over residual vegetation, and sooner or later you’ll happen upon a pickerel. Vegetation grows deep in some clear lakes, so shallow is relative to how deep the sun reaches, given bottom soft enough for vegetation to flourish. Pickerel, especially the big ones, can be caught as deep as 20 feet or so. You don’t want to place shiners in the thick of weeds, since they will bury themselves. Set them so they swim over the highest reaches of any vegetation that hasn’t decomposed, and pickerel will find them, possibly bass too.
Whether you bait a trap for pickerel or bass, a smallish barrel swivel connecting main line and leader serves as weight. The shiner or smelt will find its way down, rather than swim upwards against the weight of the line and swivel. A light wire, size 6 hook, such as the plain shank variety Eagle Claw makes, sufficiently allows free swimming. Some swear by size 8 trebles, but if bait is swallowed and the fish released, that’s a problem. In all events of fishing traps, it’s better to set the hook sooner than later. Thick braid line designated for ice fishing is manageable for hand lining. A more expensive low diameter performance brand will cut the hands of whoever tries to play a fish.
Largemouths often frequent the same weeds as pickerel, although you won’t find any as shallow as three feet. Eight feet is a possibility, although 12 to 15 is better. If you know of any spot that combines residual weeds, submerged brush or timber, or rocks—fish it. Whatever the structure you select, if deeper water is nearby, this may be favorable. Largemouths may not retreat deeper than 20 or 25 feet, but they may prefer to cruise in deeper water’s proximity.
Rocks are just as essential to smallmouth bass as weeds to pickerel, but if you know of a spot at least 15 feet deep combining rocks with residual weeds, you may sweeten your chances of success. Main lake rocky points, humps, and ledges are not the only drop-offs that produce smallmouths. Coves with combinations of vegetation, stone, and sharp drop-offs may offer outstanding fishing. Both species of bass, smallmouths especially, tend to frequent sharp drop-offs in winter because the route from deep water resting basins to shallower feeding grounds is short. With metabolism slow, they swim less.
Yellow perch and panfish jigged with the lightest specialty rods take tiny ice jigs tipped with mousy grubs. Residual weedbeds and weedline edges can produce great numbers, and some ice anglers are dedicated to perch and panfish for this reason. A feast afterwards carries the celebration.
Nothing else excites like the risen orange flag of a trap against a snowy background. As a boy, the experience of a bobber going under gave me an uncanny feeling of connection before I even set the hook. As a grown man, I never lose out on the thrill of a flag. It’s like a sign of life in the Sahara.