By Jason Mitchell
We have all heard this a thousand times. We all know that we have to find fish to catch them. Finding fish is difficult, catching is easy. During the summer, we use different presentations to look for fish and often switch tactics after fish are found. As ice-fishing guru, Dave Genz, is fond of saying, "what works for summer applies under the ice as well." Just like open water, there are presentations on ice that are geared for finding fish. Some presentations that might work well for exposing fish on the Vexilar might not be the best presentation to simply catch fish after fish are found but remember, don’t put the cart in front of the horse. Ice fisherman are starting to realize that ice fishing is as multidimensional as angling from the bow of a metal flake bass boat.
Many fishermen would never think of using the same lure all day when fishing in a boat. How many times do we troll bottom bouncers, spinners or crankbaits for example only to switch gears and use slip bobbers or jigs after a couple fish come from the same spot. Versatility is the key to adapting to changing conditions during the summer. We keep changing and refining until we are using the most efficient presentation for the task at hand. This mentality shouldn’t be left at home after the lake freezes. Just like open water, there is no such thing as a perfect lure or presentation that works for every situation.
We often feel limited when ice fishing because we are always fishing vertically. While a hole in the ice prohibits us from trolling a crankbait, we still have control of how we present our lure or bait. Just like open water fishing, there are presentations that excel at looking for fish and there are also presentations that work better for triggering after fish are found. There are no rules that are carved in stone however. With fishing, there is always a gray area so to speak.
In my mind, there are basically three categories of lures in the ice-fishing world. There are jigs that fall straight down when dropped. You have spoons that wobble and flash when dropped and you have swimming lures that slide in a half circle when dropped. Some lures might work better as an attractor for looking for aggressive fish and some lures might work better for triggering strikes.
Remember that location is everything and there is no magic lure. In all, a variation of a plain jig with some kind of bait is tough to beat when fish are below you. The most popular ice jig on Devils Lake is the Genz Worm. Nothing fancy, this jig is a favorite because of simplicity. The jig shows up well on the Vexilar and falls through the water column fast. What makes this jig better? The answer is efficiency. When you can always see your jig on the electronics and you spend more time with your jig in the water in front of fish, you catch more fish, plain and simple. More often than not, a variety of lures and presentations will work to catch fish. To catch more fish, make your presentation more efficient.
Spoons are a favorite across the ice belt and nobody can argue the success of these lures. The wobble and flash of a spoon falling through the water gets the attention of any nearby fish. Metal spoons like Swedish Pimples and Kastmasters have a bit more action while lead spoons like Jig a Whopper’s Rocker Minnow show up better on your electronics and fall through the water faster. I personally believe that the cadence and rhythm of how the lure is jigged can be more important than the exact kind or brand of spoon you are using. If you can’t catch fish that are moving through, experiment with the action of the lure first. Spoons can work great for pulling fish over to you and they can also be used to trigger fish as well.
On North Dakota’s Devils Lake, the Perch Patrol Guide Service staff often adds a dropper below the spoon. There are a couple of advantages to using a dropper. An angler can down size by putting a small hook below the dropper but still have the weight of the spoon to quickly get down to the fish. On Devils Lake where the mood of the fish can change drastically from day to day, combining the attracting power of a spoon with a dropper enables an angler to attract and catch fish that aren’t necessarily aggressive enough to hammer a spoon.
The dropper also enables an angler to spot fish on the electronics that are holding right in the mud. When you use a dropper, you can tune the sensitivity down until you only see the spoon. When you tune the gain so that you can only see the spoon being held about six inches off the bottom, you create a window to look for fish that are holding tight to the mud. If you put the spoon or lure itself right in the mud, the spoon will register as a line across the dial of the flasher. The signal from the lure makes spotting tight holding fish tougher. The only way too see these fish is by adjusting the signal from the lure so that the signal can gets stronger if a fish noses up or by using a dropper. This window created by using a dropper makes looking for approaching fish easier when probing deep water.
People often talk about target separation but many people don’t understand what target separation does. In the real world, we seldom get inch and a half or three inch target separations. The key to spotting fish right in the mud is to watch the bottom signal and look for the signal to get stronger or flicker as a fish moves. Don’t bother trying to separate a fish that is holding tight to the mud, by the time you can separate a fish from the mud, a fish is right below you in front of the lure and off the bottom, regardless of what unit you use. If you don’t believe me, drop an Aqua View down and see for yourself. This is exactly why the Perch Patrol Guide Service favors the Vexilar FL8. The Vexilar excels at exposing fish that are in the dead zone or tight to the bottom by enabling an angler to look within the bottom reading itself. The bottom will flicker and change colors as a fish creeps in tight to the bottom.
It often seems like variations of a lead jig and spoons of different varieties are favored presentations of winter anglers. There is a fraternity of ice fisherman however, that can attest to the fish catching abilities of "swimming lures" like the Jigging Rapala, Nils Master or Systems Tackle’s Walleye Flyer. These lures have an action that is unique from other lure types. The lures "swim" out away from the hole and glide when dropped through the water. The movement is more horizontal. I always use some kind of bait when using a spoon or jig because I have to often slow a spoon or jig down and jiggle it to catch fish. The swimming lures are unique in the fact that no bait is often needed for these lures to catch fish. Perhaps these lures look more like something that can be eaten even when the lure stops moving. These lures dart and glide to the side, mimicking a minnow very closely. This type of presentation isn’t as bold or flashy as some thing like banging a spoon on the bottom but the presentation seems more subtle and natural.
Different situations call for different presentations. How do you know which presentation to use? The only right answer is experimentation. I believe the key to consistently catching fish is knowing what each lure will do and going through the arsenal until you find something that works. Don’t try to rationalize why something works or come up with situations in your mind where something should work, just experiment until the fish tell you.
Go through this magazine and look through the articles. There will be one author telling you to trigger inactive fish by aggressively jigging spoons. The next article will be about downsizing a lure and using fresh bait to catch those same fish. There are a million ways to catch a fish and another million reasons why a person should use a specific presentation to catch fish in a specific situation. In a way, everybody is right, but in a way, everybody is wrong as well. Don’t get hung up on rules or reasons when trying to find the best presentation. Force yourself to go through the arsenal and experiment until the fish tell you what the best presentation is for the day.
On a final note, remember this. Every fish is different. Every day and place is different. Nothing is ever the same. Don’t live and die by something just because you caught fish earlier in the day or heard about a friend who caught fish the day before. Focus on the task at hand right below your boots and be versatile. Most anglers consider themselves versatile but you have to experiment to truly be versatile.
Jason Mitchell is a member of the Devils Lake’s Perch Patrol Guide Service. Contacting Steve "Zippy" Dahl at (701) DL1-FISH can make reservations. Accommodations provided by Woodland Resort, (701) 662-5996 and Spirit Lake Casino and Resort, 1-800-946-8238.
Jason Mitchell is a Licensed Guide on Devils Lake, North Dakota.
Please visit these site sponsors