As late winter slowly becomes early spring, life in the Ice Belt is loaded with distractions. That can cause ice anglers to miss out on one of the greatest stretches of shallow water sight fishing, and an opportunity to take their skills to the next level.
|Late ice sight fishing provides a rare chance to let the fish teach you the secrets to catching them. What you learn will serve you well at any time of year. Here, Dave Genz holds a dandy crappie he caught sight fishing on the late ice, from inside the darkened interior of his Fish Trap
"One of the big problems," says ice fishing legend Dave Genz, "is that a lot of people don't think of themselves as ice fishermen at this time of year. They're too busy sitting in their garage, in their boat, getting it ready."
So perhaps there is that, the identity crisis that causes ice anglers to give up on ice fishing too soon. This season, don't let it happen to you. Remain an ice angler through the final weeks, and the rewards will be many.
Great Sight Fishing Awaits
Sight fishing, Genz is known for saying, is the best teacher there is. And while it's possible to sight fish in open water, it's far more possible through the ice.
"That's because you have this stable platform (the ice) that doesn't move," says Genz. "You can see exactly what your bait looks like down there, and what it does as you use various presentations. You can see the fish come in at the bait, and how they react to what you're doing. Basically, you keep doing what they like and stop doing what they don't like."
It's at once both simple and profound, because it's a glorious opportunity to glimpse the predator and prey relationship in real life. It's as exciting as fishing gets, when you see a big fish nose in under your hole, pectoral fins pulsing, eyeing up your offering, and what you do determines whether the fish eats what you're selling.
This is where the intersection of mild winter weather and your development as an angler is found. We all know, in theory, that details make a difference when it comes to catching fish consistently. But we don't all know, from our own experiences, which details seem important to the fish we seek, and how to experiment wisely with location, bait, and presentation. In a few sunny afternoons on the late ice, your skills can leap forward, and the lessons learned will serve you well at any time of year, in any kind of fishing.
"When you get that picture in your mind of what your bait is doing, and what the fish looks like when it's coming up to the bait," says Genz, "that can stay with you. Then, when you're fishing dirty water with a Vexilar, you can see the fish in your mind instead of the signal. You see it because you've experienced it."
One Universal Rule
To help get you started in the right direction, Genz offers this advice for sight fishing success: keep doing what you were doing when a fish shows up.
"People tend to slow down their jigging motion, or stop completely, when a fish shows up," says Dave. "When they're fishing on a Vexilar, they tend to keep jigging and lifting the bait, trying to get the fish to chase it. But when they can see the fish, it seems to cause them to think they have to stop to make it easier for the fish to bite."
In reality, he says, if you slow or stop the jigging motions, many fish lose interest and go away. You'll have better success, in most situations, if you keep doing what you were doing that got the fish interested in the first place. But, Genz also says, watch closely what the fish's reaction is to the bait. On some days, you might have to slow down at least a little to seal the deal. But, as often as not, you'll score more if you keep jigging the same way you were before the fish showed up.
"The time to experiment with your jigging motion is before the fish comes in," says Dave. "You're trying to find out what it takes to get the fish's attention. That can change from day to day, and from daytime to prime time. But once you get it figured out, you can usually keep using that presentation and do really well."
You Gotta be able to See
One secret to sight fishing is being able to see down into the water well. That might sound obvious, but it brings up an important point many late ice anglers overlook. Once it becomes 'nice' outside, a lot of people trudge out to a known fish-holding spot with a bucket, a few rods, and an auger. They then try to see down the hole by hunching over and blocking the sun with their back, or by laying on the ice and using a hood to block light.
Rather than thinking of it as spare baggage, this is prime time to fish inside a Fish Trap, with its darkened interior. Keep using the Trap as a sled to haul your gear, then take full advantage of it when the fishing starts. You'll see better, and the fish won't be able to see you as well.
Shallows Come Alive
his is the time of year when the shallow water comes alive, as oxygen returns and water temperatures warm. Shallow spots that were inhospitable just a few weeks earlier can be teeming with life. It's a playground waiting for you to explore, a classroom waiting to teach you the secrets of presentation, bite detection, and hooksetting.
Keep your ice fishing gear ready this year, as the last days arrive, and hit the ice with an open mind ready to receive the best teachers of all. Let the fish show you what they want and how they want it. What you learn will change you forever, no matter where you fish. The cover of ice is a gift not to be wasted, especially not sitting in your boat in the garage.