January 13, 2020
When my ice fishing escapades began some five decades ago, the idea of trolling to find and catch winter fish was a joke. Literally. I actually recall a joke about the iconic Scandinavian fall guys Sven and Ole sitting on their 5-gallon pails, fishing blissfully yet unsuccessfully, observing a snowmobile motor past. “Vatt is he doing?” asked Sven. “He’s trolling, you idiot,” answered his companion.
While funny at the time, the punchline wouldn’t get much traction on the ice this winter. A long string of enterprising anglers have changed the sport from an agonizing game of sit and wait to an active affair flush with icy good action. Today, “ice trolling” is a legitimate approach to finding and catching the most fish possible every time your boots hit the ice.
Veteran guide and noted iceman Tony Roach is a frontman for the concept. “It’s a mindset,” he says. “We call it ice trolling because we cover water in winter the same way we do spring through fall, rolling along over structure and structureless basins alike, breaking the areas down until we find fish. We hover over them until they move, then continue trolling—staying with the fish until the action slows or we lose contact with the school, then move on to seek new ones. It’s not just for walleyes. It works for many species, including pike, jumbo perch, crappies, and sunfish.”
Granted, it’s not a new concept. Roach began widely preaching the gospel roughly a decade ago—and continues promoting it to this day—though he tinkered with fast-paced ice fishing for years before that, as did a number of astute anglers.
The roots of ice trolling run deep. The sport’s sedentary mindset first began to change with force during the formative years of the Ice Fishing Revolution, about the time In-Fisherman began covering hardwater tactics in 1983, and the first waves of anglers frustrated with ice fishing’s status quo were eagerly adopting Dave Genz’s ice-breaking mobility theories.
Progress continued during ensuing decades. In-Fisherman’s classic book, Ice Fishing Secrets, published in 1991, features a discussion between Genz, Doug Stange, and Al Lindner. “Assault areas,” Al offered. “Make Swiss cheese. Cut a bunch of holes along different depths and over different bottom types. Then go back to the first hole you drilled and fish it. Fish each one in turn.”
Roach’s first experiences with ice trolling were similar. “When I was a kid, we used to go up to Minnesota’s Lake Winnibigoshish and line up 5 or 10 guys on a big bar or flat and just start drilling,” he recalls. “We didn’t have map chips or anything like that, we just drilled and drilled and drilled.”
“It wasn’t much different than open-water fishing in that you are drifting along, fishing different depths, picking up active fish, and moving along,” he continues. “Then it became more refined, focusing on larger structural elements and breaklines. I started working up and down drop-offs along bars, reefs, and shoreline structure, the same way I would when backtrolling or drifting with my boat in open water.”
When GPS mapping chips became available, ice trolling became a whole new animal. “Mapping technology allowed us to fine-tune our searches by zeroing in on and picking apart high-percentage areas like small main-lake points, inside turns, and other sweet spots, after which we could expand and drill out an entire breakline,” he explains.
Today, Roach puts it all together. As he trolls down the breakline, he highlights productive areas for future return. “When you get into a hot area, drop a waypoint and return during peak feeding periods,” he says. “I also go back and tighten up the hole pattern over areas that hold fish to thoroughly work them, spacing holes 5 to 7 feet apart, no more than 10 feet at the most. This is a great way to pick up fish you missed on the first pass, because they weren’t aggressively chasing and willing to swim far enough to get your lure. It’s amazing how a walleye that wouldn’t move 15 feet to check out a bait reacts when you drop it in his face.”
Teamwork is also still a part of the plan. “Along with coordinating our drilling patterns, we also work together by having one person drill, and another one follow behind, dropping a sonar transducer into each freshly drilled hole to check for fish,” he says. “If the water is shallow enough, they may fish instead of scan, using an aggressive lure like a jigging spoon or lipless rattlebait.”
No matter the depth, Roach and his crew don’t hunker down until they contact active fish. “We roll through an area with just augers and Marcums, maybe a rigged rod or two,” he says. “We don’t unload gear or set up shop until it’s time. It’s a simple, proven concept that’s gotten a lot more popular in recent years. But I still see people unload all their gear before they start drilling, which is a big mistake.”
Roach is also quick to abandon an area that doesn’t produce. “Just because we drill 100 holes in a spot, we’re not married to it,” he says. “If we don’t mark any fish or see anything promising, we are out of there and on down the lake to the next spot.
“Drilling by myself I use a zigzag pattern, staggering holes at different depths along whatever structure I’m checking out—with one on top of the break, one halfway down, and the third at the base of the break,” he says. “With multiple people drilling, we make three straight lines of holes, with one line at each of these same depths. In either scenario, holes are spaced 5 yards apart during the initial search phase.”
When fishing a basin, however, hole spacing expands and the hole pattern is a bit different. “Holes are spaced a lot farther apart in a basin,” he says. “We also fish each hole a little bit longer than we do on structure; because they are traveling through and you’re pulling them in from a farther distance away, you have to allow a little more time for the fish to move in once they’ve spotted the bait. On structure, I might fish each hole 30 seconds to a minute before moving on. Basin fishing, I fish each hole 5 to 10 minutes before deciding it’s time to pull the plug.”
As for the drilling pattern, anglers spread out 50 or more yards apart and each person punches a string of 10 to 15 holes. Instead of 5 yards, as they were spaced on structure, holes are drilled 20 or 30 yards apart in a basin. Holes can be in a straight line, but don’t have to be—a semi-circle is fine, too. ”If no one contacts fish, we pick up and move 1/4 mile down the lake and begin the process again,” he says. “The idea is to cover large expanses of water, looking for large schools of fish roaming structureless bottoms.”
