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Staring at the screen

Once again I am going to say something that makes me sound really old:  I have been thinking while on the ice the past couple of weeks that I have been watching a depth-finder dial while ice-fishing for over 20 years now.  Let me tell you that we caught a darned lot of fish through the ice before the fancy depth-finder gadgets were adapted for ice-fishing, and you can still catch fish through the ice without a depth-finder.  But, if you can afford a depth-finder specifically rigged for ice-fishing, there is no doubt that tool will help you catch fish.  I can tell you stories of fish, lots of fish, that I would have never pulled through an ice hole without the depth-finder.  Come to think of it, we even shot a short video clip on the subject:


I am sure many of you reading this already know what a powerful tool a depth-finder can be for ice anglers, and I am sure that a lot of you already are using one.  However, the past few ice seasons I have been noticing a disadvantage that comes with the depth-finder.  I am betting that every one of you who has sat on the ice staring at a depth-finder screen has done this:  Especially during mid-winter when the ice bite can slow a bit, it is not at all unusual to “see” fish come in on your depth-finder screen and look at your bait.  Many of you know exactly what I am talking about–you can see the fish on the depth-finder screen and you can tell it is sitting there close to your bait, maybe even staring at it; you anticipate a bite at any second and you try every trick you know to trigger that fish into biting.  Some days it seems like you just cannot get them to bite, no matter what you try.

And then what do we do?

Many of us sit there mesmerized by the depth-finder screen, mesmerized by those colored lines that represent fish that are down there looking at our baits.  At times we sit there for hours trying every little jiggle, hop and hold to turn those “sniffers” into biters.  We change baits, we change colors, we do everything we can think of and then when we get home scour the internet for more ideas on how we can make those fish bite.

Oooohhhh, look at all the pretty colors.

What I am suggesting here is that I am beginning to think that is a big mistake, a waste of time on the water.  Instead of investing time trying every trick to hook those fish that are obviously not interested in feeding, we should be on our way looking for fish that are in a more positive feeding mood.

Can we make fish bite?  Is there such a thing as a “reflex strike”?  Is there some instinctive switch inside a fish that we can flip and then they cannot help themselves, they have to end up on our hooks?  That is a whole ‘nother discussion for another blog post and maybe several blog posts.  Let me just say that I believe in optimal foraging theory, http://magazine.outdoornebraska.gov/2011/09/optimal-foraging-theory/ , and that I believe that there are times when fish are darned hard to catch, and you ain’t going to change that.  If you are on fish that do not want to respond to your secret jigging motion, favorite tear-drop in your favorite color, then maybe you would be better off searching for more fish, more active fish.

You have probably already heard me say that one of my strategies for being successful on the ice is “Drill baby, drill”–Sarah Palin.  Fish that are in at least a neutral or positive feeding mood are always easier to catch than those that are not.  I am thinking that many times my time is better spent looking for fish that are willing to bite instead of sitting on a bucket staring at a depth-finder screen trying to will fish into biting.  I do believe that there are times and places when the fish are resting, conserving energy, and will only “half-heartedly” respond to our presentations.  They may ease in for a look, but they ain’t gonna eat it.  On the other hand, I believe that even the same fish at a different time and maybe different place will see the same jig bobbing up and down below an ice hole and rush in to crush it.  The fish I want to find on the ice are the latter ones, and I try to keep looking until I find those.

Now, I will agree with the rule of thumb that says “don’t leave fish to find fish”.  One of the biggest advantages of using a depth-finder while ice-fishing is knowing that there are fish down there.  But, even with the depth-finder, unless you drop a camera down, you do not know exactly what is going on below you.  Many times those fish that show up on the depth-finder screen and frustrate us by not biting are too small to eat our presentations; small bluegills, crappies or perch can keep you occupied staring at your depth-finder screen for hours.  Or even fish that you would love to have on your line can simply refuse to bite.  What I am hoping to find on the ice are big fish in that “zone” where they are actively searching for prey and more than willing to eat my presentation.  I believe many times on the ice a person will be better off looking for those fish.

Where to look?  Well, that is the $64,000-dollar question.  Again, the pointy-headed biologist in me will ask, “what are they eating, and where is that prey found?”  If you can figure that out, chances are you can find some biters.  I would like to be able to answer that for you, but it depends on the habitat you are fishing and the species being pursued.  They could be shallow or deep or somewhere in between, in cover or roaming open water, suspended or belly to the bottom.  What I am saying is that instead of spending hours staring at a depth-finder screen trying to tempt fish that do not want to bite, you might come out way ahead by searching for different fish in a different situation.  Experiment and go looking for them, make something happen instead of sitting there waiting for it.

Now let me talk about one situation where you simply may not be able to go find biters.  I will admit that on some waters, small waters, pits and ponds especially, you simply may not have any options.  Even on larger bodies of water there can be times when you just cannot find active biters no matter how many holes you drill or how many spots you try.  Those fish that register on your depth-finder but refuse to bite may be the same inactive, negative fish found throughout the water body you are fishing.  In that case, you may end up settling-in to wait them out.  Oftentimes, when you simply cannot make fish bite, you will have to wait until they are feeding, usually during a low-light period like morning or evening.  In that situation it may be best to pick the best spot you found and exercise some patience.

Ultra-clear water found under the ice can make the bite particularly challenging.  I have seen a lot of small waters in Nebraska, ponds and especially pits, that have ultra-clear water underneath the ice.  I believe one reason fish are so hard to tempt into biting on those waters is that the water is so clear they can scrutinize your presentation and decide that it ain’t the real thing and it ain’t nothing they want to put in their mouths.  Once the light fades they do not get such a good luck and all of a sudden they are jumping on your hook.

If you are stuck where you do not have the option of going looking for more active fish, especially on ultra-clear waters, my first move, other than fishing during low-light periods, is to tackle down.  My most “ultra-light” ice rods are spooled with 2- or even 1-pound test lines and I like the invisibility of fluorocarbon lines for clear water.  Panfish, even BIG bluegills and crappies might feed on tiny, almost microscopic zooplankton in some waters during the winter.  When feeding on those water fleas and copepods, panfish actively seek and sip every individual zooplankter.  In clear water, when those fish are doing that, your smallest baits still may be a lot bigger than the zooplankton the fish are eating, but ultra-small baits may be the only thing that you might get those fish to bite.  Tackle down to the tiniest jigs and flies, baits that look natural, have natural colors, and keep ’em moving.  If the fish are scrutinizing your baits, and I believe bluegills are almost near-sighted, they ease up to an ice-fishing jig and sit there almost cross-eyed looking at it right in front of their noses, you want your bait to look real, alive, and you do not want them to get too good of a look at it.  I particularly like the super-soft, super-flexible plastic tails on tiny jigs in that situation (check these products out if you are wondering what I am talking about, http://maki-plastic.com/ ); keep ’em jigging, keep those tails wriggling, make ’em look alive.

If you are forced into targeting finicky fish, besides tackling down and using natural baits that look alive, do not forget that scent can be in important trigger as well, especially in cold water under the ice.  Artificial scents or the taste of a maggot or wax-worm may be that last little trigger that finally pushes that near-sighted bluegill or crappie into eating your bait.

Those are some of the thoughts that have accumulated in my head after staring at a depth-finder screen for over 20 years on the ice.  I will be the first one to tell you that nothing in fishing is guaranteed, nothing works all the time, and none of what I just told you is going to work all the time.  What I am suggesting is that instead of getting sucked into staring at a depth-finder for hours, and it is easy to do, we have all done it, try getting on the move to find fish that are more likely to bite.

Stared at it, then ate it. Such a good boy!

About daryl bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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