In the world of fishing through a hole in the ice, there’re not many options we as anglers have to tempt a passing fish to bite. We add to our potential challenges by having to fish right below our feet and movement of any sort is immediately telegraphed through the ice and to the fish. Add to this the simple fact that the water is hovering around a balmy 1 to 4 degrees C and that fish activity is correspondingly slow, we’ve got our work cut out.
It may seem that the odds are stacked against us, but hey, a fish needs food to live. Even if they eat less in winter than summer, they still do eat and we can get them to bite. Without a doubt, the number one way to catch fish, with one notable exception that I will explain, is with bait on the line.
Bait comes in many forms and there are preferences between fish species so the proverbial worm on the end of the hook isn’t always the best choice. That said; if there was single bait I’d choose for catching trout, it would be the worm. As for pike, I lean heavily towards 5 inch herring or the same sized anchovies. My ticket for hot action with walleye is a tub full of large minnows. That notable exception I spoke of earlier is the lake whitefish. I’ve caught many more whitefish on flies and wireworms without bait than any set up with bait. Every rule’s gotta have an exception.
Exceptions aside, when it comes to live bait I’m convinced that the livelier bait is, the more likely a fish is to bite. That makes attaching the bait properly onto the hook an art in itself. For trout worms, mealworms and maggots I lightly hook them once off the end on a small single hook. This allows the bait to wiggle and twist enticing the fish to strike. I’ll check on the bait periodically and if the wiggle has gone out of the worm or maggot I’ll replace it. Keeping the bait fresh is important and this is especially true during the low light, peak fishing hours.
The advantage of live bait, of course, is the movement which often turns a looker into a biter. So, with that said, how do you make a big frozen minnow look alive for the pike? This is where the windlass tip up comes into play as long as there is even a hint of a breeze. It automatically jigs the bait for you creating the movement that attracts fish. The tip up runs a line from a holding spool, along an arm and through a paddle, and then down the hole into the lake. The paddle is designed to catch the wind causing the rig to lightly bounce up and down on the air currents. This set up is extremely effective and the light jigging motion will turn pike inside out. When he strikes the bait the tip up arm will tilt down towards the lake and as line is pulled from the spool, a flag will spring free signalling “Fish On”!
Walleye, on the other hand, behave a little differently. They tend to be much fussier when it comes to bait. That is, they don’t normally like a lot of movement to their bait, which is good news as it means we can drop an eighth ounce jig tipped with a minnow off a set line, put it a few inches off the bottom and just let it sit there. The walleye will do the rest. I’ve also had good luck slowly jigging that same rig at low light. Local regulations allow two lines when ice fishing which makes for a dynamite combination. I’ll lightly jig with one rod and fish the second rod as a set line.
Good bait, however, will only catch fish if you’re set up in the right spot. In the mornings and evenings, concentrate on shallow areas. During the light of day, however, all game fish seem to move a little deeper. I drill a bunch of holes and try to find the outside edge of the deepest weedbeds or the bottom edge of the first drop off. Both these places are considered corridors that fish use to travel throughout the light hours. Find these spots; drop bait down along these corridors and you should enjoy some great action.