Black Ice for the Best Winter Bass Bite
The third day, we arrived upon a transformed environment. Snow fell overnight, four inches covering the ice. Clouds remained overhead. Since we could not find previously cut holes, each of us whacked new openings for tip-ups with our splitting bars, and then we waited and waited. We fished for hours, enjoying no more action than three flags.
This got us thinking and theorizing. Correct or not, we concluded that bass in clear water, under clear ice with lots of sun penetrating through, strike in reaction just as they do during warmer months of open water. If you’ve ever noticed a silver shiner’s scales catching sunlight, you may have felt astonished at the pulse of reflected light. We believe such pulses provoke bass to hit. And some bass may drop shiners they initially strike, not interested in eating.
It’s a story that makes sense, whether or not it’s true. Ice fishermen everywhere tend to agree that first ice is best ice, so some reason or other must exist. As the ice fishing season deepens, ice develops milky-colored surface layers of melted and re-frozen snow. Towards the end in February or March, ice can feature water flowing between a thinly frozen surface and the body of thick ice beneath, or present a mess while melting under slushy snow or half a foot of water. First ice—that “black” ice illusion you see from a distance—is remarkably clean and simple by comparison. It invites an ice fisherman out for a pure experience of the frigid new season and the bass may respond with frisky bites.
If you are new to ice fishing, I recommend finding someone introducing you. If you know of no one who ice fishes, you can find at least one guide service in New Jersey for ice fishing. Otherwise, the local activities of a lake community, such as encountered on Lake Hopatcong, will give you clear indication of whether or not the ice is safe. I was taught that three inches of hard clear ice is safe, although I would never recommend this measure to anyone venturing out on his own for the first time.
There are reasons. Large lakes and reservoirs freeze unevenly. Round Valley Reservoir, for example, froze 18 inches thick by March, 2014, and yet about 25% of the water in the reservoir remained open all winter. Other lakes never freeze evenly—coves freeze first, main lake points last as a general rule. Ponds of few acres do freeze evenly, unless a little cove or two is protected from prevailing wind and freezes first. An entire book on ice conditions could be written by whoever goes to the trouble of cataloguing dozens of variations found on lakes, reservoirs, ponds and rivers, but for our discussion: clear, hard, safe ice is the concern.
Fish clear water underneath, choose a sunny afternoon if you can, and stay out until dusk. The magic hour near sunset until a half hour or so thereafter always has the potential of lunker bass feeding. Nevertheless, in my experience, the most direct sun rays possible make for the fastest first-ice fishing, the most flags tripped.
Shallow lakes and ponds may prove best. A deep lake offers bass the opportunity to escape brilliant light by settling deeper. If you set a shiner 25 feet deep, it will not reflect light sharply as it will in 10 feet of water or even shallower. If you fish Lake Hopatcong, for example, notorious for its main lake points dropping off into 40 feet of water or more, try River Styx shallows or the State Park flats instead.
The best kept secret for first-ice fishing is ponds, by virtue of the fact that many ice fishermen don’t care to hear about the success, habituated instead to lakes and reservoirs with the fanfare they draw. Shallow ponds freeze to safe thickness before protected coves freeze safely on lakes and reservoirs. Snow may fall before ice is safe on any lake or reservoir, yet a day or two exists with a relative few ice anglers catching bass in shallow, clear ponds before black ice opportunity is ruined.
Whether lake, pond or reservoir, know the water before it freezes to reduce the random element when setting tip-ups. Bass frequent many of the same sorts of habitat during winter as during the warmer months, although in ponds, for example, you will catch plenty in the deepest water of perhaps 10 feet, if most get caught hugging shorelines in the summer and fall. Any cover in the water—whether of lake, pond or reservoir—should have tip-ups set close as possible to it without the shiner getting entangled. Often cover is situated in relatively shallow water. Set a tip-up in the deepest water possible that remains in close relation to the shallower cover, whether submerged brush, boulders, a sunken dock or anything else that may draw forage and bass to it.
Residual weeds remain remarkably thick during winter in some waters and bass inhabit them. Not every weedy situation involves an outside edge adjacent to deeper water, where bass frequent in search of forage. Flats comprise many acres of reduced weed mass with enough tendrils and leafy greens remaining to hold lots of fish. Tip-ups can be spread over a flat, set by best guesses, and tended. Check on every tip-up to make sure the shiner doesn’t entangle in weeds. Occasionally lifting a tip-up to check on it also helps ensure that a shiner remains active on the hook.
A light wire, plain shank size 6 hook is all you need for each tip-up. The light weight isn’t a burden for lively bait to carry. Crimp a medium split-shot about 15 inches ahead of the hook to a three-foot fluorocarbon leader—15-pound test if pickerel are present—and lower the rig to bottom until the dacron main line goes limp. Turn dacron back onto the tip-up spool as you lower the spool to the water surface, until the line comes taut with the split-shot directly on bottom and your index finger and thumb holding the line at the surface. Now turn seven loops of dacron onto the spool and set the tip-up in the hole. The shiner will swim slightly suspended above bottom.
And to have a tip-up set to wait is a satisfying feeling. A flag sprung is pure joy.