Flow Factors for Ice Fishing Current

Joe Balog ices jumbo perch where food, cover, and current collide — typically on weedy flats next to deep water.

Few among us haven't dreamed of drilling into an untapped honey-hole loaded with walleyes, pike, or other icy-good quarry. And although this may seem like a pipe-dream unless you're willing to travel to destinations well off the beaten path, such fisheries exist within a short cast of most everyone in the Ice Belt. The catch is, they're located in flowing water.

"Targeting ice fishing current is considered 'extreme ice fishing' by most anglers," says veteran guide Dan Palmer of Hayward, Wisconsin. "Rivers — even small waters few people look twice at — can be goldmines in the winter." Palmer warns that any outings over flowing water require extra precautions. "You have to respect the river," he says. "Wear a life jacket, bring ice picks, safety lines, and never fish alone."

Although he focuses on the waters around Hayward, he fishes from northern Illinois to Lake Wisconsin, the Wisconsin River, and beyond. While big rivers can provide fine fishing, he often targets more lightly fished small systems, which he describes as "rivers so small that most anglers would call them streams." One of his favorites is the Pecatonica, a tributary of the Rock River that winds through Wisconsin and Illinois for nearly 200 miles before dumping into the Rock, which feeds the Mississippi.

"The Pecatonica has great walleye fishing in the fall, which is when I often fish it," he says. "In winters cold enough for its 2-plus-mph flow to freeze over, it provides great ice fishing." Palmer knows the system well from his open-water forays, and says it's best to learn a river's intricacies in open water. "You save a lot of drilling," he says. Still, it's possible to locate prime lies once hardwater arrives.

Walleyes & Pike

"Seams between fast and slow current are key holding areas for walleyes," he says. "One of the best places I've found is on an inside bend, with a sharp break rising toward shore from a 30-foot hole. Timber is a plus. With an underwater camera, you can probe logjams and fish them just like the catfish anglers do in summer. Most walleyes come from depths of 10 to 14 feet, along the seam, while pike hold tighter to the bank, in 5 to 6 feet of water, in much slower current."

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He relies on a two-pronged approach that includes snapjigging and running livebait on three-way rigs similar to those he uses when openwater guiding. "A bladebait such as the 1/4-ounce Golden Perch-pattern Northland Live Forage Fish-Fry Minnow Trap is deadly," he says. His snapjigging cadence includes touching bottom, then sharply snapping the bait upward a foot or so, stopping the freefall 6 inches from bottom, then slowly dropping it. "The final descent is so slow, it's perhaps more of a hover," he says. "I had the locals in a frenzy snapping Minnow Traps last winter. They'd never tried it before."

One of the keys to good snapping is keeping the presentation vertical, so slower current is best, he says. In faster water, a three-way rig shines. Palmer sets a 36-inch Frabill combo spooled with 10-pound Berkley FireLine mainline in a tip-up-style rod holder such as HT Enterprises' Ice Rigger. He also deploys well-seasoned Rod Tender Ice Riggers, which he says were forerunners of HT's lineup. In either case, the rigger cradles the rod, while the reel is kept in freespool, its line held by a clip connected to a grooved pin that holds the tip-up flag down until a walleye moves off with the bait.

The business end of the setup includes a sturdy three-way swivel, with a 5- to 6-foot leader of 5-pound Northland Bionic Ice line tipped with a nose- or tail-hooked shiner, large fathead, or rosy red on a green Gum-Drop Floater. A 1- to 3-ounce pencil sinker on a 3-inch dropper anchors the rig. "Walleyes hug bottom, so that's where the bait needs to be," says Palmer, adding, "with a three-way rig, keeping your line at a 45-degree angle is critical."

Many areas contain pike and walleyes. For pike, Palmer shifts shallower, into less robust current, and fishes a large shiner on a three-way rig or else jigs a #7 or #9 Jigging Rap tipped with a minnow head. "I like jigging because you draw fish in, and get to watch them on sonar as they slash at the Jigging Rap, miss it, then come back again," he says. "We've caught pike up to 45 inches this way on small rivers, in areas of Illinois and Wisconsin where anything over 30 is unusual."

Perch Patrol

Farther east, In-Fisherman contributor and Great Lakes system expert Joe Balog plucks flowing water perch from the St. Clair River. "Two current-related scenarios come into play here," he says. "Early in the season, migrating perch follow shiners into harbors and canal mouths. When we get a lot of early snow or rain, or freezes and thaws, as is typical in December, runoff creates current in these areas. The water often gets stained, but the fish stay in there because there's a feast of shiners and small panfish. The water here is deep for our area, around 8 to 12 feet."

Click to enlarge.

He says the most important aspect of presentation is finding the perfect weight for the depth and current. "I typically use a wobbling spoon, or a small vertical jigging spoon," he says. "You need a bait that's heavy enough to stay below you and be visible on sonar, but light enough to let the current sweep it a little outside the ice hole on the fall. As it steadies back to center, perch nail it. But it can't be completely vertical."

Use slight jig strokes in a steady cadence. Spoons tipped with beads are popular. Think small wobblers like a Ken's Hook, or small jigging spoons like the Lindy Frostee, tipped with a small anise egg, Berkley PowerBait Power Egg, or a few maggots.

"The other flow-related pattern occurs in the channels of the St. Clair River," he says. "It occurs all winter, provided we have safe ice." Current-swept weedflats in 5 to 8 feet of the river's clear water, adjacent to depths of 20 feet or more, are key. "Schools of big perch cruise these flats," he says.

Balog sight-fishes from a portable shelter, with a tiny softbait such as a Little Atom Nuggies Tail on a gold lead or tungsten head. "The tail should be a neutral color, like purple, green, or motor oil, and the head must have a little flash," he says. "Your line should be thin and clear. I like 2-pound clear Sufix Ice Magic."

The key is finding a bait light enough to dance while ice fishing current, without being swept away. "I sometimes start with a flashy spoon to bring fish in, then drop the Nuggie," he explains. "The key is being quiet, feeding perch that little softbait in a realistic manner, and keeping the school beneath you. Perch come up high — right below the ice — as the jig flutters back in the current. Bringing fish up in the water column, in any clear-water situation, increases your odds of catching them."

Scenarios similar to Palmer's and Balog's occur each winter in rivers large and small across the Ice Belt. But temper your enthusiasm with a respect for the river. Ice thickness can vary from 20 inches to less than 2 within a few steps, and ice can disappear quickly in current, throughout the season. With the right dose of diligence, however, you can enjoy out-of-this-world action, just down the road from overcrowded, heavily fished waters.

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