It always amazes me how a sea of anglers can be so willing to sit over a featureless, and often fishless, chunk of underwater real-estate. Such is commonplace among wheelhouse anglers who are as interested in the ice experience as much as they are the actual fishing. Far be it from me to tell them where or how to fish, but with a little bit of preparation and planning, you can have your fish and cook them too. Here’s a few ways to maximize your time in the wheelhouse and stay on fish.
The best scenario involves setting up a basecamp in a likely area, but one you are not married to. That is right, setup with the intention of eventually moving. Especially in the toy-hauler editions, wheelhouses these days go hand-in-hand with portable shelters, ATVs, and snowmobiles. Use these tools to go out and find actively biting fish, with the hopes that you will eventually move basecamp to the active biters. The Scouthouse concept is something I detailed a few issues back, and has been successful in the past for me. It’s also something that’s fun with a group of like-minded anglers, all willing to search out a great bite such that eventually you can drop the big-house right on top of a good pod of fish.
Prep and Map-work
Of course rarely is it as easy as picking a spot on a map, even with some great scouting, where fish are going to be active. That is where some homework comes into play. Navionics has a free, web-based mapping utility, and there are other good paid options out there too. Any good trip planning should focus efforts on identifying likely fish-holding areas, but big wheelhouses often can’t just roam the open ice. That is where a discussion with your resort of choice on big lakes or some truck scouting on-lake personally can yield big dividends. At the end of the day, with enough snow, you will need plowed roads to make it to your destination, and the resort may need to plow a spot specifically for your house. Working with them will ensure the best result, and don’t be afraid to offer a few extra bucks for a custom plowing job. The best waypoints on the lake will not yield results if you can’t get to them, so first identify what’s open if at all possible.
For walleyes, so often the deep structure mid-winter (wheelhouse season) has day-long appeal, especially in stained water, whereas classic hard-bottomed structure may be too shallow to attract any fish except early morning or late evening. All of which may be just fine if you’re only going to be fishing in the wheelhouse during primetime, but keep that in mind. Deep water structure can mean humps, bars, and gravel, but it can also be mud or small depressions just off of that same structure. These secondary spots are often overlooked by the crowds and can yield great success.
For panfish, you are often looking to basins for open water crappies, and the edges of them for gills in many northern lakes. Do not forget about shallow fish however, and keep in mind that when crowds form in the community holes, there’s usually a shallow weed-bite that you can have to yourself. Again, this is something that will take some previous scouting or expertise, as the best cabbage and coontail beds in the lake are not always easily identifiable. These shallow fish can be trip savers when deep snow or large crowds overrun other spots on the lake.
Fish the Crowd, or Stay Away
As winter snow persists, and on-ice travel becomes more challenging, you see on-ice communities get a bit too cozy for my liking. You would probably not be surprised then to learn that I like to avoid the crowds whenever possible. Even in deep water, the crescendo of noise from increasing numbers of generators, augers, and vehicles can turn off fish in general. Crappies suspended over deeper water seem to have some tolerance for it, but my experience is that there is often other areas and better fishing to be had on the same lake.
If I do join the crowd, I try to be strategic in my placement, thinking both above water and below it. From an underwater perspective, basin fish will often hang up on inside turns and use that to funnel from deep to shallow, so consider setting up on the edge of a community hole where such an escape route from the noise exists. If there are some small deep-water irregularities to the contours, or bumps off the main structure that most people are on, I will park it to the edge and have those to myself.
Think about where the traffic is coming above ice as well, as I like to setup as far to the edge of the main roads and heavy traffic as possible. Heavy cracking and popping from vehicle noise spooks fish, plain and simple. Simple observation for a few minutes of your ice-fishing brethren will quickly tell you who’s going to be noisy and who’s there to fish. Do your best to stake out a spot that is kind to others on the ice, but also ensures you won’t be crowded later by newcomers to the spot. A strategically placed shovel, bucket, and especially a tip-up will help fellow anglers keep a reasonable distance and prevent close-parkers.
Hopefully snow will subside and we’ll get great ice and easy travel, but even if that’s not the case, some preparation and strategic placement can make all the difference for your next outing.