Flasher and Shelter for the Southern Half of the Ice Fishing Belt

David P. asks:

Now that my children are grown and off to college, I am thinking about getting back into ice fishing. That is if we ever get enough ice here where I live in northern Illinois. I would like to know if you have a recommendation for a flasher and a shanty. I like what I have read so far about the Marcum M series flashers. Maybe the M3. I see you use Otter shelters. I will likely be fishing alone and I like a dark or blackout shelter. Is the Otter Pro X Cottage shelter a dark or blackout shelter? It is difficult to find these items around here as there isn’t much ice for very long and very few ice fisherman. So any insight you can provide would be very helpful. Thanks, and have a great day! Dave

Hi David – thanks for the question, and I can appreciate where you’re coming from. In some years, even southern MN doesn’t get the ice that the rest of the state does. That leaves you wondering how far you really need to go in terms of an ice purchase you may only get a few weeks of use from. Still, as I think you’ve identified, it’s great to go with quality equipment that’ll best serve your needs. 

In your neck of the woods, I think you’d be very happy with either a Marcum M1 or M3.  Major differences between them being a bit more power/target-separation and adjustable zoom anywhere in the water column with the M3.  The M1 will still have bottom zoom and is a great unit that should not be overlooked! Pound for pound, it does the work of sonar that was cutting edge only a few years ago, and for a fraction of the price.  

As for the Otters, I’d recommend either the Hideout or the Cottage.  The XT Hideout is a stealth option, and both will be nearly full dark with the Cottage being the darkest.  It has a complete seal all the way around to prevent light from entering the back edges.  Both do not allow light through the canvas, which is a major benefit to the Otter shelters in general. 

Hope this helps, and good luck out there!

 Joel

Ice Fishing - To Swivel or Not to Swivel?

Photo Credit -  Matt Addington Photography    Products Featured:  St. Croix - Croix Custom Ice Perch/Eye Spoon Rod -  CI28MLF    Shimano Sienna 500  with drag upgrade

Photo Credit - Matt Addington Photography

Products Featured:

St. Croix - Croix Custom Ice Perch/Eye Spoon Rod - CI28MLF

Shimano Sienna 500 with drag upgrade

Darren B. asks:

There seems to be an ongoing debate on whether or not a fisherman should use a barrel swivel above a fluorocarbon leader or if one should tie a uni knot. Are there certain times that one should be used over the other? What is your preferred presentation?

The long and short of the matter is that I prefer a swivel when I can.  Especially for flutter type spoons as they really swing, tumble, and roll around. Your average lead spoons still will impart some line twist, but not nearly that of a flatter spoon design.

That said, when the bite is hot and something breaks, I choose time and efficiency over tying in another swivel.  I’ve never used a uni-knot to connect on ice, but would do so in the event I needed braid.  Whitefishing in deep water would be a prime example of that, but I might take the opportunity to use a swivel there as well, unless my leader needed to be long.  Green Bay Walleyes and Whitefish again would come to mind given the clarity of water you’re fishing them in.  Hope this makes sense, and hopefully it answered your question. 

Thanks!

Joel

How Do You Organize Your Ice Tackle?

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Mike F. asks:

Hey Joel - I was wondering what your preferred method of ice tackle organization is when you are fishing out of a portable? Do you find a tackle bag is the way to go or some other method? I can't seem to find anything that I'm satisfied with when it comes to having what I need easily accessible and transportable.

Thanks!

Mike

Great question Mike, and it’s a doozy.  I think I’ll qualify everything first by saying that I don’t think anyone has found the “perfect” storage solution for all baits, tackle, and accessories.  There’s a lot of ways to skin that fish, and what works for some will be horrible for others.  In my situation, I’m fishing for constantly changing species in a variety of environments, so I need to have literally everything ready, then be able to pick and choose just a few items as needed to carry on my person and out onto the ice. 

