For paradise on ice, few scenarios beat having a sizeable slice of some remote, fish-laden water all to yourself. But in reality, most of us share our favorite fisheries with hundreds, if not thousands, of fellow ice fishing anglers — each bent on filling a bucket with wintertime bliss. Plus, angler numbers seem to be rising every winter on the best lakes across the Ice Belt, particularly those within easy distance of large metro areas.
Add the virtually instant transmission of fishing reports via social networks such as Facebook, along with the ceaseless chatter on Internet forums, and finding (and keeping a lid on) untapped honey-holes is almost impossible. News of hot bites travels fast, and a small group of anglers hunkered over a pod of hungry 'eyes, pike, or pans on a prime point or flat can multiply in a few days — or less — into a gaggle of hardwater gladiators battling for their share of the action. All of which makes honing your coping skills for dealing with fishing pressure more important than ever.
Few know the drill better than longtime In-Fisherman friend and iceman extraordinaire Dave Genz. Although he avoids crowds at all costs, he acknowledges that many times, on many lakes, fishing pressure is a fact of life. And he says that because we've focused so hard over the years on finding fish far from other anglers, the art of meeting pressure head-on has almost been forgotten. But not entirely.
Let's talk location, one of the key building blocks of In-Fisherman's time-tested Fish + Location + Presentation = Success formula. "We talk about fishing the edges of the crowd," Genz says. "But it's not as easy as that. Often, a group of permanent and portable shelters swells so big, so fast, that its edges push past the fish." Rather than drill all day trying to find fish on the outskirts of an oversized boom town, give the suburbs a once-over, then take the show downtown if you come up empty.
Before you join the masses, get a "big picture" view of the crowd from a distance, either from the ice or, ideally, from a hill overlooking that section of the lake. Visually assessing and mentally dissecting a group of houses is key to putting together a solid plan of attack. For one thing, a group's layout often gives clues to the structure and cover beneath (especially when compared to hydrographic features on a good lake map), as well as where active fish were first discovered. All of this tells you a lot about where to drill first.
If the pack's pioneers settled over a deep hole on a flat, and the crowd spread across the surrounding shallows, your odds could be best either in the original hot zone or at similar depths along drop-offs on the outer edges of the flat, or in other holes scattered across the top of it. Another option, of course, is looking for similar scenarios elsewhere on the lake, but for the sake of this discussion, let's stick to finding fish in the crowd.
Sometimes dissecting complex structure takes a bit of work — even teamwork. Last winter, for example, my son Jake and I responded to reports of a hot crappie bite on a local lake. Word was the fish were relating to a 50-foot hole. But when we arrived on the scene, a loose aggregation of anglers sprawled from 10-foot shoreline shallows all the way into the main lake, covering a selection of promising holes, drop-offs, and flats.
We decided to start on a gradual break dipping from 12 to 38 feet. We barely dropped our lines when another party rolled up close and a pair of icemen with several kids in tow piled out. I'm a believer in cooperation, so after a cordial greeting we agreed to share information as we searched for fish. Along the way, we visited with other anglers — gaining valuable insight on the timing of the bite, hot baits, and such.
Our search led across a flat, down the break and over water in the 40-foot range, where small pods of big crappies were cruising 17 feet beneath the ice. Hunkering in a portable shack, you could pick off a fish or two from each group — every 5 to 10 minutes. It wasn't fast action, but it was more consistent than what anglers targeting shallower depths were enjoying. Toward dusk, however, the fish moved onto structure at the same depth they had been suspended by day.
A Step Ahead
When Genz "reads" the crowd, he also cues on where the fish may be headed next. If he sees on-ice commotion, he tries to figure out where fish spooked by the sound might go — then sets up in advance of their arrival. "People think noise is a bad thing, but when it moves fish around, it can work to your advantage," he says. In a similar vein, he watches for angler success.
"When people are fishing outside and a school of fish moves through the group, it's almost like watching fans do the wave at a football game," he says. "If you pay attention, you can get a sense of where the school is going — and get ahead of it." As basic as it sounds, he says zeroing in on gaps in the pack can also pay off. "If you find areas where no holes have been drilled, fish them," he says.
When working a crowd, he maintains his usual thoughts on mobility. "During that golden hour at the end of the day, when the food chain cranks up and the fish are moving, you can set up in a good area and let the fish find you," he says. "But the rest of the day, when they aren't moving much, you need to look for them. This is also when a little noise on the ice is okay, because it moves fish around."
He also says you need to know when a crowd is past its prime. "You see that when a group of anglers sets up on an area that holds fish at first ice, but the crowd lingers after the fish have either moved on — due to annual migrations or in response to extended noise — or been drastically thinned by fishing pressure." Much depends on the individual scenario. A group of anglers set up where waves of fish continually migrate through could produce action all winter, while clusters that pop up over shorter-lived fish-holding areas may yield good fishing for a week or two at best.
Bottom line? Whenever a crowd is on fish, elbowing your way in can be intimidating, and feel like the exact opposite of how we've been taught to deal with pressure. But with the right approach — and the right attitude toward your fellow ice anglers — embracing the masses can be the best option for stretching your string.
Opinions vary on picking presentations when faced with heavy fishing pressure. Some anglers play the finesse card, while others live large in hopes of attracting and triggering strikes. Each line of thought has its merits.
Genz follows his time-tested philosophy, crowds or not. "Start with something the fish can see, so they come in to investigate it," he says. "In clear water, use something that flickers and flashes when you jig it. In dirty water, glow baits are better."
I've seen trips when a tiny teardrop and spring bobber rocked the ice — but also times when an over-the-top combo of jigging spoon and livebait racked up more action. As Genz says, much depends on throwing down something the fish can find — but time of day, changes in light intensity, and other factors make it hard to suggest a "one-method-fits-all" tactic. Your best bet is to hit the ice armed with a variety of lures and baits, then experiment to see which one pleases the crowd at the moment.
Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and coordinator of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com.