I grew up on the ice. My first fishing experiences were just as frequently spent walking on hard-water as they were floating in a boat on the liquid version. Ice fishing’s technological revolution was at hand then, with open-water converted flashers and gas augers becoming somewhat more common on the ice-scape.
I learned what I could, fishing wherever I could, from big waters of the North to small potholes throughout the Midwest. And no matter where I went or what I fished for, I was a sponge. Somewhere along the way, it became readily apparent to me that all ice anglers were not created equal. Or if they were, each progressed at a different rate depending on their level of passion for the sport, free time, work ethic, and a whole list of other variables that make someone successful while ice fishing.
That ruler for success is also a variable in and of itself, driving some to fervent levels, while others to just enjoy their surroundings and a meal for the table. Still, there existed then, and now, certain traits that separate the good anglers from the great ones.
After working throughout the ice fishing industry with some of the best anglers, guides and fishing fanatics throughout the ice belt, I’m confident that the eight qualities I share here will make you a better angler. The bad news is that unfortunately, I haven’t found a substitute for time on the water. The good news is the best anglers in the country have many behaviors in common, and you can learn from these to hone your ice game.
- The Fish – The best ice anglers are lifelong students of their favorite species, typically knowing a great deal about each aspect of their biological needs such as spawning, habitat, behavioral patterns and meaningful predator/prey relationships. These anglers understand seasonal movements, cover and structure types that dictate their location throughout the season. They also know a great deal about the presentations that are most likely to bring them success given the previous two conditions. Truly, they understand the classic In-Fisherman formula: Fish + Location + Presentation = Success.
- Best Waters – The best anglers fish the best destinations. Just as the infamous bank robber Willie Sutton held up banks because “that’s where the money is,” you should fish where the fish are. Not just the best places, but the best time of year, time of day, on the best structure, while using the best methods. If budget won’t allow an all-out ice belt tour, fish the best that’s within your ability or given distance.
- Mental Preparedness – Guides are often tasked with taking a difficult day, and putting a positive spin on it. It’s not just a business tactic for the best ones, however, it’s a way of life. The best guides and anglers I’ve ever fished with have an extremely positive attitude. The next fish is just one hole away, and even when they swing and miss, they perpetually have a “get the next one” attitude. They’re able to focus more and longer, while removing distractions, and able to ready themselves for bite windows to open, exploiting sometimes short durations of intense fish activity while constantly studying and adjusting their approach.
- Hard Work – The best ice anglers work hard. They’re mobile, but not just for mobility’s sake. Their goal is to fish efficiently, and can get to active fish either by themselves or in a team atmosphere. They’re tenacious in that they “drill-out” spots, fishing inside or outside of a shelter depending on which is most effective.
- Top-notch Equipment – People that make a living fishing don’t always use the most expensive equipment, but they always use the most functional and fully durable equipment. This is across the board and in all categories, from their auger and shelter, to their electronics, rods, reels and baits. Moreover, they maintain it all in perfect working order so there’s no surprises during the next excursion.
- Technology – For the advanced angler, technology isn’t to be feared, it’s to be exploited. The best anglers in the world embrace this change, but also don’t get lost in it. They customize it, and apply key features of ice electronics such as adjustable zoom, open-water chart mode, and lightweight lithium batteries to directly benefit their style of fishing and species they’re pursuing. They scout digitally, performing aerial reconnaissance and utilizing the best underwater mapping available.
- Organization – The “before, during, and after” approach to conquering chaos is a professional angler’s best friend. Top ice anglers actively game plan what they need before they leave, putting each piece of equipment in a place while being prepared for multiple scenarios. While fishing, these anglers utilize multiple rods and multiple patterns, putting away anything they can whenever they can to best take advantage of bite windows. After fishing, they take care of bait, charge batteries, gas-up everything, and dry out what’s wet.
- The Details – The best ice anglers in the country are constantly changing their recipes, observing and adjusting, executing, then repeating a great number of times. They remember the small stuff such as fishing scissors, pliers/forceps, and headlamps, while bringing extra batteries, hitch pins, replacement auger blades, and gas/oil. They know their sonar extremely well, and know how fish “close” on a bait, understanding the subtle clues that electronics offer in realizing when a fish is ready to commit. They are tinkerers by trade, constantly modifying lure size, weight, vibration or color, while going through various live-bait combinations as well. They also understand what weather patterns are most likely to offer them success in a given scenario. They understand barometric pressure, light levels offered by various cloud conditions, and can present a bait while detecting strikes effectively in high winds or dead-calm conditions.
These eight “secrets” if you will, are all for naught if you can’t apply them to your own ice fishing situations. Identify your strengths and what you enjoy doing. Emulate those that are successful. Specialize to fish what and how you fish best. Evolve through your own experiences, continually modifying your approach. Lastly, push the envelope. Be unapologetic and fearless to do it differently than all the rest, and you’ll be well on your way to mastering your craft, wherever you live, for whatever species you pursue.
Images by Joel Nelson