For that reason, I’m about diversification and nested storage when it comes to my ice gear.  In a way, I run my program like those little Russian dolls that fit into one another.  I break my storage into 3 categories:

  1. Home/Truck/Camp

  2. On-Ice

  3. On-Person

I’ve got totes, tackle bags, small hard-boxes, line boxes, and a Ziploc bags even come into play.  The big totes never hit the ice, and I use what’s in them to stock the tackle storage solutions that make their way out there with me.  Looking at it from the surface, it would seem a hodge-podge of whatever I have laying around and thrown into the back of the truck.  That said, these solutions have evolved over time to serve all kinds of needs from fun family trips, to filming forays, and everything in between. 

I’ve also learned to keep items in their original packaging as long as possible.  While it’s a space-waster, and it sure is fun to tear open packages to fill tackle boxes, the cardboard and plastic these baits come in can be the best way to keep them looking great.  It’s the basis for my system, and also the reason I have nested storage that I keep dipping into from time to time.  My entire philosophy is about taking a good variety but low volume of what you’ll need out on the ice, then keeping backups extremely handy for re-stocking.  Here’s how I stay on top of everything: 

Home, Truck, or At Camp:

  • Basecamp Tote – This one’s big, and rarely makes it onto the ice with me.  It’s designed to be my rescue kit that lives in the back of a truck or at a lodge, but not something that I carry around full-time.  I can dip into it as needed on a long trip, and depending on the transport situation, I may take a handful of items from it and put onto the next solution.  Here’s just a few of the items it holds:

    • Hitch Pins

    • Auger kit, including replacement blades

    • Extra transducer/replacement Marcum battery

    • Extra Gloves

    • Extra Hoodies and Hats

    • Bait Pucks, pliers, and snips

    • Heater accessories and a lighter

  • Line Box – I’ve got a Plano 3700 series deep box that’s full of nothing but line.  I respool each late fall, then re-order to fill.

  • Lure Tote – This is a smaller tote that has nothing but lures in it.  Again, I keep this one at camp, and only use it to replenish lost items or hot baits I might need.  It’ll come with on a long trip, but most often it lives in my garage and is used as a buffer inventory from which to fill tackle boxes when needed.  When I use up a popular color or lure in the tote, I know it’s time to buy more.

On-Ice:

  • On-Ice Soft Goods Bag – This bag is filled with ziplocs of tackle and some odds/ends:

    • Soft Plastics – I keep these in their original baggies and keep like sizes, shapes, and colors in a quart sized Ziploc freezer bag – these are tougher and stand up for a few years.

    • Panfish Tackle – I have select baits, tungsten and lead both, separated into bait type in original packaging, stuffed into Ziploc quart bags

    • Walleye Tackle – I have select baits, one bag per size, multiple colors per bag in Ziploc quart bagsJigging Raps in the package are a big part of the selection here, as Jigging Raps are easily damaged on long transport trips.

    • Bobbers, Sinkers, bare hooks and anything else needed to rig a tip-up or dead-line have their own mini tackle box that lives in the soft goods back.

  •  On-Ice Hard Goods Bag – This can be any small tackle bag that holds the Plano 3500 or 3600 sized small boxes – as well as a few snips, pliers, and other small accessories

    • Box 1 – Rippin Raps of various shapes and colors – these hold up well to travel as they’re not as heavy.

    • Box 2 – Slab Raps and UL Rippin Raps.

    • Box 3 – Spoons of various shapes and sizes – These will get beat up, you’ll lose chips and chunks of paint, and you’ll have to be OK with it.  These are high use, constantly replenished items.

    • Box 4 – Swiss Army Box – Jigging Raps are the number one bait that gets damaged while in transport, but I do have a few out of the package and ready to rock in this box.  Oddballs also go in here, along with extra baits the didn’t fit in the first three boxes!

On-Person:

  • Small Utility Box – Panfish – I’ve got one side of this filled with vertical panfish jigs, the other side, a mix of horizontal lead and tungsten baits.

  • Medium Utility Box – Walleyes/Perch/Crappies – This box has some plastics and bare hooks in the clear plastic flip lids, along with spoons in the memory foam.  I do have a few Teardrop jigs in the clips, but this is a minimalist walleye box that has the very best of the best only inside.

