After all the map study, after all the hole drilling, once you drop the line down the hole and start presenting a bait, that’s when the most elusive skill of all comes into play. Even with the finest graphite rods and fresh line, it can look like a magic act when good anglers just ‘know’ a fish has taken the bait and it’s time to set the hook.

Solid, thunking bites are easy. Everybody can feel those, even with gloves on. But knowing a light bite when you feel it – or sense it – separates the best anglers from the rest.

For so many, this becomes a lifetime quest full of frustration. How do you know a soft bite when you feel it? What does it feel like? Is there a way to develop a better touch for detecting bites? The answer is a resounding yes, but you have to pay attention to detail and tidy up several tricky variables.

At the conclusion of days spent retracing every step of the modern ice fishing revolution, Dave Genz was asked about where the sport can still go, in terms of significant developments. This was done to gather up his personal memories while writing the book, “Ice Revolution,” and though he was visibly spent from the process, he knew right away what he wanted to say.

“There’s probably always room for more things in bite indication,” he said. “Something that helps you know when the fish bites.” He went on to theorize that we can probably build electronic gadgets that detect irregularities in the jigging motion, telling us something changed and a fish might have sucked the bait into its mouth.

This kind of technology could come, but each of us has the ability to detect light bites right now, using the right combination of current equipment and technique. There are ways to become instantly better at this frustrating piece of the puzzle, then work on refining your abilities to the point that people will come up to you and ask for your secrets.

Bite Detection System

This is not going to be a commercial for specific models of rods and reels, but rather a description of what Genz uses and what he believes to be the keys to better bite detection. He’s said this before, but you must begin with the right gear.

“Your equipment has to be balanced,” Dave begins. “If it isn’t, you’re not going to feel the bite. The line has to hang straight (meaning fresh and free of coils). Your jig has to be heavy enough to take all the kinks out of the line. Even with new line, if the line is too thick for the weight of the jig, there will be all these coils in it, and you can’t feel bites then.

“And you have to have a fairly stiff rod. It’s so hard to get people to understand that stiffness equals sensitivity, but that doesn’t mean I’m using a pool cue. People say they want a ‘more sensitive’ tip, but after I talk to them, I find out they want to watch the rod tip and see the rod bend to see the bite. That’s how they want to detect the bite, by seeing it rather than feeling it, because they don’t think they can learn to feel it. But if you have such a soft tip on your rod that it bends when you get a light bite, it’s going to be harder to feel any bite.”

Genz urges us to get away from trying to see bites by watching the rod bend. “It’s the little bites, being able to feel them, that you should be trying for,” he says, then goes on to describe how to pull it off.

“You have to be able to feel that lure down there as you’re jigging it,” he says. “Even with tiny baits, if your rod and line are in balance, you can feel the cycles of the jiggling motion as you go up and down. It’s crisp and noticeable once you get used to it, and you just know it. We talk about pounding the lure, and now we talk more about the cadence, which is how fast you are pounding it.

“With a good rod, you can feel the bottom of every cycle, right in the rod blank. That’s why it has to be stiff enough to let you feel that. If the rod is too soft, everything mushes around and you can’t feel anything. (But with a good rod) you’re jiggling away and feeling the bottom of every jiggle, and then all of a sudden something changes.”

In other words, the distinct ‘thunk’ (or whatever you want to call it) at the bottom of every jiggle suddenly goes away. It might just deaden, or there might be a sensation that everything got lighter, or heavier. The changes can be, and are, subtle a lot of times. It isn’t like a big jolt most of the time – just enough of a difference to tell you something interrupted things.

Close Your Eyes

Genz hasn’t talked much about this next idea, but credits it for helping him refine the ability to detect light bites without the aid of spring bobbers or other visual cues.

“What I do, which helped tremendously,” he says, “is when a fish is coming in and I know it’s going to bite, I close my eyes and fish like I’m blind. Blind people have tremendous senses, and doing this will really help you sense when the lure gets a little heavier. You can really tell when the bounce goes away at the bottom of your jigging cycles. When you can’t feel it bounce anymore, you know the fish has it.

“Sometimes there’s this big jerk on the end of the line, but sometimes the fish comes in and grabs the lure and swims across the hole with it and everything just gets a little bit heavier.”

He does this close-the-eyes trick occasionally, to this day, to keep his senses honed and refine his instincts. “You start to feel, or almost sense, that the fish is on there,” Genz says. “I do this when the fishing is pretty good, not on the first fish of the day. It probably works best when you’re sight fishing or using a camera – you’ve already caught some fish and can picture what they’re doing as they bite it. Then, close your eyes on some fish and go for that feeling.”

There is more to this story, as there always is, including what to do when the fish are just coming up and kissing the bait with their mouths closed. That will interrupt the jigging cycle and you can feel it, but setting the hook right away on those bites results in wondering what the heck happened. In those instances, Genz has taught us to drop the rod tip rather than setting the hook, giving the fish a chance to have a second go at it and hopefully suck it in.

“When I drop the rod tip,” he says, “my eyes are wide open and I’m watching the line. If the line sits in the hole with coils, that means the fish has it and I can set the hook and get him.”

Sometimes by sight, always by feel, using good quality rods and reels, almost anybody can learn to sink the hook into far more biters.

Note: Dave Genz, known as Mr. Ice Fishing, was the primary driver of the modern ice fishing revolution. He has been enshrined in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Minnesota Fishing Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport. For more fishing tips and information on the new book, Ice Revolution, go to

Image courtesy Dave Genz

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