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Essential modern ice-fishing basics


Just Getting Started Or Seasoned Veteran...



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December 01, 2008
If you're just getting started in ice fishing, or still wondering whether it could be for you, there's never been a better time to discover this amazing sport. The modern way is much different from traditional ice-fishing.

The old way, frankly, deserved its reputation of being cold and crude. The slim prospects for success led to the development of all kinds of distractions and traditions, many of which have little to do with fishing. Because ice-specific clothing was not available, and because it was difficult to drill holes, and even tougher to move all your stuff from one spot to the next– and because, in most cases, you had no idea where the fish were, and no equipment to help you find them– most ice-anglers managed one set of holes and sat over them until it was time to go home. In the old days, it was mostly luck that decided ice-fishing fortunes.

The Revolution

More than 30 years ago, a few frustrated ice fishermen started something that came to be known as the modern ice-fishing revolution. The movement's spiritual leader and chief architect was Dave Genz, and he continues to lead the revolution today.

"We always knew it could be about catching fish," says Genz, "that we had a system that made you efficient out there on the ice."

Getting Started

We can't go into detail, but let's start at the very beginning, so you are grounded in the essential basics of modern ice-fishing.

Here are some basics that will help you be successful:

• When a body of water is iced over, suspended sediments tend to settle to bottom. In most situations, the water will be its clearest– which can allow fish to see your bait well.

"That's why presentation details are so important in ice fishing," says Genz. "Especially during the daytime, you can't just put any old thing down there and expect them to eat it."

• It's all about balance between rod, line, and lure. The lure has to be heavy enough to take all the kinks out of the line. The rod has to be stiff enough to let you be crisp with your jigging movements when you want to be. The rod has to be sensitive, helping you feel the weight of your bait. Absence of the weight of your bait indicates that you either settled on bottom, caught on something, or have a bite.

Keep fresh line on your reels. Every day, stretch the 'first 50 feet' or however much you need to fish at your chosen depth. Take the line in your hands and smoothly pull it, to take the kinks out. It makes a huge difference.

• Pay close attention to how you put bait or plastics on the hook. Plastics, in most cases, must be threaded on perfectly straight. Live bait, in most cases, should be barely nicked with the hook, so juices run clear and the bait wiggles.

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Using the system created during the ice-fishing revolution, Dave Genz landed this dandy walleye. It's never been easier to get started with modern ice-fishing.
• It's more complicated than this, but generally speaking, many fish are less active during daylight hours. Fish activity peaks during the rapidly changing light levels of sunrise and sunset.

"That's why you have to drill a lot of holes and fish quickly during the day," says Genz, "but you can pick a good spot and let the fish come to you at prime time."

• Despite having to drill a hole at every spot you want to fish, there are some advantages to ice fishing as compared to fishing out of a boat.

"For one thing," says Genz, "you don't have to worry about boat control. Even when it's windy, if you close your Fish Trap, you are very stable over the fish. Your line doesn't blow around. You don't get blown off the spot. You can be really precise with your presentation."

• Because you have to drill holes at every spot, you need an easy way to drill plenty.

"I think about every hole like being a cast in the summertime," says Genz. "Now that we have Lazer augers, as long as you keep the blades sharp and free of ice buildup, it's actually no problem drilling all the holes you need."

• You don't need a big hole to land a big fish.

"I say this all the time, but it's true," stresses Genz. "I hope to catch a fish that's too big to bring up a 7-inch hole. If you know about a place like that, invite me and I'll drill all the holes just to be able to fish there."

Mobility and

Efficiency

Genz coined the term mobility as it pertains to ice fishing. Since the early days of the revolution, he has been clarifying what he means by it.

"There's really two parts to it," he says. "You have to be mobile, but you also have to be efficient."

It has become common to see ice anglers so bent on remaining mobile that they confuse big moves with small moves, that they keep moving even when they should slow down and zero in.

Here are the important parts, when it comes to understanding mobility:

• Big moves, whether you're walking or using some kind of motorized transport, mean going from one general area on a lake to another general area or even from one lake to a different lake.

"When you start out," says Genz, "you're usually making a big move. You have to go from wherever you park to the first spot."

We're getting ahead of ourselves, but you should also have a plan before drilling the first hole at the first spot. Decide ahead of time that you are going to check the shallow weeds to see if they produce. Know what you plan to do next, if they don't. (You don't have to have one, but a modern GPS unit that displays the depth contours of the lake is a great ice-fishing tool. You can go right to the first spot and drill the first hole right where you want it, then make fine adjustments using your flasher, until you find fish.)

• Small moves, another aspect of mobility, are made when you see something promising, or catch a few fish, and want to really zero in on the best parts of the spot you're already on.

"That's how we started talking about the idea of football fields and tennis courts," says Genz. "When you're looking for fish, you drill a few holes in every area the size of a football field. When you start catching fish, you drill a few holes in every area the size of a tennis court."

This is part of efficiency, but there's another side to being efficient.

"Efficiency also means being able to get your bait up and down quickly, even if you're fishing deep water," says Genz. "That's why we like to use jigs that fish heavy for their size. They also show up well on a Vexilar (flasher). But you don't have wasted time, waiting for some tiny bait to sink down."

Genz and other members of the Team True Blue pro staff rely on a secret for maintaining efficiency in this way: if you know fish are holding near the bottom in 22 feet of water, for example, let your bait drop quickly until it gets maybe 15 feet down, then slow the drop and 'fish' the bait down to the productive depth.

"In shallower water," says Genz; "we start fishing the bait as soon as it gets to the bottom of the hole."

• To maintain mobility, you simply have to limit the amount of gear you bring, and keep thinking mobility.

"Bring everything you need, but nothing more," says Genz. "You can always go back to shore if you need something. Bring extra stuff you might need, but leave it in your vehicle.

"And you have to have a plan, and stick to the plan. It's so easy to get comfortable, turn the heater up, and take your jacket off. Then how many more new holes are you going to drill?"

• Another crucial aspect, especially during the daylight hours, is to understand that there are only so many biters in any pack of fish.

First drop down a new hole, but instead of moving when the action slows down, a lot of people hang in there, because they think if one good fish came out of this hole there must be more.

"Keep track of the holes where you caught good fish during the day and those are the holes you should return to at prime time. But, during the daytime, after you catch a few, chances are the action is going to slow down. You have to keep moving."

There's more to it, but those are the essential basics of modern ice-fishing. Embrace them, and you will discover the sport as it can be.

Note: Dave Genz, known as Mr. Ice Fishing, was the primary driver of the modern ice fishing revolution. He is now captain of Clam's Team True Blue, an elite pro staff dedicated to helping people catch fish through the ice. For more, go to www.trueblueicefishing.com.

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