Like I said, it’s far from perfect, but it works great for how I fish.  Every year I refine it and get a bit better!

Joel

Which Otter House to Buy? Cabin or Lodge? XT or XT Pro?

Featured -  Otter X-Over XT Lodge   Photo Credit - In-Depth Media Productions

Featured - Otter X-Over XT Lodge

Photo Credit - In-Depth Media Productions

Sam O. writes:

Hi Joel,
I'm a big fan. I always watch your Youtube videos and TV shows.
I have 2 questions. First, I live in central Minnesota, and there is a lake right by my house with huge walleyes that don't get fished much to any fishing pressure. It’s called Lake (OMITTED) near the town of (OMITTED). I try to fish this lake as often as possible because it is close to my house but do not know where to fish for them. If you could maybe give me a place to start or something that sticks out to you that would be great!
Also, I'm in the market for a new otter shelter and am unsure what to buy. Looking at the Cabin vs the Lodge. XT vs the Pro. Any advice? Maybe know of someone with one used in good condition? Thanks a ton.
Sam

Hi Sam – thanks for the question and for watching what I do!  Always appreciate hearing from people that take the time to check out what I’m up to.

As for the lake, I try to make it a point not to comment on lakes, locations, and advice regarding where to fish.  It’s been tricky in the past, and it can be negative for the resource. Not to mention, no one person could know the predator/prey dynamics and other environmental conditions enough to make such predictions.  So I’ll have to pass on that one, but I can certainly help you with an Otter.

You’ve effectively got two comparisons going on here, Cabin vs. Lodge, XT vs. XT Pro.  Here’s how I’d break it down and what I use:

Cabin vs. Lodge

  • Transport – Cabin fits inside a standard truck bed, and underneath a Tonneau cover, while a lodge may have issues fitting under the cover and does stick out onto the tailgate.  You may need additional help to load a Lodge in the back of a truck, whereas the Cabin is a bit more manageable solo.

  • Space – I’m 5’10” and can’t stand up without touching my head to the top of a Cabin.  I can standup in a Lodge.  As for floor space and seating, unsurprisingly the lodge will comfortably fish 2, and up to 3 people with gear. 

  • Weight – Depending on style (XT vs XT Pro), you’re looking at up to 103lbs on the Cabin, and up to 124lbs on the lodge.  While Otter is the lightest shelter in class, both models work better behind an ATV or snowmobile.  Hand dragging anything over 100 lbs is difficult, especially with snow on the ice, and even more so when you add auger, electronics, rods, etc.

  • Price – Lodge is larger and more expensive.

XT vs. XT Pro

  • Seating – Seat options are different in each, and the XT comes with a bench, and XT Pro comes with bucket seats independently mounted on an aluminum bar that runs the length of the sled.  The bench is comfortable for me and offers space to lay out tackle and other items when fishing by myself.  It also has a nice backrest that I like.  The bucket seats are considered the premium option, and very nice to ride out the entire day on.  For most people, it comes down to buckets vs. bench, and that’s the deciding factor right there.

  • Warmth – you’re looking ThermalTec at 600 denier (XT) vs. 1200 denier (XT Pro), and in my opinion, that’s not the lead story.  For those in extreme environments, or who are focused primarily on warmth, I’d lean XT Pro, but keep in mind that even the 600 denier and the proprietary insulation Otter has in Thermal Tec is far superior to the insulated shelters of even a few years prior.  I’m warm in both under almost all circumstances.

  • Accessories – You can add a sportsman’s caddy (great option) to the center of your XT Pro, but not the XT as it mounts on that crossbar which is not on the XT series. 

  • Ease of use – I find the XT bench, specifically in the lodge great to flip all the way up and over to the back of the sled, for one-handed access to the full length of storage for augers, rod boxes, etc.  The XT Pro version has independently lifting seats and sportsman’s caddy, making getting full length access a bit more of a process. 

