Strategies for late season ice fishing

Perch are returning to the spawning beds before the ice goes off and catching large numbers makes for a great day. Mark Kiburz of Kib’s Custom Lures brought some new prototype ice-jigs that worked fantastic. (Photo courtesy of Steve George)

This ice fishing season has been a tough one for area anglers. The sporadic weather and thin ice on the bigger lakes has made access tough and, in some cases, dangerous. However, the late February cold snap tightened up the deep-water lakes and made for some outstanding fishing. As this article is released, I’ll be up on Schroon Lake with my son William and friends fishing the weekend long contest up there. Its been a tradition for close to 25 years and an event we look forward to every year. The Schroon Lake Fish & Game Club do an outstanding job at organizing this event.

For me, late season ice fishing includes the months of March and sometimes when the ice persists, April. This is the time of year when the duration of sunlight increases, warm weather makes for long days on a lake bearable, and fish start to think breeding and spawning. These factors all make for some outstanding fishing. Fish that spawn in the spring include: perch, walleye, pike, bullhead, and panfish. As their inherent need to make babies triggers, their behavior changes from survival mode to putting on the feedbag. Feeding increases to make sure they have enough calories and fat to produce eggs and generate offspring. This means the bite is as good as it gets in winter.

Finding areas where these fish spawn is key to catching them. First step is to study mapping of the lake and target areas where weed beds are located. The Navionics Boating App is a great tool to download on your phone as it shows you lake contours and topography. Depths of 25 feet or less in most lakes support weed growth and they are areas where pre-spawn fish will congregate. Since these fish tend to school, and sometimes by age-group, finding the schools requires a bit of leg work and a good auger. Typically, I’ll grid out an area and drill up to 60 holes every 20 to 40 feet apart, great exercise and a way to keep warm in the morning. Step two is to deploy the Vexilar FL-18 Flasher unit to find fish. Once fish are found, I’ll have up to five rods set up with various jigs and lures ready to go with lure combinations that are tried and true. Jigs are tipped with grubs and lowered down to the fish. As a fly fisherman and fly tier, I add hand-tied nymphs; either a pheasant tail, gold-ribbed hares’ ear or similar, 8 to 12 inches above the heavier jig or lure. The heavier lure tied to the terminus of the line allows a fast decent of the line and into the strike zone of the waiting fish. I keep rods equipped with different lures and jigs because if I cannot get a strike with one presentation, I can quickly switch to another while the fish are still in there. Eventually the right combination of lure size, color and jigging cadence, is figured out to prompt a strike. The nymphs tied drop-shot style to the line above the bottom lure give a smaller and more subtle presentation to the fish. Since the fish are not only picking off bait fish, but eating invertebrates off the bottom of the lake and off of vegetation, the nymphs imitate those types of foods. In combination, I find that the larger lure or jig will attract fish in and then they key in on the nymph and strike at that. In many cases, doubles are caught and on ultra-light rods, which makes for an exciting fight.

Another great thing about late ice is, many species are becoming active and moving into shallow spawning areas. During my last outing to a local lake, I caught largemouth bass, bluegill, pumpkinseed, pickerel, and bullhead. Yes, bullhead hit a white Hali jig tipped with grubs. Bullhead are fine eating when caught in the spring and even better when caught under the ice. You never know what you’ll get … that “box of chocolates” thing, I guess. I was accompanied by Mark Kiburz of Kib’s Custom Lures in Schoharie. Mark makes custom lures and ice fishing jigs. We tried out some new prototypes and color combination on some perch and what Mark put together was the ticket. We did not have any problem getting bites on every drop. On that trip we only kept 25 fish that were 12 inches or bigger. To see what is available at Kib’s Custom Lures, check out his Facebook page. The catch and release of smaller fish perpetuates the species and we certainly had enough for a great meal.

If the ice is safe, get out and hit some shallow weed beds for some hot fishing action. In spring, the shoreline of a lake will go out first, so always check the thickness of the ice with a spud bar before venturing out. Keep in mind, on a nice warm day those shorelines will break up which can make getting off the lake tricky. Late season ice fishing can be fantastic for icing large numbers of big fish if you follow a few rules and put the effort into finding the schools of fish.

Late winter is the time to start thinking about hunting season too, particularly duck season. Why? Because it’s the best time to get out and clean out wood duck boxes and put up new ones. Walking on ice covered swampy areas is better than trying to do it when its open water and a boat is needed. Snowshoeing into remote beaver ponds is easy on snowshoes and provides some winter fun. Wood ducks are “cavity nesters” which means they nest inside cavities (hollowed out areas) in trees. Wood ducks prefer trees with cavities that are created naturally by the Pileated woodpecker. By placing wood duck boxes out in and around swamps and ponds, the ducks have additional nesting places to choose from. All of the existing boxes are cleaned out of any old debris, wasp nests, and clean wood shavings are put in the bottom of the box. The boxes are cleaned out and any repairs are made prior to when the ducks return to the boxes to nest. A huge thank you to Jessica George and the Gloversville School District’s Environmental Club for building the wood duck boxes. The kids will be going into the field to put up their boxes they built before the ice goes off and learning about wood ducks and the biology of a beaver swamp.

By Kerry Minor

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