One exception, he says, is when the surface of the ice is disrupted. “Ice heaves can serve as structure when the ice pushes down into the water column and collects baitfish, especially in shallow water for walleyes,” he says.
Other good signs when hunting big walleyes on massive basins include various signs of life beneath the ice. “Marking baitfish is a good sign you’re on the right track,” he says. “So is catching a small walleye that starts regurgitating bugs, because insect life draws in all kinds of baitfish and predators.”
Ice trolling has become increasingly popular, especially with mobile anglers fishing with minimal gear and easy-to-move shelters. But Roach maintains that trolling is an option even for anglers based in larger accommodations.
“Wheelhouses are popular these days, especially with families,” he says. “And just because you’re fishing in a wheelhouse doesn’t mean you can’t ice troll. Many wheelhouses are easy enough to move that you can set them up on a point or other prime structure, search the surrounding area for fish, then move the house once you find them.”
Trolling for Trout
Ice trolling isn’t just for walleyes, pike, and panfish. Veteran guide Bernie Keefe has been using and refining the technique for lake trout, rainbows, and browns for decades.
“Deep or shallow, it’s a big part of my program,” he says. “When trophy lake trout are feeding on deep offshore structure, for example, I drill holes spaced 10 paces apart from top to bottom. Top fishing areas often include humps, ridges, and saddles in 20 to 70 feet of water that drop quickly into 100 feet or more. Large flats in 20 to 60 feet of water can also be good.
“I typically start on top of the structure and drill my way down the steepest drop-offs into the deepest water around,” he says. “When I see a fish on sonar, I don’t keep going straight ahead—I drill holes to the right and left, to see if there are more fish at that depth. If not, I continue drilling down the side of the structure. Every time I see a fish, I search off to the sides to see if that’s the hot depth.”
Holes are fished 2 to 5 minutes apiece. “If the fish are there, they’re going to show themselves, and if you can’t get them to bite in that amount of time, it’s not going to happen,” he says. “We’re dealing with old, pressured fish. If you keep harassing them—throwing everything in the tackle box at them—they might turn off and not eat again that day.” Top lures vary, but large softbaits are a perennial favorite for triggering strikes from super-size trout.
When big lakers are focused on near-shore forage, Keefe takes a different tack. “Shallow lake trout feeding on suckers and rainbows tend to be more aggressive than deeper fish and rarely see anglers’ lures, so they’re generally biters, not lookers,” he says. “But they can also be the hardest fish to connect with because only so many fish move shallow to feed every hour, and when you divide that by all the miles of shoreline in a decent-size trout lake, the odds against being in the right place at the right time can feel astronomical.”
To find fish fast, Keefe focuses on 2 to 10 feet of water in high-percentage areas such as points and shallow humps near shore. “Where stocked rainbows spawn in winter, boat ramps can be hot zones because the fish return to their stocking area to spawn,” he says. He drills a string of holes spaced 50 feet apart, then fishes large softbaits with aggressive jigging strokes that attract attention and trigger strikes. “If that doesn’t bring them in, try a more passive approach,” he says. “Mix subtle jig strokes with deadsticking, midway in the water column.”
When fishing for rainbows and browns, Keefe often employs a mix of mobile and sedentary tactics in 3 to 10 feet of water offering ample oxygen. From daybreak to about 9 a.m., he zeroes in on shallow shorelines rich in rocks. “A boulder the size of a Volkswagen sticking out of the ice is a good sign,” he says. “Rainbows and browns gravitate toward big rocks because they offer protection from larger predators like lake trout that cruise farther offshore.”
After finding a suitable boulder, Keefe drills a handful of holes around the perimeter and sets up in a roomy one-person Clam flip-over shelter. “A large one-man portable works great for these kinds of missions,” he says. The reason? Keefe prefers to ply a pair of holes simultaneously, using the jig in one as an attractor and the other to close the deal. “Drill two holes 30 inches apart,” he says. “Swim one jig in small circles to draw the trout’s attention, while deadsticking the other. Switch off every few minutes to vary the presentation.”
As the morning progresses, he adopts an ice-trolling approach. On a promising shoreline, he often punches a string of holes spaced 10 feet apart, parallel to the bank, covering up to a quarter-mile of real estate in one pass. “I fish two at a time, jigging one and deadsticking the other,” he says.
Both Roach and Keefe are quick to acknowledge advancements in ice-fishing gear that engender faster and more efficient ice trolling. Along with GPS and precision digital mapping, electric augers rise to the surface as their favorite new tools of the trade.
“With the advent of lithium batteries and advanced electric-auger technology, I’ve made the switch to electric augers, to the point where I don’t even fire up a gas drill anymore. I don’t even bring one with me,“ Roach says.
“An electric auger allows me to drill plenty of holes, without the hassle of gas, oil, or any potential starting problems and the headache of warming it up in cold weather,” he says. “With electric augers, you just push a button and drill. Plus, they’re quiet. You’re not telling the world where you’re setting up your next trolling pass.”
“Electric augers have changed everything for me,” Keefe says. “You don’t have to worry about fuel, there’s no two-stroke smell or noise, they’re fast, and two batteries give me plenty of power for a full day of fishing, even at 30 below zero.”
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. Guide contacts: Bernie Keefe, 970/531-2318; Tony Roach, 763/226-6656.