  • Price – XT Pros are more $, but offer the bucket seats and more insulation

My personal choice of shelter each year is the XT Lodge.  I prefer the bench seat and like the extra room it provides for a third person, and I don’t miss personally the extra insulation in the pro series.  I spend the extra difference on pins, a hitch pivot, rear sled hitch receiver, and cargo net accessories.  That said, Otter makes different options so you can get the shelter that best fits YOU!  Pick the one that best satisfies your situation, and you’ll always be happy with it.

Joel

Which Marcum Should I Buy?

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D. Meyer Asks:

Joel – I met you in Blaine at the show.  I know I want a Marcum for winter fishing, which is best?

Thanks for the question. 

While I’m guessing you didn’t mean to open a can of worms here, you did, but it’s a good thing!  I’ve been meaning to do this for some time. On Facebook groups and at all of the shows I’ve attended in person this year, “Which Marcum Should I Buy” could be the most common question I’ve seen and heard.  The answer is easy of course - it depends - on a number of factors, but we can do better than that. 

Below I’ll do my best to describe a number of fishing styles and budgets to hopefully help you narrow it down:

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The Hole HopperPersonally, this is my style of fishing, but I’m not always punching holes and running around the ice.  When I am, mobility and ease of use is key.  I want something without a ton of settings, that has a great range of features but won’t get in my way or be difficult to tune in with gloved hands.  The Marcum M5 on a Lithium Shuttle is the hole-hopper supreme.  The M5 has adjustable zoom anywhere in the water column, which I set for the depth I’m fishing, and forget.  It’s compact head and lightweight lithium ion frame make it the most sleek and quick fishing unit I own.  If popping and dropping is all you do, the Lithium M5 is your unit.  I will concede the the Lithium LX6 is another great option, especially if you’re married to the LCD display. 

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Inside and Outside BothSo often I’m going back and forth between a wheelhouse and/or portable, and the open ice.  I want something that serves both needs without leaving me wishing I had more features and options once I’m inside, warm, and gloveless.  That’s where the LCD display on the LX7 is really nice.  Adjustable brightness display is great for later evenings, and the screen size on a 7 is phenomenal. 

I’m able to customize my screen left to right from scrolling graph, circular dial mode, and the bottom zoom.  I watch the main dial for fish 75% of the time, occasionally glancing at the historical scrolling graph to make sure I didn’t glance away and miss them on the main dial.  Most of the rest of the time, I’m watching fish close on the vertical zoom bar on the far right.  It offers the most resolution and best odds of playing your cards right for spooky panfish or fickle ‘eyes. 

To Lithium or not, that is the question.  If you do a bunch of hole hopping and a little bit of sitting, opt for the Lithum LX7.  If you’re primarily sitting and only doing a bit of hole hopping, save some cash, get the LX-7 in the soft pack, and you can always add a lithium battery to it later.

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All the Nuts and BoltsIf you want a do-everything unit, the best option is an RT-9.  While the price point may have scared folks away at first, prices are coming down and the physical feature set of these are pretty incredible.  GPS, sonar (multiple ducers if interested), and camera can be mounted to the back of these to serve as a wheelhouse command center.  Integrated GPS mapping, enhanced with an optional Navionics card, allows you to RAM mount one of these to the dash of your truck, or the wall of your wheelhouse.  Nothing else on the market will do what this unit can, and though it’s a niche product, pricing decreases have made it much more competitive a unit in the space.

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Back to the BasicsIf you’re satisfied with a circular display unit in a softpack, and want to protect the budget a bit – the M5 and M3 are incredible units.  I think it’s important to remember that as recently as a few years ago, these were the pinnacle of sonar performance, target separation, and fish finding capability.  Not to mention, they’re of the few ice electronics packages these days that still are offered in a softpack, which is an important consideration to many folks.  Choose the M3 if you fish primarily featureless soft bottom lakes and don’t fish near many people, and the M5 with it’s switchable ducer for $100 more if you’re always fishing sharp breaks or tight to a buddy.  Switching to the narrow cone will alleviate sonar shadow on steep drop-offs, and unit interference from nearby ice electronics.

Of course, if you could always get these offerings in a Lithium Combo, as both the M3 Lithium Combo and the M5 Lithium Combo feature the Lithium Shuttle (also sold separately) with extended run-time, incredible lightweight, and a host of other features.  This category is the biggest, and really allows the consumer the most flexibility.

