By James Lindner
Just a few years ago, ice fishermen predominately pursued walleyes, panfish, and pike – period. Anglers tend to have preferences, of course, and in several states, walleye and pike seasons are closed in late-winter until their postspawn period, leaving sunfish, crappies, and perch to bear the brunt of the late-ice bite.
From when we started In-Fisherman Magazine in the 1970s, we’ve always provided coverage of a variety of fish. So it’s no surprise that our staff has been active in making a major move toward multispecies ice fishing.
It’s high time that we acknowledge some of these species as gamefish—burbot (eelpout or ling), channel catfish, and whitefish in particular. They’re large, strong fighters, and a match for any fish as a meal when prepared well.
Another front in the multispecies movement involves the explorations of imaginative anglers who have figured out how to regularly catch species that have been considered open-water quarry in our part of the world, but mostly ignored by ice anglers—trout and bass most notably. Trout are coldwater species and remain active under ice. But in the Midwest, anglers haven’t capitalized on winter opportunities until recently. Local tactics vary with environments, from natural lakes to ponds to flooded mine pits. And management agencies have opened up seasons to encourage winter fishing and in some regions stocked trout for winter fishing.
Bass have long been considered nearly uncatchable under ice, or at best a random catch. But underwater cameras and side imaging sonar have revealed that largemouths are rather mobile at times, and savvy anglers have learned where and how to catch them. Meanwhile, those electronic technologies have revealed an increasing number of smallmouth bass wintering areas where bass group along deeper structure, riding out winter. They move within these areas, but don’t feed. But their curious and reactive nature causes them to strike small lures and catch rates can be high.
Lake whitefish are an underfished species, primarily targeted by commercial fishermen, that’s now getting its due. I recently flipped channels to find four different programs promoting whitefish on Green Bay in Lake Michigan. Here and on large natural lakes, whitefish can be abundant. Anglers have discovered the fun of fishing for these 2- to 8-pound battlers that are delicious when baked, fried, or smoked.
Aside from the iconic International Eelpout Festival on Leech Lake that’s been as much a free-wheeling mid-winter carnival as legitimate fishing event, eelpout have been ignored or worse. But anglers have found battling burbot are worth nights on the ice in late winter, as well as a culinary feast.
This is great, as it spreads the growing ice fishing pressure onto more species. It also allows anglers to learn the life histories of new species, thereby discovering fishing windows of opportunity and novel techniques to catch them.
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