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How High? Real High
By Jason Mitchell

The lesson was learned by accident… the result of trial and error. Several years ago, a friend and I were fishing for crappie on Jamestown Reservoir located in south central North Dakota. In typical crappie fashion, most of the fish were suspended about four feet off the bottom in twelve feet of water all morning long. As the sun crept higher and the morning progressed, the fish seemed to rise. By midday, the top half of the water column came alive on the Vexilar with flashes of red and yellow indicating suspended fish. The fish were eating anything that dropped in front of them. Over the course of the day, the intensity dropped and the action slowed. After trying to unsuccessfully get back on the pod of fish by drilling more holes, we dropped back down the original holes that had been so hot just hours before.
On a whim, I tried fishing really high, higher than the Vexilar could read just inches below the ice. I had a fish on immediately. When I set the hook, I thought I had snagged the bottom of the hole. Up came a nice crappie and than another crappie. We were into the fish again and the fish were literally inches below our boots right under the ice. Pretty cool I thought. Perhaps the zooplankton had collected right below the ice as the sun increased in intensity or maybe something else happened relating to the food chain that brought these fish continually higher through out the day. These fish kept raising until the fish were to the point of banging their heads on the bottom of the ice.
We have been able to stumble onto this pattern with both sunfish and crappie. The fish keep rising following clouds of scuds, backswimmers and other micro morsels until they seemingly disappear. Disappearing in the sense that electronics aren’t as effective. Even sight fishing can be difficult because if the fish are running right below the ice, using this massive plane as an edge to corner and corral prey, we can only see an area the size of the hole we drilled.

There are other more dangerous situations however where this pattern can emerge. Low oxygen levels, deep snow, dying vegetation and the other biological factors that combine to form winter fish kills. Obviously, life threatening oxygen depletion is very stressful for a fish. When fish become too stressed, they quit eating, game over. Until they hit this threshold however, these stressed fish can be caught and usually, every fish in the lake is just inches under the ice with their lips practically licking the bottom of the ice because this is usually where the last blanket of oxygen rich water can be found. This particular pattern is a situation that I wouldn’t wish upon any of your favorite panfish lakes but with this potential travesty does come some window of opportunity.
Other situations where the six inches right below the ice is worth fishing can sometimes occur in thick weed beds that are basically unfishable. I just got off the phone with one of our Pro Staff anglers and Ice Team Power Stick, Jim Hudson from Bayfield Wisconsin. Jim is phenomenal ice angler who just works hard at fishing and has a good understanding of how to crack patterns. Jim is also a successful guide in Northern Wisconsin. Hudson went on to describe a lake he had just fished in central Minnesota for blue gill. They ended up finding many of their fish right up along the shoreline in the midst of the thickest and densest canopies of cabbage that they could find. The areas they drilled were the spots on the ice where they could see several weed fragments froze into the ice. The only way they could even fish this jungle was by using the auger flighting to actually ream out an area below the ice, chopping up weeds and making a small window to snake an ice jig down. That is where the fish were, right below the ice in weeds that were virtually too thick to fish. Perhaps fish end up in locations like this because of larger predators like pike or bass. Maybe fishing pressure is factor in the sense that fish that spend most of their time in these types of locations live long enough to grow. The big blue gill that prefers the outside edge of the weed bed located on a textbook break line has already been caught by now on many lakes.
Day in and day out, the window of the water column that meets the ice is not the first place we look for fish. But every now and then, this edge where ice meets water has to be looked at as we eliminate water and attempt to hunt for panfish. Most anglers will fish the whole water column yet skip the zone right below the ice. There are cases now and than where that may be a mistake.
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