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Entry Level, Youth, and Back-up– For just over $300, you can get a Marcum entry-level unit that exceeds the limits of all competitor starter setups.  The M1 has bottom zoom, a softpack, and best in price class 2” target separation, meaning you don’t have to feel like you’re sacrificing quality to back off of price.  I own a few of these, and they’re simple to operate, which means they’re great for my kids or first time anglers. 

Also, don’t feel bad if this is the unit you prefer!  The previous iteration of this unit was the VX-1, and I used it to really clean up on Red Lake walleyes back in the day.  I appreciate features in more advanced units, but I also don’t feel handicapped having one of these along for the ride. 

Cliff Notes

I always tell people that when it comes to ice electronics, especially these days, it’s hard to go wrong.  Consider them an investment in your fish catching and fun, and an investment that’s easily recouped.  Provided you buy them right, worst-case scenario, you’re selling a 1-year old unit on the used market during peak season the following year, and you lose $100.  That’s the cheapest 1-year Marcum rental you’ll find anywhere, and is testament to the fact that these things hold their value.  Especially the basic versions.

So be honest in evaluating yourself and how you fish, then take these recommendations to heart.  I’ve fished with literally dozens and dozens of models of Marcums over the years, and this advice comes with myself, friends, family, and fellow ice-anglers in mind. 

Joel

How Many Holes Before Changing Blades?

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Kenneth L. asks:

On average, how many holes do you drill before you change or sharpen the blades on your power augers?

Kenneth! – thanks for the question.  I wish I could tell you that there was an “average” but to be honest, they’re always fine until they’re not.

Chipper blades are much more rugged, but cut more slowly.  I use shaver blades exclusively for their speed and overall effectiveness at cutting.

While there are times I’ll replace them every 1-2 years just because I feel I can get more speed from new and sharp ones, most of the time I’m switching blades because of some unforeseen issue.  That can be sand or blown topsoil that formed with the ice, and most often on high-traffic lakes where a truck sat, dripping salt, sand, and grime right where fresh snow covered it up and I end up drilling through.  All kinds of crazy things can happen.  I’ve hit shallow rocks/sand, and have even overtightened and broken the set screws that hold blades on.

Point being, it’s best to have replacement blades (AND THE TOOLS TO CHANGE THEM) out on the ice with you.  If it hasn’t happened yet, someday it will, and who knows where you’ll be and whether or not blades in your size/brand will be handy.

Here’s a link to the replacement shaver blades I use. Chipper replacement blades here. Consider it cheap insurance especially if you travel any distance to fish any destination lakes.

Joel

How to Fish a Jigging Rap?

Jigging Raps are a staple for big walleyes, but to get the most out of them, take the fish’s temperature. Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Jigging Raps are a staple for big walleyes, but to get the most out of them, take the fish’s temperature. Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Karl J. asks:

I have been ice fishing with jigging raps for a couple years without success. What are a few jigging cadences to try with the jigging rap that will help my catch rate increase? Thank you for any information you provide.

Great question Karl. 

Jigging raps are great lures I’ve been fishing a long time, especially for panfish, but have really re-discovered using them over the past few years for walleyes.  A trip with Grant Sorenson a few years ago triggered some extra looks from me, and I kept finding myself using it more and more.  Especially as zebra mussel infested lakes become clearer, water bodies like Mille Lacs, Leech, and even Pepin have become better jig-rap lakes at least for me.  I think that has something to do with the way the lure aggressively swings, zips, and darts around, triggering reaction strikes from walleyes that get a great visual on the lure.

Keep in mind, there’s a lot to the rod and line combination.  The new St. Croix Search Bait and Outside Eye Rods were designed for this lure and others in the same weight/displacement category.  I’m pairing it with Sufix Fluoroclear and in deeper water I like that there’s a bit of flex and stretch, but not too much. 

