Born of frustration are those hardwater anglers living on the edge of the ice belt. Euphoria comes in the form of a well-timed frigid cold front and four inches of solid ice. When Mother Nature cooperates, edge anglers benefit from some of the country's most diverse and overlooked hardwater options. Unfortunately, one warm spell and an errant thunderstorm can chew through the season's only safe ice in hours and create a band of ice fishing refugees scurrying northward in search of the promised land.
Mapping the edge of the ice belt is a fluid topic. The area generally covers the territory from northern New Mexico through southern Colorado, Nebraska, and Iowa, and stretches through central Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and southern Pennsylvania. Given the vast swing in temperatures the last several winters, gauging the start and finish of the season also is a tricky proposition. The season may last less than a week during a warm year or more than two months during a cold winter. The season typically doesn't begin until Christmas — and, as I've suggested, it's often greeted with anticipation mixed with apprehension. Faced with this uncertainty, anglers must have an intimate knowledge of their available waters and a plan of attack to capitalize on the limited season.
Scouting First ice
First to freeze are small sheltered ponds and lakes at higher elevation. Next to freeze are strip pits and quarries, followed by larger lakes and reservoirs. Potential ice hazards can occur on any of these waters as a result of springs, shoreline seepage, shallow humps, and points that retain heat from the sun, as well as waterfowl that can keep pockets of water open late into winter. One cold night and a dusting of snow can create a deadly illusion of uniform safe ice. For this reason, an old fashion spud bar has just as much value as a gas auger through much of this territory.
To kick off the season, promising locations are scouted from shore and when solid ice arrives, it's treated with caution. Life vests, a length of rope, a whistle, ice picks, a sled, and a fishing partner are all essential equipment. The lack of significant snow in this region not only makes travel to the ice more manageable, but also means a good set of ice creepers is a necessity. Access points can be limited so be prepared to get some exercise if an ATV is not part of your ice fishing arsenal. As a bonus, there's rarely more than 8 to 12 inches of ice to drill through.
With safe ice established, the wonders of this fringe area come into focus. The fisheries in this region have a longer growing season than traditional ice fishing locations in the upper Midwest. So fish often grow larger and the species diversity is greater. In Colorado and higher elevations of New Mexico, unique opportunities exist for tiger muskies, kokanee salmon, and cutthroat trout. Lakes in Nebraska boast unexpected fisheries for hybrid stripers. Small fisheries in Iowa fly under the radar with trophy-size bluegills; redear sunfish are a possibility in Illinois; Indiana offers both white and black crappies; whereas trophy saugeyes can be mined from multiple public fisheries in Ohio; and Pennsylvania provides punch with pickerel and muskies. Plus, oversized bass and catfish abound throughout much of this fringe ice region.
Bluegills & Crappies
When exploring the diversity of this region, irrigation and cattle watering ponds, as well as county park lakes and small reservoirs, regularly go overlooked. All of these bodies of water can provide fast action for quality panfish. Once access is obtained, targeting resident bluegills that often range from 8 to 10 inches, and crappies that run 12 to 14 inches, becomes a matter of locating drop-offs, weeds, and cover such as timber. These low-pressured fish readily take soft plastics like Custom Jigs and Spins Finesse Plastics and Trigger X Mustache Worms. Plastics can be fished faster than livebait, which helps when hole hopping on unexplored waters.
If only small panfish are encountered, drill more holes or move to a new location. There is no shortage of these fisheries to explore. Contact regional DNR offices for some starting points; study aerial maps and don't be afraid to knock on doors to gain access to ponds set off the road in the middle of fields. If the ice is sufficiently thick, land owners often grant access, and are intrigued by the high-tech gadgets of the modern ice fishing angler. Be sure to show your appreciation when access is granted and be respectful of the resource.
As an added bonus, these small fisheries often have a resident population of channel catfish. Catfish may occasionally cruise shallow vegetation and be caught on tiny jigs intended for bluegills; however, they typically take up residence in the deepest portion of the lake and hold tight to the bottom. With the use of good electronics, like the Marcum LX-9, a combo sonar and underwater camera unit, these otherwise shy critters can be located with minimal effort.
The addition of the camera on the LX-9 not only positively confirms that the marks on sonar are catfish, but also reveals their activity level. If cats all have their bellies on the bottom, it's time to find a different target species. But if some of them seem active, note their distance off bottom and travel direction. Catfish set up a perimeter and continually patrol this area in search of food. A few well-placed baits can intercept these fish on their next pass.
