After you get past the usual list of things you cannot do out on the ice, like say longline trolling, the parallels between ice and open water are undeniable. Yeah, the water's colder in January than it is in July, but the fish are still going to show preferences for certain presentations, which can vary seasonally, daily, hourly, even moment by moment and fish by fish. But how do you respond to that idea, knowing you must experiment with a purpose in order to dial in an effective set of moves?
It's funny how a comment can attach itself to the mind of an inquisitive master angler and lead to months of dot connecting and end up helping other anglers everywhere. That's what went down a couple winters ago, when In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange was fishing on a lake north of Grand Rapids, Minnesota, with Dave Genz and Rick Johnson. These three anglers first fished together in the early 1980s, as they helped to shape the beginning of what was to become a revolution on ice.
They were filming an episode for In-Fisherman Television, but in the heat of the moment they were just kind of lost in the fishing, all kneeling and jiggling away, and the conversation turned to pounding. Stange said something about how a bait "has to look good, but it also has to feel good to 'em," meaning the fish, and little light bulbs went off in the heads of Genz and Johnson.
Johnson said something about how they've been doing this for years—pounding jigs, adjusting how hard they pound them in response to the fish's reaction—without ever expressing the process of what they were doing in just that way. Sometimes, how you think about things opens up a good can of worms.
"That's when I started thinking about crankbaits," Genz says, "and spinners turning." He was picturing the idea of lure cadence and what it means to fish, and thinking about various styles of lures used in open water and comparing them to options available for ice fishing—how cadence is such a huge factor. Forever, he had been experimenting with cadence without calling it that, but since that moment Stange put the bug in Genz's ear, it seems like all he can think about.
Getting Fish to Bite
The fish are just down there being fish. Even in cold water, they have to eat to survive. From the time they're little fish, they learn to eat things based on successful sampling of possible food items. By the time they grow into a fish you would like to catch, they have a good idea what's edible and what's not, and they are often triggered by what possible food items look like and by how they move.
Really, what things look like can be important or irrelevant, depending on visibility. But movement—cadence—is always terribly important, arguably the most important variable of all, beyond the two most important fundamentals, depth and speed control (or how you're working the lure). It's not always what you use; it's how you use it. If you can figure out the right cadence and keep it going, you are going to catch way more fish than if you are just out there doing any old thing with your presentation, or not paying attention to what you were doing when a bite comes.
Cadence is King
Cadence is the blend of speed and rhythm you impart to your lure. How it moves. Cadence can be fast or slow, steady or erratic, tight or loose, and more.
"In ice fishing," Genz says, "we have control over (cadence) in the way we move the tip of our rod. Movement stimulates the fish's lateral line. When it swims up to it, if it looks right and then feels right it grabs it. If it doesn't feel right and the fish leaves, too many people start switching lures or changing color, or size. That's when we have to think about changing the cadence—the vibration pattern—more than anything else."
Genz returns to the crankbait analogy. "If you retrieve them steadily," he says, "crankbaits are consistent. They either have a tight wiggle or a wider wobble, and you can choose different crankbaits depending on what the fish want. And you can break the cadence by adding twitches or pauses and pulls. If a crankbait gets caught on a weed, you rip it off, and 'bang' you get this fish sometimes."
Other than having the bait where fish are, cadence is king, Genz says.
"When something isn't working," he says, "changing the cadence is more important than anything else you can do, from the size to the color (although size and body shape, he adds, can affect cadence). This is absolute after dark or in deeper water, where fish are unlikely to be able to see much. When they can't see it, they have to be able to feel it. Stange's right. It has to feel good to them."
Movement of Life
Since the beginnings of the modern ice fishing revolution, Genz and his friends have been using a series of rapid (almost vibration-like) rod movements to attract and trigger fish through the ice. That presentation style needed a name, so it was called pounding. They talk about pounding it harder or softer, in order to give fish what they want.
At its core, pounding mimics life, probably talking the instinctive and learned language of predator and prey like nothing else you could do. In other words, living things in the underwater realm flutter and kick and swim, giving off signatures that predators recognize. What you do with your wrist is the difference maker, either speaking to the fish you seek or leaving them uninspired.
"We have to keep thinking that we're trying to duplicate what fish feel when they choose things to feed on," Genz says. "A lot of these things swim with a kicking motion. The cadence attracts fish. They feel it and it makes them want to eat it. They've been in feeding frenzies with lots of things that feel like this around them. It makes them want to swim in there and eat it.
"If you don't have the right cadence, they ignore it completely. You can have the right size, shape, and color, but if it doesn't feel right you get nothing."
Finding the right cadence, Genz believes, is the secret behind why they catch so many big fish on jigs that, by rights, should be too small to interest such creatures.
"When we're pounding our baits using a rapid cadence," he says, "we tend to be able to catch larger fish on smaller baits. It feels like something they want."
Genz has a go-to cadence, his bread-and-butter fish catcher that does the trick more often than not. He experiments when fish come in but don't bite, looking for the trigger of the day—but warns us not to believe that all fish can be caught if you can just find the right trigger.