Something that will help you unlock some great cadences is literally just studying it on an underwater camera.  Last year I tested some new baits and kind of have it down to a process at this point.  I get in a comfortable place, either wheelhouse or portable, and drop that Marcum Quest Camera.  Examine everything from big rips to small shakes, and everything in between, exactly as a fish would see it.  Learn what it takes to rock a bait back and forth, and specifically for the jigging rap, how to swim it in a circle.  Practice those and know what the bait does so you can pull the camera so it won’t spook walleyes later with fish on screen. 

Keep in mind that it’s not summer, and a fish’s metabolism is not at the same rate either.  Fish can be aggressive, but overall you won’t fish a jigging rap in the winter with the same amount of lift/swing that you would an open water setup.  What relative big swings you do are for drawing in fish, but the jigging rap can scare more fish than it catches if you continue to rip with fish on screen.  Smaller lifts and slack can be too aggressive too, as without knowing where the bait is darting you can actually turn them off by having it unnaturally charge them.  Once a fish is on your flasher, higher above them is a safe zone, and I usually only drop to reset the cadence or pound the bottom and stir up sediment, the latter happening only after a fish is starting to drift off screen.  From there, I try to unlock that rocking motion as best possible, relying on my underwater camera work to inform that jigging stroke. 

As always, take a fish’s temperature and interpret the aggressiveness of the mark.  My biggest fish on a jigging rap is also my biggest walleye to date, nearly a 13lb fish from Lake Erie that came among a flurry of 3 fish that went well over 25lbs.  Those fish reacted like bait perch, flying around the graph, and vapor-trailing up to smash baits from 5-7 feet below.  Big rips didn’t intimidate them, and drew the attention of that school I’m convinced.  Conversely, last winter on Mille Lacs I was having more success fishing it with a few darts and more subtle dancing in circles, then just quivering it rapidly with fish on screen.  Point being – each fish and water body is different, and what works one place may not work well in another.  Getting good with that lure, then offering fish a variety of looks is usually the key to success.  Target-rich environments help narrow down the winning look that much more quickly.

Good luck, and keep at it!

Joel    

How to Keep Your Otter Lightweight

Here’s the bare-bones XT Cabin in an X-Over. Adding some lightweight accessories to it really extends the fishability of this house!  Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Here’s the bare-bones XT Cabin in an X-Over. Adding some lightweight accessories to it really extends the fishability of this house!

Photo Credit - Ben Larson - In-Depth Media Productions

Kyle S. asks:

Hey Joel, I’m moving from a hub to a flip over. I’m looking at the new xover pro cabin. Besides hyfax and a cover, what are must haves for the sled? Sportsman caddy? Led light? Cargo bin? Thanks! I’ll be moved by human power so trying to stay light as can be.

Great question Kyle, and good choice as the Otter X-over series is lightest in class among comparably sized flip-style shelters.

The Pro is nice with the bucket seats, but the XT will offer some weight savings and I actually prefer the bench personally. Don't worry about the hyfax, at least initially. Unless traveling consistently over gravel, ramp concrete, or ground, I've found that they're a nice accessory but you can do without if looking to shave weight. Not to mention, you can always add later.

Consider shaving out the caddy as well. Though it’s one of my favorite accessories, you won’t use it on an XT series anyway as there’s no center aluminum bar to connect it to. That said, make sure you have a hitch and hitch pivot (for the times you WILL have access to snowmobile/atv).

Instead of the caddy, I'd get both the 3 pocket cargo net and the overhead storage net, along with shelter hooks - all of which are nearly weightless. I equip every house I own with them, as they’re nearly essential for the way I fish. It just so happens you can do so with little weight being added. The 3 pocket cargo net holds supplies of all kinds (some of the stuff I’d have in the caddy). The overhead storage net is so incredibly nice for drying gloves, hats, etc. The shelter hooks I use as rod holders, and more importantly, in the back high corners of the shelter as a place to hang up the jackets we wear outside but are more comfortable without when fishing inside.


The LED light kit is awesome, but the battery to power it will cost you some weight, and you'll already be adding an auger, heater, rods, electronics, etc. I'd say to start here, and add other items later if you feel you need them.

Joel