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How To Fish Thin Ice   1 comment

Thin Ice

The variety of temperatures and degree of ice available throughout the some 400 miles of Illinois from top to bottom presents a need for caution in winter angling situations. While early ice conditions present danger in some of the northern counties, the fact of little or no ice may be available in the southern counties.

The lowlight conditions of early morning are usually the best ice fishing conditions on most waters. They are especially desirable on Lake Michigan.

The bays and harbors are the safest locations for ice anglers. The main lake generally does not freeze sufficiently to make for safe ice fishing conditions.  The shelf ice formed along the shoreline is very dangerous.

The ice conditions in Illinois portions of the lake can be very dangerous until the thickness of the ice reaches 3 to 4 inches. On sunny days, the piers and docks warm making the ice near them less stable.  Early on in the season, many anglers in the harbors will drill holes adjacent to these manmade structures and fish them by sitting or standing on the structure as opposed to walking on the ice.

In southern Illinois anglers seldom get ice thick enough to walk on. They have adapted the pattern of drilling holes next to piers and docks and standing on the mores stable structure to fish through holes in the ice.  On Power plant lakes and others without ice, the ice fishing jigging techniques produce fish from boats.

Throughout the state early season prospects for trout and panfish are better as the fish seem to like a thin coat of ice over their heads. They tend to suspend in weeds or near wood where the water is slightly warmer.  They usually are about 4 to 6-feet down.

In the Lake Michigan harbors anglers can expect to find rainbow, lake, brown and steelhead trout in harbors such as Burnham, Belmont, and Montrose. Recommended lures include jigging spoons tipped with minnow heads and spawn sacks.  The panfish species available are yellow perch, crappies and bluegill.   Anglers use double rigs with minnows and plastics fished slowly.

In the southern counties the ice anglers is more likely to finds crappie and largemouth bass with an occasional channel catfish.

Anglers from the northern counties often travel into southern Wisconsin harbors at Racine and Kenosha to fish Lake Michigan perch. Access to the harbors is easily available from the Interstate Highways.




Finding fish through the ice can be difficult but possible.  The most obvious way is to know the water and at what level the fish are holding.  Bluegills and perch are typically near the bottom.  All fish seek a comfort zone in the water column.

Discussions with other anglers and at bait shops often will provide the information needed.  Portable fish locators and submersible cameras will tell you if fish are present and at what depth.  Since fish tend to school up during the winter you can ignore one or two fish in favor of a school.  Find where the crowd is and fish that location.

Since fish look for food at eye level or a little above it, knowing where they are will help in placement of bait or a lure.

Drill a number of holes and fish them all until you get some action.  The fish will move but generally not very far away.  Drill a pilot hole and lower some kind of line to measure the depth.  A weight placed on a length of fishing line works well.

On colder, low light days, star by fishing deeper and tighter to the available cover.  With more light and warmer conditions, fish shallow and close to weeds, drop-offs, weed beds, and any other submerged structure that tends to attract fish.

Anglers on ice should be mobile.  Many ice fishermen use snowmobiles or a sled.  The snowmobile allows you to pull a small ice house.  Both tools permit hauling tackle and other gear.  A tackle box with a selection of jigs, hooks and plastic jigs and an auger are essential.  A skimmer aids in cleaning ice off the hole.  A portable heater or lantern aids in keeping your own body temperature up.  Together all this is called the “bass boat of the ice.”

Ice rods and small reels as well as tip-ups complete the ice angler’s repertoire.  Ice rods are short flexible graphite rods made for ice fishing.  They are usually 24 to 36-inches in length and the reels spooled with 2-pound test line.  Tip-ups hold the bait at a certain depth.  The reel turns from the tug of a fish and releases a red flag signal.  When the flag flies it is time to hand line the fish up through the ice hole.

Hooks are usually size 8 or 10.  Small tear-drop jigs in a variety of colors are good.  Bait for bluegills and perch is usually grubs, mousies, wigglers and waxworms.  Hook small minnows through the back to allow them to swim freely.  Use a small bobber to keep the minnow or other bait at a precise depth.

Jig the bait and then allow it to sit motionless.  The movement attracts the fish and they strike it when it sits still.  Do not overdo the action.  If fish are reluctant to hang on to the bait, try using a fish attractant.  Attractants are at their best in cold weather.

Finally the best time to ice fish a pond is any time you can.  Ice thickens in the severe cold weather so it is probably most desirable to key on the warming trends, abrupt weather changes and low light periods.


Ice Fishing Basics


Not having a basic knowledge of a sport like ice fishing limits ones desire to participate. With a little forethought and some basic and relatively inexpensive equipment is all one needs to find success in this sport.

Since one needs to drill holes in the ice to get to the fish, an ice auger or ice chisel is a place to start. A child’s sled will serve well to carry all the equipment across the ice in one trip.

