January 29, 2016
Scrolling through my photos of fish from the past decade shows that the best fishing on ice often corresponds with weather that's not always nice. I'm seeing lots of gray days with low, ominous skies, and shots of big walleyes with snowflakes confusing the camera's focus. Quite a few days late in winter when great bites were tempered by rain, too.
To shoot a great photo, you're always hoping for blue skies that make dazzling backdrops. Problem is, days like that almost always occur just after a front has passed. So when you do get a good photo day, bites often come to a halt.
I find that you need to be on the ice not just prior to a front's arrival, but also right in the middle of the storm, when fishing is frequently fantastic. It might be fish sensing and reacting to a falling barometer, but what makes more sense to me is that fish feed most successfully under semi-dark conditions and heavily overcast skies.
Further, as fronts approach, air temperature often climbs before plummeting rapidly once the front passes. The progression can take from a few hours to a day. So as the front approaches, arrives, and moves through, you're often given a big window of potentially great fishing before it turns tough.
Timing peak bites within frontal phases isn't an exact science. Sometimes, feeding peaks during a wide window — perhaps the full 24-hour period prior to the arrival of a big cool-down. Just as often I've seen peaks in feeding of shorter duration, such as during the heaviest snowfall phase of a passing event.
Big Storms, Better Bites
Snowstorms in the Ice Belt often coincide with warming temperatures. This prompts temporary environmental stability and, in extreme cases, may even cause upticks in under-ice water temperature. If you've spent any time probing with a temperature gauge, you know that subtle pockets of slightly warmer water often hold fish, such as groundwater inflows in basin areas, or other unexplained bubbles of stability.
Only later, as the weather system passes, skies clear, and temperatures drop does the bite wane. While the snow is falling, you can experience a great bite. It's happened so often over the years that I'd rather stay and fish right through the storm — especially while fishing for walleyes, lake trout, or pike.
Too much snow is almost never too much of a good thing. At least once a season, I find myself far from home when a big snowstorm arrives. In early December three years ago, two friends and I were fishing a walleye lake in South Dakota. What began as a light snow quickly turned to a whiteout, which moved us into the confines of our portable shelters. The fishing was so good and the walleyes so aggressive that we forgot how much snow was falling. Around 10 p.m. we emerged from our shanties and realized we weren't going anywhere. The storm continued through the night and into half the next day, during which the bite mostly continued to sizzle. But within an hour of the snow moving out and skies clearing around noon the next day, the bite stopped.
Scenarios such as these can present opportunities for great fishing and you wonder whether you should plan your trips around big frontal systems. It can be a sound strategy, particularly when you examine common winter weather patterns, and especially when a big storm rolls in on the heels of a protracted period of stability.
Tony Boshold, a Chicago-based ice angler with a legendary resume of national and international tournament wins, subscribes strongly to what he calls the 3-2 winter weather rule. What winter weather lacks in stability, he believes, typically makes up for it in the near-predictability of its fronts. "Especially early in winter, you can almost count on a front passing through about every three days," he says. "My records show an uncanny pattern of three stable days followed by two frontal days, nearly every winter for as long as I can remember. There are exceptions, especially later in winter and into early spring. But I've used the pattern to plan tournament trips with a good track record."
While fellow competitors on the ice circuit tend to cringe at impending storms, Boshold prefers to arrive at a venue during a front. "If I arrive at a lake on Wednesday prior to a weekend tournament and it's cold, bluebird, and windy, I get to learn exactly how fish are responding. So by Friday or Saturday when the tournament starts, the next front likely converges on the area, and I'm in position to react the right way. I like that because it means a tough bite for everyone else.
"Most other anglers arrive to prefish during stable conditions after the preceding front and find themselves ill-prepared for what happens when the next system arrives. Good bites and stable weather are nice, but if you use fronts as learning opportunities, you find yourself ahead of the crowd on tournament day.
"I use a camera to see how bluegills and crappies are positioned around vegetation, cribs, or on soft clean bottoms. I try to observe different finesse presentations to determine the best work-arounds — the baits and moves that garner the most positive reactions. On post-front days, I usually find it's better to stay on pods of fish and work them, rather than go on missions to find active biters."
