Ice Fishing: Ambush Points

Ice Fishing: Ambush Points

Watching the social dynamics displayed by fish in tanks suggests that predators wait for just right moment before going to work. They need just the right cue to attack, whether the attack is on real baitfish or on our baitfish imitations.

Jon Thelen, a former professional walleye angler and now Field Promotions Manager for PRADCO, calls these moments "ambush points." "We drop a jig down a hole and jig," he says. "That gets the attention of roaming fish and brings them to our jig. Given that what we've been doing has been interesting enough to bring them in, we might continue those moves. Sometimes that works, but more often it does not. That's when we need to play through a list of options that might better get the fish to respond once they're drawn in.

"The fish are always trying to tell us something. We have to be constantly watching and wondering and then pushing our experiments farther. For sure, given the cold water, fish usually prefer easy pickings. We need to find that key 'ambush point,' or triggering point that gets them to go at any given time during the day.

"Admittedly, some days, sometimes during the day, some fish never bite the jig. Top anglers have learned to fish an anchored minnow in deadsticked fashion nearby when we're jigging. At times, especially during mid season, fish are so reluctant that's all that can get them to bite. You jig to bring them in and they bite the anchored minnow — at least enough of the time to scratch a decent bunch of fish. That's on the tough end of the scale. On the other end of the scale are those fish that charge right in to bite the same aggressive jigging motions that brought them in from a distance.

"There's a species component at work here, too. Bass typically are much more tentative during midseason than pike. On the other hand, lake trout, being a cold-water predator, typically are even more active and aggressive than pike. These ideas are all covered in articles in this Ice Fishing Guide."

We there's also a lure component at work. Lures like the Jigging Rapala, the Lindy Rattl'N Flyer, and the Lindy Darter swing up and off to the side before circling back below the hole, and are by their design and resulting action, more aggressive options than most spoons; although spoons by their design also fall into various aggression categories; and so too can spoons with subtle actions be worked aggressively. It's gets to be a seemingly complicated predicament that anglers face; but luckily there are fundamental moves that we can cycle through to get an idea what's working best during any given moment in a fishing day."

Action Versus Inaction

Thelen says that an angler's approach often depends on past experience with the chosen lures pressed into battle in given situations. Not surprisingly, because of his association with the Lindy Tackle Company, he spends a lot of time with those products.

"Fish react to dying or struggling baitfish, which create easy meals," he says. "In winter, that dynamic is accentuated. Everything slows. We might start with aggressive moves, but we typically quickly start looking for ways to make subtle changes in jigging action."

With darting-style hardbaits that glide and swim and sail, like the Lindy Darter, Thelen jigs aggressively to bring fish in, but quickly reigns in the action on days when fish show a preference for subtle or even nonexistent action. "I use a Humminbird ICE55," he says. "Until I see a fish in the cone, I'm darting the lure aggressively to bring them in. At times aggressive jigging turns fish off, so if you aren't bringing many fish in, slow things down. But it's once you bring fish in that watching what you do is most critical. I've worked out a check list to try when fish aren't just coming right in a wacking the lure on the standard lift-pause."

(1) Once fish are in close instead of doing another lift-fall, use a series of short, continuing wrist snaps to make the bait jiggle side to side, getting the rattles to make a bit of sound, creating flash and vibration — emulating a struggling minnow, or one that's about to take flight." Jiggle-jiggle-jiggle, then pause," he says. Then jiggle-jiggle-jiggle-pause again. These are subtly different moves than the standard life-fall-pause.

(2) Once fish are drawn close, he might also lift the lure as high as he can, hitting the roof of a portable shelter with his rod tip at times, and letting it fall on a slack line back into position. "This sound like an aggressive move," he says, "but it's a change of pace and sometimes that's what it takes." If the fish moves up at all to intercept the falling lure, he stops the lure just above the fish to encourage it to keep moving up with predation in mind. This move also often works as an basic attracting move, in place of the snap-lift-fall-pause.

(3) Another option is to lift-fall as in # 1 or # 2, and hold everything dead still on the pause. No jiggling. No movement whatsoever. "Then you just watch," he says. "If nothing happens, and more nothing happens, you might add the slightest twitch. I usually make the twitch so it moves the lure barely up at bit, too." Which leads to one more approach that has become standard in ice circles among top anglers over the years.

(4) Once a fish has been brought in close and is looking, ever so slightly inch the lure upward. "Typically, I'm jiggling the lure (as in #2) or just barely twitching it at the same time as it moves up," he says. "Once it's up an inch or two go dead still. If you can get the fish to start moving up you often change its attitude.

"Sometimes this is a slow upward maneuver, but other times you can be more aggressive, lifting and jiggling and lifting and jiggling until the lure's up a foot or so — let it fall all the way back to a position about 2 inches above the fish. Sometimes this starts to get them moving."

He also says to expect to find a ceiling of sorts, beyond which fish will not raise above that day. Some days it's two feet or more. Other days in it might be 10 inches. You need to confine your moves below that ceiling. The same fundamental optional maneuvers work with spoons.

Final Options

"After trying all that and still not triggering a response, I always try simply holding the bait stock still, giving the fish one more natural ambush point," he says. "Through all of these actions, holding a lure completely still for as long as it takes to make it stop moving and spinning can still draw a strike from the most reluctant predator. Whenever sonar shows a bright red signal, the fish is on the lure. As long as the signal stays bright red, I keep the lure still, giving the fish all the time it needs to decide."

Thelen does not use minnows or minnow parts when he uses the Lindy Darter, but he often does with other lures, especially spoons. "Experiment with different minnows and minnow parts and portions," he instructs. "Try minnow heads pinched off at various lengths, and minnow tails work better on some day, too. At times whole minnows are good, especially during tough times when you go almost total deadstick and all the action is added by a struggling minnow. Don't get stuck in a rut. Experiment.

"Another trick is use a minnow head on 2 of the 3 tines of a treble. Might be that two minnow heads on a treble assures that at least one minnow head is right there in the fish's face. But you get that with a head on each tine, too. That's too much bulk a lot of time, though.

"What I said — experiment. Identifying those ever changing ambush movements is one key to success, no matter the season or the species."

*Matt Straw is a former In-Fisherman staff member now working as an ­In-Fisherman Field Editor and freelance author. He's an exceptional multispecies angler, besides being a fine writer and longtime contributor to ­In-Fisherman publications.

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