EARLY ICE GILLS
By: Kyle Sorensen
When the first layer of skim ice hits the local bays and ponds, I know it’s almost here. The first hole I get to rip by hand lets me know I have been slacking off the last few months as the muscles in my arms begin to burn. The burn is a good burn as I know I’m finally back out on the hard water.
When the calendar pages turn to December, I begin to organize each compartment in my pocket tackle box, clean out the shanty, re-spool the rods, and fix anything I broke from last winter that I knew I was going to fix over the summer. Of course, no matter how much I plan, I am always forgetting something. The funny thing is, it’s usually the auger.
When I prepare for the first adventure, I have a lot on my mind. Will all of my new investments perform as advertised? Will that first gill be iced off of my favorite transition area, aka – the honey hole? Will my shipment of wax worms and spikes last me until I am able to hit the big water? So many important concerns that need to be addressed as soon as possible. As these important areas of concern run through my mind, I finally end up telling myself, “Just get out there and fish.” Of course, it’s just my excitement but you have got to remember, I looked forward to early ice all summer long.
As I eluded to, the bays and ponds begin to crust over first. When we think of these areas, we think of all of the big bull blue gills plugging up the ice hole before we hoist them up in true triumphant fashion.
My buddies and I have found the “perfect jig” for our first ice adventures. I truly do not know the name of the jig, but I was given a pile of them some years back without the packaging. We have come to call the jigs, “The Ticklers.”
As you can see in the picture, these are pretty small jigs. I feel the small but crucial part of this jig is the two sections of hair which trail off each side of the jig’s body. We call them ticklers because we are usually buzzing the jigs across the noses of the soon-to-be-iced gills.
As the industry grows, so do the new ideas. A newer innovation, which has been talked about more and more within the last few years, has been tungsten-made jigs. I love to use jigs that are made of this material. It’s heavier for its size and shows up nicely on a flasher if I am able to creep out into deeper water. The added weight for its size allows for a more subtle, yet refined, presentation.
No matter which kind of jig I am using, I usually have it tipped with wax worms or spikes, sometimes the multi-colored ones which are often referred to as euro larvae. When I am using a wax worm, I like to flatten the rear portion of it in order to emit fluids and pieces which can certainly entice a gill.
Over the last few years, there has been a boom in plastics use. Many manufacturers have been creating product lines to accompany this pull. I have sometimes found plastics to be useful in some areas so I always seem to have them along, just in case. If I am on a good bite and the bait doesn’t seem to matter, I like to transition to plastics as they are more durable, and the cost is minimal due to the ability to repeatedly catch multiple fish on the same piece. Other times, trial and error can show that plastics are the only way to induce the hesitant gill to nibble.
The small jigs we tend to use for first ice are intended to mimic small bugs and forage the gills look for. If you are able to match their food with your jig and bait, then presentation methods come into play.
The buzz technique involves holding the rod outright and shaking the rod tip to create a hovering and very fast vibration of the jig. When buzzing, I sometimes like to slowly raise and lower the jig to give it added movement. Other times a tapping technique can produce results. This technique calls for small, constant bounces of the rod tip. I have found that while pistol gripping the rod and tapping on the rod handle with my pointer finger, it allows me to have a more controlled and clean bounce of the jig. With whatever technique I am using, if I mark a fish parallel with my jig or see it on camera, I will usually stop the movement for a second and watch the spring bobber for the tap. If I do not see the tap, I continue on.
When I’m on the hard water, I work hard at drilling many holes. Why do I drill so many holes? Because I am looking for structure and fish location.
During early ice and sometimes other times of the hard water period, underwater cameras can come in very handy. By being able to drop down a camera and take a full 360 degree view around you, you are able to gather a lot of information. When the camera is utilized, I am looking for bottom structure (transition areas between muck and gravel), vegetation (weed line edges or thriving weed beds) and of course with the pan fish genre, the presence of fish. All of these factors can be quickly viewed and accounted for within a ten second splash of a camera.
Transition areas and weed beds that are alive will hold fish. It’s just a matter of when. It is so important to be able to have a set of locations to try first which cuts down the work it takes to move and ultimately put fish on the ice. Let’s face it, some of us are just happy to be out fishing, myself included. However, if you have the locations already identified and marked before you even hit the water, it will allow you to put more fish on the ice and within a shorter amount of time. If you are fishing with kids, the more action the better as we know how quickly they can get impatient (well, us too).
This is where the use of a GPS system is so valuable. If I am able to find a transition area but I am not seeing any fish, I will mark it for future use. If I rip a hole and find an active and abundant weed bed but I am not able to locate any fish, I will mark it for future moves as well. With technology today, we are even able to utilize our cell phones for GPS services which minimizes our costs for this very valuable tool.
The Navionics Boating USA smart phone app provides contour maps from all around the United States with the ability to create and save waypoints. It also has the capability to share waypoints via text, e-mail, or if you want to use other’s spots, you can publicly share it through their public share feature. This is only if you don’t mind giving out your secret spots… The current cost for this app on the iPhone platform is $9.99.
So, let me sum this up. Plan for your trip. Have a good variety of jigs and bait to use. Fishing the Lake Winnebago System waters, I can speak firmly that even if the fish are on a certain jig/bait combination one day, the next day could be a completely different story. Find locations of interest such as the thriving weed beds and transition areas, and mark them for future trips (or for later in the day). The last area is to remember first ice is almost here.
As soon as December rolls around, the talk will start of ice conditions and many will begin to venture out on their maiden voyages. Never listen to someone else’s ice report as it could vary quite differently from location to location, or on early ice, day to day. Take the extra time to bring and utilize a spud and check the ice for yourself. It’s almost here boys and girls. With the summer being so cool and the forecasts of another harsh winter, we are sure going to have some fun on the hard water.
Until next time, Tight Lines. Stay Dry.