Mid-winter can be a depressing time for good ice to befall upon your favorite lake. Oxygen levels are depleting, light penetration into depth is at an all new low, and fish have been chased from community holes into either buckets or new locales with less overhead racket. Early ice action has given way to the doldrums, and good bites have gone sour in a hurry. So have our attitudes. As anglers, this time of year is one of stagnation. Drive-able ice exists throughout much of the state, and we become anxious to plop down on spots that either once held fish, or hope to in the future, more in search of comfort than of good fishing.
Well let me be the first to tell you “Wake up and smell the auger exhaust!” Stationary fishing in a permanent house or other shelter is a great way to enjoy time on the ice, but only AFTER you’ve found fish. As February fish become more lethargic, pressured, and generally more difficult to catch, they often move less throughout the course of the day. Translation: If you’re still, and they’re still, and you’re not parked on top of them, you probably won’t see them. So goes the mid-winter irony of anglers that can range the open ice with few restraints, yet choose to be immobile amid continued poor fishing. Ultimately, you’ll never find what you don’t look for, and it’s rare for already-exploited areas to consistently start producing again.
Enter the modern ice auger. Gone are the days of 50lb. outboard-motor-lookalikes with an ice drill instead of a prop. Today’s anglers have all kinds of lightweight options that make putting a hole through the ice quick, painless, and dare I say fun? If inactive or one-spot-fishing is the poison, then drilling more holes is surely the antidote. Working in teams, a few anglers with a lightweight auger or two can stack up the ice-shavings and learn a great deal in the process. One on the gas, another with flasher in hand, drill and check holes across the lake. Spare the fishing rods, at least at first. Resist the temptation to spend too much time on any one hole, and set up shop if and only-if there are good numbers of fish in an area.
Guides like Tony Roach and Brad Hawthorne are carving up some serious ice each day, and most importantly, aren’t fishing as much as they’re finding. Roach, who has arguably drilled more holes in the ice than anyone ever, spends day after day guiding and drilling across vast lakes like Mille Lacs and Winnie in search of nomadic schools of walleye and perch. His approach is simple, more holes equals more fish, and the drilling does not stop unless the fishing is fantastic. When the bite fades, the augers sing once again. Brad Hawthorne’s ice odometer reads higher than almost anyone else on the planet, with him moving clients as often as a half-dozen or more times per day if needed to stay on fish. Still, he can spend as much time looking for fish as he does actually fishing when out scouting for the next guide trip.
What does all this mean for you and the rest of the gamefish season? For starters, it means breaking down new lakes or areas within a lake that have yet to see much pressure. This process is more effective with friends, even multiple augers, and of course, a good plan. Scour lake contours and find a section, chunk, or other digestible part of the map that you can tackle. Call it ¼ mile squared or so. Maybe it’s a small sub-basin, a point with some deep water off of it, or perhaps a flat with adjacent shallow to deep breaklines. Whatever you choose, scatter holes every 20-30 yards or so at first, looking to cover as many varying lake depths, substrates, and pieces of structure possible within your search area. Multiple anglers with flashers should follow, noting any holes with schools of fish, bait, or anything else of interest.
Next, grab rods equipped with good search baits like rattling lipless crankbaits, flutter spoons, jigging raps, etc. You’re thinking about baits that fish fast and can attract from distance either via vibration, color, or searching away from the center of the hole. The goal here is to move fish, as much as it is to catch them. The idea is to find concentrations of fish first, and then to focus on the catching of them, not the other way around as this part is important. Once one person finds something of note, the entire group can come in, experiment with different presentations, and eventually crack the code. Working together as a team, you’ll have a much better chance of getting on good groups of fish. If you don’t run into any fish, you need to be committed to the drill-and-find process, continually searching, even if it means fishing very little for the day.
After you’ve found fish, and maybe even caught a few, the key is to continually push. Eventually, the bite will fade, which means that you need to start the process over again. The temptation is to wait the fish out, or continue to think that they may swim back during the next low-light period. This may be the case, but it’s often 4-6 hours later, such that chasing after the fish is usually a better strategy. The good news is that once fish are found, moves do not need to be as large, and the distance between holes can shrink as well.
Lastly, prepare yourself for bite windows during the low-light periods. These can shrink to as short as 15 minutes during the heart of the winter season, such that you need to be in position, with all required tools at your immediate disposal when prime-time hits. That witching-hour is about the only time you should be stationary. How do you know where to be and when? That’s where the hard-won experience from drilling holes all day comes from. One day’s learning becomes the next day’s plan of action, and the surest way to catch fish in the future is to invest time in finding them today.