It's that time of the season when your ice-fishing interest level may be fading as fast as your bites. Trucks, permanent houses, and lake-wide mobility has been the norm for the northern part of the ice belt, and even in the southern part of it where ice typically forms, we're long-past first-ice. Community spots have been established, and the fish among them grow weary of the pressure with the bite showing it. Before you send off ice-fishing for the winter or at least until late-ice, consider a mid-winter trip to boost morale and get back into the swing of things. Here's a few quick hints on getting the most from a destination ice excursion.
Anglers for the most part are well-traveled souls. More and more often, we travel to destination lakes, for specific species and patterns that offer us something different. A break, an excuse, and a chance to perhaps do something we've never done or only do once in a great while. It's been my experience that even when the fishing may be sub-par, getting together with family and friends for an ice-adventure is about far more than just the fishing.
Still, catching fish in these scenarios is our intended goal. If you've never visited an area that catches your interest, consider booking a guide for the first day or two to get the lay of the land. Ice guides are frequently more value-priced than an open-water equivalent, and can truly offer a distinct leg-up on hitting the ground running. Even in the best fisheries in the world, it's not difficult to struggle at first to just find fish, let alone catch them. This would be considered the premium and most preferred option if you're willing to spend the cash.
Another option yet is to work with a resort to fish in a permanent house. You're forced to do a bit more leg-work in making sure you're fishing with a reputable outfit. Recommendations from family and friends, web and Facebook reviews, along with references from area tourism or guides are great ways to find the best of the best. Failure to exercise due diligence here can result in getting you on the ice, but nowhere near fish. It can be difficult to get honest advice, so detailed questions that are answered with ample responses in a friendly manner are what you're looking for.
If you're in the DIY-crowd, information is your ammunition. Social media, web forums, and a great deal of intel gathering before the trip makes for a much more enjoyable weekend on the ice. Consider booking lodging in an area rich with lakes, or with access to various parts of the same lake well in advance, then stay flexible with your planning such that you can reach out and hit wherever the best information takes you. Local bait shops can be invaluable sources of information, but again, being a stickler for the details usually rewards.
For example, asking a vague question like "How are the panfish biting?" Will typically result in something like "they're biting well on green glow teardrops tipped with waxies." The overall goal for these shops is to show you a good time, but is also to sell bait and tackle. That could've meant crappies in the deep holes, or even perch in small sloughs less than 10 feet of water. Instead, try during a less busy time of the day mid-week, and start with something more like "I've heard this area is great for panfish, are guys getting perch on the bigger lakes or small sloughs?" Be prepared for follow-up questions like, "what's a typical outing been bringing for both numbers of perch and average size?" Also, ask if they have been second hand reports or if they have talked directly to the anglers and have seen with their own eyes how it’s been. Then, ask if they could recommend a few lakes, depths, and general areas to start while finally asking about pressure and whether or not you'll need to stay away from the groups or if the bite has been strong despite angler numbers.
Lastly, once you're confirmed on going, take a deep dive into the stats and maps. Many states, like the Dakotas, publish detailed reports on exact lakes, specific species dynamics, year class information and rankings. This can shorten the search drastically, yet I give pause for even writing it as I've personally seen the exploitation which can result. Treat those fisheries with the same respect you'd have for your own, and exercise selective harvest to ensure success of future trips. Even where that data isn't available, you'd be surprised what you can learn with a quick phone call to area fisheries managers or just cruising the web.
With today's detailed contour mapping, destination fishing is easier and more rewarding than ever. Consider investing in map chips and GPS technology for the trip if you'll likely be back, or look to free options on state fish and game pages and the Navionics free web mapping. Utilize all of your intel to eventually formulate a plan and area you'd like to fish. Focus on either several small spots you can investigate and move on from, or a large piece of structure that you can search many types of spots on like inside turns, points, reef tops, or deep mud. Don't be married to any one particular area in this scenario, and don’t be satisfied to hunker down unless you’re marking fish or the weather demands it.
Take a chance with the weeks we have remaining to fish somewhere new, even if it’s just down the road. You’ll be surprised by how much better it can make you as an angler, and how much fun you’ll have tackling a new challenge.