While many anglers opt for tiny jigs and livebait, Boshold leans on his skills as a triggering magician with artificials. "The Little Atom Rembrandt Jig is an old-school swimming bait — like a tiny crankbait for ice. The head has a -circle-shaped concave disc — wobbles on the drop and planes horizontally. The hook section has a soft rubber body that kicks the lure when you jig. When fish bite, they get all hook — there's no way to short-bite it. It's light and flutters superbly for ultra-negative 'gills. We call this type of fishing 'vertizontal,' a vertical posture lure that swims on a horizontal plane. It's killer for post-front fish."
Boshold also taps phone apps such as Time to Fish Lite. "I find the bite timer is accurate. Plug in your location, and the app combines it with solunar data to calculate the best daily periods to be on the ice. Some of it relates to moonrise and moonset, which are key when new moons correspond to day bites." He also says that with high-end underwater cameras, it's possible to discover warmer water zones near cover. Sometimes, a pocket of 38°F water, surrounded by 34°F to 36°F, can hold scads of catchable fish.
Minnesota Guide Tony Roach works walleyes just about every day of the hardwater season. "Three consecutive stable weather days in December and January? That's a gift," he says. It's hard to disagree, when it seems every other winter day brings another blast of cold air through central Minnesota — home of Mille Lacs, Leech, Gull, and other eminent walleye waters.
"Fronts in winter have a greater effect on walleyes than during the open-water season," he says. "In open water, there's always something I can do to trigger fish, even when they're not feeding. But in winter, you're handcuffed because you can only work on a vertical plane, and fish sometimes seem almost shocked by the arrival of colder weather.
"When walleyes are off, you see them just drift by on the camera, and they won't even look at your bait. It's almost like they're comatose, and at times it seems there's nothing you can do to shake fish out of it."
Roach says that a camera has taught him to recognize and duplicate encouraging responses by walleyes to specific presentation maneuvers. Banging baits on hard bottom or puffing them into soft substrate to produce mini mushroom clouds can produce positive responses. Post-front days also are one of the few situations where he sits inside a shelter and calls fish into the area, rather than searching large areas for active fish. Post-front days are prime for hovering directly over your "A" spots — zones consistently traveled by walleyes.
He often rigs half of his rods with call baits — large spoons or Rippin' Rap style attractor lures — while the other half are armed with 1/8- or 1/16-ounce Northland Tackle Forage Minnows or Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons tipped with a minnow head or small piece of soft plastic. "The bait-and-switch approach is one of a few effective cold-front presentations. Use the call bait to attract and 'wake up' walleyes, then quickly drop the small spoon to induce a bite before they slide back into a funk."
I mentioned to Roach a weird phenomenon I've observed in which frontal walleyes ignore every lure or livebait, but then eat a discarded minnow head or dead minnow lying on bottom. This happens a lot on community spots, where minnows discarded by anglers litter the lake floor.
"That happens a lot," he says. "Young perch winterkill both early and late in the season, and walleyes feed on them. Dead crayfish, too. At times walleyes graze on dead stuff. I often put a small lively minnow right on the bottom, and let its tail kick around in the silt. When it tires, I put a new one down. It can be a sweet trick on bluebird days when you're in your shelter.
"Late in the season, at times the walleyes I clean have empty stomachs or stomachs containing nothing but mayfly larvae or bloodworms. In tough times, walleyes feed on bottom, and they even dig into the substrate. Bottom disturbances can prompt fish to feed, even on post-front days."
If everything in the atmosphere conspires against you, fishing can be a struggle, no matter how tricky you get. Sometimes, you have to wait things out before a short window of activity opens. Roach says that with little or no snow on the ice, full-moon phases can kill a daytime walleye bite. Oppositely, a new-moon phase can bring renewed day bites, even during foul conditions. When light is reduced by a build-up of snow on the ice, peak-feeding bites may last longer during the day, extending morning windows an additional hour or so.
He also mentions wind as a factor on big water. "Water can become dirtier following a big blow, triggering positive feeding. Sometimes, fish go crazy after a big wind. One year, we had a big open-water area on Mille Lacs at the start of the season. A strong wind from the northwest positioned fish on one side of the structure. The day after the wind died, fish repositioned on the up-current side of the structure, as water cycled the other way."
The most likely explanations for fish behavior probably distill down to light or lack of it, micro-changes in water temperature, water clarity, and current. Fish whenever you can, and use the tough days as opportunities to experiment and excel.