We’ve all grown very fond of the “Trap Attack” philosophy of aggressive ice fishing, pioneered by ice fishing legend Dave Genz, where you move and stick, stick and move, continually testing new areas and holes using active jigging techniques. The philosophy actively pursues new, untouched schools of walleyes, panfish, and other species, rather than repeatedly working over known areas that have seen a lot of fishing pressure.
Some anglers, however, either have their own wheelhouses—which aren’t quite as mobile as a lightweight portable shack—or rent time in a “permanent” house, perhaps as part of an all-inclusive package from a resort or ice fishing service. If you’re a guest, you rely upon your operator to move the house occasionally to stay on top of active biters. Some do a great job of this; others do not. If they plunk their houses down at early ice and don’t move them until the ice or shelter season ends, you may be fishing in a tough neighborhood where biters are finicky or scarce.
If the mobile, active approach is not an option, patience, persistence and temptation come into play to elicit bites from elusive or reluctant biters. That’s where finesse rises to the forefront. And descends below your hole.
Instead of using an aggressive jigging spoon or lure, opt for a simple leadhead jig, hooking a live minnow lightly through the tail. Drop it to the bottom, occasionally jig it, but let it sit still a good part of the time, dangling inches above the basin. During pauses, the minnow will attempt to swim away from your jig, struggling and sending out vibrations that intrigue nearby predators to move in and investigate.
Naturally, a simple slip bobber, split shot and hook rig is also in order, allowing you to dangle a tail-hooked minnow just off bottom. It’s the opposite of an aggressive method. Occasionally lift the minnow a foot or two and then let it resettle. It attracts attention, wakes up a lazy minnow, and hopefully, garners bites.
Rattle reels installed in fish houses do pretty much the same thing. A bobber rig suspends your bait just off bottom while you play cards, watch satellite TV, or take a snooze. When you get a bite, the line goes out, and the rattle reels clank up a storm, getting your attention or waking you from slumber. Not a bad all-night sleepover tactic. Especially for night biters like eelpout…and walleyes.
Outside your house, a couple of tip ups set with the same baits expand your reach. Peek out the window occasionally to see if a flag has gone up. If so, dash out, lift the tip up out of the hole, grasp the line, and if something’s there, set the hook. If not, check your bait to make sure it’s still present and lively, and reset your trapline.
In a perfect fishing world, you’d use one or more of these baited traps to fish additional lines while you roamed around your fish house, dropping a spoon, Jigging Rap or sinking crankbait down different holes, jigging aggressively for a minute or two, and then moving on to the next. Kind of the best of all worlds, fishing slow and fast at the same time, simultaneously covering water while saturating spots.
In a less than perfect real world, sometimes it’s really cold out there, outside the friendly confines of a toasty warm fishhouse. Sometimes, the party’s in full swing, the group is less than hardcore, it’s nap time, or you just don’t feel like braving the elements for awhile.
You know what? That’s OK. Ice fishing doesn’t always have to be an extreme survival sport, even though the fishing elite makes it seem like you won’t catch anything if you’re not out there fighting polar bears with Bowie Knives over the last fish in the lake. The fact is, most ice fishermen aren’t in it for ego or glory. Most just want a break from the real world, without too much suffering, and a chance to spend time with a few buddies or family, catch a few fish, and perhaps take a few home to eat. Fish that is…not buddies.
Which is just fine and dandy, if that’s your thing. Leave the trailblazing to someone else, and enjoy fishing the way you like. That’s the one unique thing about the sport. You can enjoy it at any level you wish, simple to sophisticated, manic to modest.
Although on the other hand…if you think someone nearby might be catching something bigger and better than you…don’t be afraid to follow their tracks and check ‘em out. Ice anglers tend to be social; stop by for a “visit,” shoot the breeze, politely ask how they’re biting…and then head back to base camp…possibly returning within a polite distance, poking some holes, and testing the waters. After all…the second guy into a new fishing hole often catches just as many fish as the pioneer who blazes the trail. And like most ice anglers, we take comfort huddling in masses, and we’re always willing to share.