When pursuing channel catfish, baits should appeal to their incredible sense of smell. Fresh chicken livers and Berkley Gulp! Dough are good choices. Keep presentations slow, with only subdued jigging motions to entice the fish. When cats come in on the sonar, keep the bait still or raise it slightly to get them to move up and take it. Cut at least 8-inch holes when targeting large channel catfish, as the head of a 15-pound catfish instantly makes a hole that size look small. With their spiny dorsal and pectoral fins extended, the challenge of getting a triangular peg through a round hole can be frustrating. Once catfish are located, multiple fish can be caught in short order, making them a great fish to target for kids.
Largemouth Bass (And Smallmouths)
On the edge of the ice belt, largemouth bass can grow to astonishing size. They also tend to remain more active in these southern waters due to the shorter ice season and the availability of healthy green weeds that continue to produce oxygen as a result of limited snow cover on the ice. As a testament to the quality of bass in this region, during a handful of outings on some of the finer bass waters, I've witnessed more 6- to 8-pound bass caught and released than in 30 years of ice fishing northern waters.
Again, begin by punching sufficiently large ice holes, with 8 inches the minimum. Spool tip-ups with 15-pound fluorocarbon leaders, and most importantly, get some good oversized livebaits. Large golden shiners are great, but they can be difficult to find on the edge of the ice belt. With such an unpredictable and limited season, few local bait shops stock these more expensive and perishable baits. I often travel several hours round trip to get good livebait.
Once you find good bait, buy enough to last and don't overcrowd them. Overcrowding depletes available oxygen and can kill valuable bait. Use an aerated bucket like a 6-gallon Frabill Aqualife Bait Station, with its micro-bubble diffuser and multiple power options. On the ice, change the water regularly to keep bait as lively as possible. Catching bass becomes much easier with the right bait and often is a matter of locating and setting tip-ups and Automatic Fisherman units along the weededges, points, and close to woodcover.
Smallmouth bass, while not as plentiful as in northern waters, are more active in southern waters during winter. With an underwater camera we often spot smallmouths hanging with larger bluegills close to cover. Unlike largemouths, smallies can be fooled with smaller offerings like a Custom Jigs and Spins Slender Spoon or VMC Tingler Spoon tipped with a crappie minnow for flash and scent. Smallmouths put up a great fight and are a pleasant change-up to the typical mix of fish through the ice.
One of the most elusive ice targets is the hybrid striper, or wiper. Wipers are found exclusively in the fringe ice areas. In colder climates, wipers are almost exclusively found in power-plant lakes or river settings that don't freeze sufficiently for ice fishing. For sheer speed, power, and elusiveness, wipers are the ultimate prize on a short rod. Your best chance of encountering these striped gray ghosts of the ice fishing world is in Nebraska, where a fair number of fisheries are stocked with these turbo-charged fish.
There is no sure-fire method for catching wipers, but if you're serious about the quest, study lake maps for underwater points, humps, and feeding flats. Use a mix of bladebaits, jigging spoons, lipless rattlebaits, and livebait rigs to target these nomadic fish. Also, be on the ice during late afternoon when these fish are most active. Keep an eye on your electronics. When fish come through, be ready to capitalize on the bite. Feeding windows are short, but wipers are schooling fish, so when intercepted in a feeding mood, pandemonium can ensue and produce a fishing experience of a lifetime.
Hybrid Muskies & More
While midwestern muskies get tight-lipped, New Mexico hybrids remain active and willing to bite.[/caption]
If toothy predators are your thing, guide Matt Pelletier can connect you with gorgeous tiger muskies on Bluewater Lake in New Mexico. The thought of ice fishing for muskies in the "desert Southwest" may surprise some anglers, but Pelletier regularly puts clients on one to three fish per day during a limited ice season from January through mid-February. Livebait isn't allowed on Bluewater Lake, which means a mixture of jigging and deadbait techniques are utilized in the hunt for big tigers.
If your winter travels don't bring you to the edge of the ice belt, there are several unique fringe fisheries that savvy ice anglers are starting to pick up on. The idea of targeting hard fighting carp through the ice is being explored by more anglers throughout the entire ice region. In addition, small groups of anglers are capitalizing on limited open seasons for bonus fish like brook trout. Anglers such as Zach Schemionek, a devoted In-Fisherman fan, foregoes typical ice fisheries and has developed successful patterns on lesser known waters. His collection of 20-plus-inch brookies is testament to his drive and to the incredible fisheries that remain to be explored.
With research and a desire to go beyond the ordinary, great fishing opportunities exist on these fringe fisheries. Whether it means getting permission to trek into a remote pond for hand-size bluegills, or dealing with thin air at higher elevations to encounter your first tiger muskie, or being the first in your ice fishing circle to corral a wiper, the country is full of opportunities waiting for those willing to go out on the edge.
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