The real key to finding the mother lode of burrowing insects is to pinpoint the base of the break, where sediment accumulates
|Dave Genz holds up a prize, a jumbo perch taken at the base of a break off a sticky-bottom area. Be precise this winter, as you search the base of breaks where burrowing insects live, and fish look for food.
In many ways, the unexplored frontier in ice fishing is the not-too-soft, not-too-firm bottom composition that Dave Genz calls sticky.
"Shallow weeds, especially when they're upright and fairly healthy," says Genz, "definitely hold (winter) fish. And this is true for other cover, like brush. But those sticky bottom areas hold a lot of fish, too."
Especially on waters without a lot of good shallow cover, sticky-bottom areas can be the prime fish-holding zone. Even when shallow cover is present, where lakes remain iced-over for more than about a month, reduced oxygen and other factors can force the web of life into deeper water. In the search for prime mid-depth spots, Genz first noticed fish over what he now calls sticky bottoms back in the old days.
"This was even before the Vexilar," he explains. "Everybody used to use those lead depthfinders, the thing everybody had clipped to the zipper on their jacket. That's how we set the depth of bobbers, by clipping the weight onto our hook and dropping it to the bottom."
As often happens, Genz and his friends knew the fish were there before figuring out why.
"I remember dropping the weight to the bottom, and having it stick temporarily when you'd go to pull it back up," says Genz. "It was sticking because the weight would penetrate into the bottom, and it was that sticky bottom material that's perfect for burrowing insects."
As is also usually the case, it was Genz who became fascinated with the why and began trying to link the connection between those fish and the bottom composition. His lay research led him to the dens of burrowing insects, principally mayfly larvae, midges, and phantom midges. Also in the same areas can be significant numbers of worms, scuds, and isopods.
(Significant assistance from, and thanks to, Dr. Mac Strand, Ph.D., professor of entomology and aquatic ecology at Northern Michigan University.)
Key Zone: Base of Break
It's one thing to stumble across a few fish here and there, but Genz always wants to make ice-fishing success repeatable. So he blended the research with his own direct observations from countless fishing days across every inch of the Ice Belt. Over the years, his own understanding of exactly where fish congregate has led him to conclude that the base of dropoffs are the key.
"That area, where the break levels out and leads onto a flat," says Genz, "is an area of different bottom consistency. Things have slid down the side of the break and accumulated. So it's not the siltation that takes place on the bottom of the lake. It's denser than that, because it slid down the break. It's almost like a delta, a runoff, stuff that came from up the side of the break and ended up down there.
"It's a different bottom consistency, the kind that underwater life can relate to, and live in. Burrowing insects have a prime place to live there. And fish looking for something to eat find these places."
Like all predators, fish feeding on insects develop a 'search image' and home in on the bases of breaks. Think of it as the 'bottom of the dropoff,' where it levels out.
"So you have this zone you should look for," says Genz. "You should drill holes along the base of the break, along shoreline breaks and breaks leading off of humps. But it's one thing to say that and another thing to do it."
Indeed. How can an ice angler go about accurately drilling holes along the base of a break? By using modern GPS contour maps. Even many small handheld GPS units can accept digital lake maps. The accuracy of modern digital maps is amazing, because they were created using mapping sonar. Some maps have detail that shows you every one-foot change in depth! You can use such a map to stand over the base of as many breaks as you care to visit, accurately drilling holes in a zig-zag pattern along the base.
Drill about six holes, then check them all, using a Vexilar to see whether fish are present. Fish them, too, because the act of drilling can scoot fish to the side temporarily. Your jigging can call the fish back, or simply attract them if they are nearby.
"Especially during the daytime hours," stresses Genz, "keep on the move. Don't just drill a few holes and sit there. Keep moving down the break until you find some fish. If you don't see anything after drilling quite a few holes, pick up and make a big move, down to another stretch of break, and start the process again."
In many cases, fish can be scattered out across the relatively flat area away from the base of the break, too. That's more of a needle-in-the-haystack deal, but if you catch a few fish along a section of break, then seem to run out of them, it can pay off to go back where you had some success and drill out onto the flat.
Worth the Effort
It's definitely easier to find weeds or other cover while you're out searching for fish, because there's really not much to see along these sticky-bottom bases. An underwater camera can sometimes reveal the holes of burrowing insects, but the hunt can often be methodical, with long dry runs punctuated by catching some fish. When you do find fish along the base of breaks, though, they can be the biggest fish in the area. Plus, they're usually unpressured. Taking the time, and learning to use the technology that allows you to be precise about where you drill holes, is worth the effort.
"Ice fishing still needs more leaders," says Genz, the guy who coined that term decades ago, "people who break away from the pack and find their own fish. Sticky bottoms, along the base of breaks, are worth getting to know." Fishing this way demands mobility. Genz relies on Ice Armor clothing from head to toe, because it keeps him warm and dry while he's on the go. When the wind whips up and he needs a reprieve, he huddles inside a Fish Trap with the heater going. Hole drilling is a big deal. "I've been using StrikeMaster augers my whole career," says Dave, "and they haven't let me down yet. They keep making 'em lighter and faster cutting. Honestly, I don't even think much about how many holes it takes to find fish, because it's not hard to punch as many as you need."
When it comes to tackle, his name is on a series of jigs specifically made for ice fishing, by Lindy. Look also for the Fat Boy, Flyer, Rattlin' Flyer Spoon, and more, all bearing the Lindy brand. To help keep him moving without hassle, he typically chooses colored maggots or wax worms to tip his ice jigs.
It's an exciting time to be an ice angler. Modern technology allows you to precisely probe places that might hold fish, and keeps you comfortable until the search ends with a solid bite from a fish you hunted down on your own.
Dave Genz, known as Mr. Ice Fishing, was the primary driver of the modern ice fishing revolution.