"I spend more time cutting holes and looking for fish that bite than I do varying the cadence and trying to get sniffers to bite," he says. "I vary the cadence when fish come close but won't eat, but if you're spending time experimenting with cadence, you're probably spending too much time in one hole."
In all of fishing, many variables exist, but they aren't equally important. You have to be over fish to have any chance at all. Then, within the potential of your bait's ability to attract those fish, you have to get into a productive depth. After that, cadence is king. It trumps things like size, shape, and color. It has to look good and then feel good to the fish or you're not going to get bit.
* Mark Strand, of Mark Strand Outdoors (markstrandoutdoors.com), has written hundreds of articles about ice fishing in over 30 years in the business and is an exceptional ice angler in his own right.Dialing in Cadence
You have to start someplace, and Genz has a signature, go-to cadence he starts out with on almost every outing. Within reason, it's about as fast as he can pump his wrist up and down in extremely short movements, and maintain it for extended periods. As you watch his hand, it barely moves up or down, but the rod tip is always in motion, "bump-bump-bump-bump," and the bait looks and feels alive down there, in what can be described as a kicking motion.
"It's pretty fast," he says. "It's about feel, about this lure vibrating down there, bouncing up and down and sending me a signal back up the line to the rod. I feel the lure bouncing up and down. That's where I want to start. I want to be able to look away from the rod completely, and if a fish comes up and bites it, that interrupts the cadence and I know instantly."
In order to create this cadence, this degree of feel, you have to have good balance between the rod, line, and lure—and the rod cannot be so soft that it smooths things out. Genz stresses that the line has to "hang straight," meaning that too-heavy line on a too-light bait will leave coils that rob you of cadence and feel.
He has a feel-enhancing ritual: at the beginning of each day he stretches the "first 50 feet" by hand. In reality, it might be the first 20 feet, or however deep he plans to be fishing. But he does it every day, gently pulling on the line to straighten it and help it behave well in the cadence department.
As you might imagine (and might already know), it's not so much that Genz has anything against softer rods or spring bobbers. It's just that they don't allow him to fish crisply. He does slow things down, even stopping completely, if that's what the fish want.
"When the fish want a slow cadence," he says, "I still feel like I have a much better chance of being able to slow things down, using my kind of rod, than a guy with a spring bobber has of trying to pick up the cadence. A stiffer rod does a slow cadence better than a soft rod can do fast motion."
He also says that, on most days, you catch more fish by erring on the side of a faster cadence than a slower one.
Finding precisely what the fish want is a matter of seeing what they do once they show up. Genz is confident that his go-to pounding cadence usually brings fish in for a look. You know they're there because you see them (sight-fishing or on a camera) or they display on the Vexilar screen.
Time to dial in the cadence they want.
As he works through this puzzle, "It's not a matter of cycling through a bunch of different speeds," he says. "You use the same speed for extended periods of time, not changing until you see a fish and can't trigger it. Then you need to speed up or slow down, or stop the lure for a short period. Sometimes it has to sit there stopped before they grab it."
Day in and day out, the most successful approach is to "keep things going," he says. "See how fast you can make it go."
Predators get excited when things feel alive and react to their presence, which is why Genz wonders why so many people stop doing what they were doing when a fish shows up.
"Especially when they're sight-fishing," he says, "most people slow down as the fish gets close to their lure. They're afraid they're going to scare the fish away if they keep moving it."
To catch more fish, Genz says to keep the cadence going as the fish closes, often slowly raising the bait to encourage the fish to chase it upward. We're always working on depth control and speed control, adding cadence to the overall equation. Again, he's not married to this approach; it's just been so good to him all across the North American ice scene that it's his go-to. If it doesn't work he experiments, including slowing down or stopping, until he discovers what the fish want at the moment.
Rods for Rapid Cadence
To produce the signature Genz pounding presentation, you need a rod that's stiff enough to control the bait you're using. In other words, it cannot cushion your jigging movements, smooth them out, soften them. Beyond that, you must practice until you can get the rapid up and down movement that features little actual up and down travel of your hand and wrist. More up and down travel is seen in the rod tip, which causes the vibrating or kicking cadence exhibited by the lure.
A lesser-known key is to avoid side-to-side travel by the rod tip. If you are attempting to create this crisp, rapid motion and your rod tip is wiggling left and right, you can't produce that deadly action. Practice until you can stop the left-right travel and you're on your way.
Long-time ice angler and occasional In-Fisherman contributor Pat Smith recounts the days years ago when he was working on his pounding, came up with an innovation: he rigged a slipfloat between his rod tip and lure, and fished that way until he could pound the jig without disturbing the float.
If you can't control the left-right motion, perhaps the rod's too soft for what you're attempting to do. In the end, it all comes down to the balance between the rod, the line, and the lure—and it's all in the wrist. Keep it in the fairway and you catch fish.
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.