There are a number of good ice fishing rods and reels on the market at reasonable prices. They are usually about 2 to 3 feet in length and the reels are usually spinning reels.  They hold about 25 yards of 1 to 4 pound monofilament line.  Some ice anglers like to use tip-ups.  Tip-ups hold bait at a certain depth.  The reel turns from a tug of a fish and releases a flag as a signal.  When the flag flies, it is time to reel in the fish.

An ice scoop is handy to remove ice chips from the ice hole.

Plastic 5-gallon buckets come in handy to store equipment, hold fish and to sit on.

Hooks are usually number 8 or 10 size. Small tear-drop jigs in a variety of bright colors are handy.  Bait for bluegills and perch is usually grubs, mousies, wigglers and wax worms.  Small minnows hooked through the back allow them to swim freely.  A small bobber will hold baits at a precise depth.

Some optional equipment might be a portable shelter or fish house to get out of the wind. A portable depth finder or underwater camera lets you to locate structure, check depth and monitor fish.  A small lantern or heater aids in keeping you warm.

If larger fish are present you might like to have a gaff to aid in pulling them through the usual 8-inch hole.

Having several pre-drilled holes is wise. Crappies and perch tend to roam.  Mobility will likely improve your success.

Keep your bait moving gently. It sends out fish attracting vibration that they pick up through the lateral line.  Move the bait from side to side as well as up and down.  Check the entire water column beginning at the top and moving down in 2 foot increments.  Vary the speed and rhythm.

Perch tend to school vertically and can be found anywhere from the top of the water column just under the ice to the bottom.


Photo and story courtsey PRADCO fishing and Lawrence Taylor

Once Midwestern lakes freeze Ted Takasaki turns his focus to panfish, and he uses a high level of skill and experience to achieve consistent success on the ice.

Whether talking about perch, crappie or bluegills, the key to catching panfish through the ice is finding the fish.  If you locate schools of panfish and discern what you are seeing on your electronics, you can experiment with jigs or spoons and different types of bait to figure out how to make the fish bite. If you can’t find them you can’t catch them.

For Takasaki, the search process begins during late fall, just before the ice begins forming. If possible he always scouts the lakes where he intends to ice fish. Being mobile in his boat allows him to cover more water.

Ted begins by exploring major bays known to hold bluegills, perch or crappie.  If they have aquatic grass growing, he looks along break lines both with his eyes and with his graph. Ted is not necessarily looking for fish.  Although making mental notes about where the fish are most concentrated is never a bad thing. Instead, he looks at the weeds themselves because weeds typically produce the best panfish action during the first part of the ice season.

“What I’m looking for are weed edges,” says Takasaki, “and for weeds that are still green late in the year. Along those edges I look for places where the weedline shifts – maybe a little point or a pocket – and I create waypoints for those places, which I put into a handheld GPS that I bring out on the ice with me.”

Lacking the opportunity to visit a lake before the formation of the ice, Takasaki gets the Lakemaster chip for his GPS or finds the best available map and studies the contour lines. He looks for break lines within bays if early in the season because the weed growth tends to taper along depth breaks. Depending on the lake and the type of vegetation, the weed edge can be quite shallow – only a few feet – or it might be 10 feet deep. On the ice he follows those breaks drilling a lot of holes, and looks for weeds and the same green edges.

In either case Takasaki always begins by drilling a number of holes.  Usually he does a fair amount of looking with his Humminbird Ice 55 before he ever starts fishing. He wants to find holes that are just outside of the weed edge.  He is not actually fishing in the weeds but he is close enough that fish using the weeds can ambush his baits. He noted that sometimes you see fish right in the weeds, and give those fish a shot.

Once he’s located a weed edge, Takasaki drills holes along that edge and begins to focus on finding fish. Early in the day he does a lot of hole hopping, sometimes just looking with his electronics and fishing other holes briefly to see how many fish are down there.

My favorite jig for panfish is a Lindy Frostee,” Takasaki says. “It’s a jig that I can use to really pound the bottom and stir up some sediment to get the fish’s attention. I’ll usually pound it pretty aggressively and then bring it up off the bottom and shake it a little, or maybe just let it sit.”

Takasaki likes the smallest size for panfish and normally tips his hooks with one or two waxworms or spikes. If specifically targeting crappie or perch, he begins with a minnow head or entire small minnow hooked through the tail so it fights against the jig.

Takasaki’s favorite time to ice fish is early in the season. For the first few weeks of good ice, he normally finds plenty of panfish along shallow weed lines and rarely strays out of the bays. As winter progresses, he moves his search onto tapering points at the edges of the same bays, and eventually to deeper flats.

Later in the winter, he moves from the weeds to the deeper mud flats.  The mud has more aquatic insect larvae provides panfish with food later in the winter.

While the location changes with the season, the basic strategy does not. Anytime on the ice fishing for panfish, be drilling a bunch of holes, move frequently.

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