Mission Impossible: Ice Fishing Carp
January 21, 2014
Many of today's ice anglers are taking advantage of new opportunities — including the pursuit of non-traditional winter species, like ice fishing carp. I recently fished for crucian carp, a species related to the common carp, while ice fishing in northern China. We also caught common carp there. So, I thought, why not try it here? More about this in a moment.
First, a bit of background, starting with the idea that carp school, at times by size, at least through portions of winter. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange could tell a hundred stories. He has long been a student of carp on ice and open water, beginning in the late 1960s and 1970s. "This was an era when fishery managers still believed they could control carp populations via netting, including commercial netting," he reports. "So we had lots of opportunity to follow commercial crews around on various lakes, including shallow prairie lakes and deeper lakes like West Okoboji in Northwest Iowa. On West Okoboji, big schools of giant fish (some carp weighing at least 40 pounds) would move into bays with 20-foot-deep basins, like Smiths and Emerson, starting in February.
"The commercial crews cleaned up, but we never were successful in catching these fish through the ice, although that was perhaps a matter of not knowing how. In more recent times I haven't had the opportunity to try. I know now, after years of pursuing carp on open water, that there's a difference between roaming fish and feeding fish. The fish in those bays were always heavily schooled just under the ice and roaming. To catch carp you need to find feeding fish — or somehow get roaming fish to stop and feed.
"Meanwhile, many of the prairie lakes are no more than 8 feet deep. It was much more difficult to predict where carp would be there. Some commercial crews used early-day sonar with the transducer mounted to the side on a pole to probe for fish, an early-day side-scanning device. When they did find fish it often was the mega load. Carp have also been radio tagged and followed by fishery scientists in a couple lakes like this, an interesting story for another day. Rarely were carp caught on these lakes by anglers, but in those days, prairie lakes got almost no winter fishing pressure. They do today, but I still don't know anyone who's catching carp on demand from these lakes."
But, as I said, Stange could go on ad infinitum telling us where and how carp haven't been found and caught through the ice. Let's have a look at where we know carp can occasionally be found and caught and work from there.
Stange: "I'm confident we can begin to catch some of these fish once we get a handle on where and when they feed in different environments — and also find some good ways to get them to bite. As we reported in the 2012 Ice Fishing Guide, one place that offers promise is the Green Bay portion of Lake Michigan near Sturgeon Bay, where guide Bret Alexander catches them during March, as schools of fish move along shoreline breaks from 8 to 25 feet deep."
"Some schools have hundreds of fish," Alexander says. "Yes, we snag some of them while jigging, but they absolutely eat jigging lures, especially a Jigging Rap tipped with a minnow head. Most of the time we're fishing for walleyes and we often catch two or three incidental carp, along with the walleyes. The times we've targeted carp we've caught as many at seven fish in a half a day. So some of the carp in those schools stop to feed as they move by."
But it isn't always easy and often the fishing is inconsistent. Stange spent a day targeting carp with Alexander and another guide in March 2011, and caught one fish for the day. The following year there wasn't sufficient ice for fishing during late winter. This past season, carp didn't show up in numbers where Alexander was fishing for walleyes during March. Still, with a little more prospecting this could be one of the best fisheries happening on ice. And, some of the fish are giants, more so in recent seasons because they are feeding so heavily on abundant gobies. We don't know how prevalent the possibilities for carp are in other parts of the Great Lakes.
Well-known Wisconsin Guide Lee Tauchen, filming for the fishing show Bigfish365, caught carp through the ice on an unnamed central Wisconsin river in 2011. He used a drop-shot rig with corn on a #6 treble hook above the drop-shot weight, which was tightlined from the bottom up to a rod set in an Automatic Fisherman. The Automatic Fisherman sets the hook automatically when a fish takes. This seems a good way to fish multiple rigs spread around potential areas in a search for carp. These rigs could be set around areas where anglers are also actively jigging.
Where we fished in northern China, our guides led us directly to edges of a river channel in a reservoir. We found dense concentrations of Crucians there, along with the occasional common carp. The Crucians are a smaller carp weighing up to about 4 pounds. We also tried shoreline drop-offs and found smaller fish there. We also fished some reservoir flats in shallower water, but the most active fish were those along the river channel in about 10 feet of water.
Since Wisconsin's Big Eau Pleine reservoir has characteristics similar to those we fished in China, I wasn't surprised to find carp following a pattern similar to those in China. We found a huge concentration of carp running 2 to 3 pounds holding along the edge of a steep drop where the main river channel cut close to a shallow shoreline flat. The channel ran 7 to 10 feet deep, while the shallow flat was only about 2 feet deep.
I drilled holes over the steepest part of the break and, using an underwater camera, found all the fish there were carp. They seemed to be part of a huge school shifting back and forth along the break. Sitting in one location for almost eight hours, it was rare not to have fish below.
The rig I used in China, and subsequently in the U.S., is one that also is used by perch anglers here. It relies on a tightline set to the bottom, with enough weight to hold a slipfloat set just below the water line. A bite moves the float and you set. Down the line, a tiny slipsinker is sandwiched between a set of bobber stops. A small barrel swivel connects two 6- to 10-inch mono leaders, each with a #12 light-wire octopus-style hook loaded with maggots. The float remains completely undisturbed, as the maggots are tightlined from the bottom up to the float. I occasionally lift the rig to attract attention, otherwise allowing the presentation to remain still while intently watching the float.
Stange has long used similar rigging to catch perch and his approach should also work well. The weight of a small jig should be barely heavier than is required to sink the float. Let the jig pull your float down 6 to 12 inches, and fish the combination as a sort of suspender rig. The lift and subsequent slow fall attracts fish; bites usually occur once your jig settles to bottom, which is indicated by the float tipping up, not down. For perch, this is a tactic that predominates on waters where perch feed on bottom on bloodworms during late winter. Load the jig with maggots, but corn might also work for carp. And, Stange, reminds us, carp love nightcrawlers (also waxworms) at times.
And what about baiting areas (chumming) to attract fish, a common tactic on open water? The most common baiting agent in North America has been boiled field corn. Simmer the corn for an hour to soften it. At that point, many carp anglers add one of the many taste and scent products sold by carp bait manufacturers like Wacker Baits in Chicago. Where legal, chumming might work as well through the ice as on open water, once we've identified areas were carp are holding or moving through and at times feeding.
Searching the Internet for information about carp fishing in Europe during winter, you won't find much information on carp caught through an ice hole, but they are caught all winter in conditions where skim ice covers ponds. Finding carp on giant waters is a different story. Still, they do bite, and chumming is standard practice.
Opportunity knocks. We need more answers.
*Tom Gruenwald has been a long-time HT Enterprises staff member and also works as a TV host and freelance writer.