Tackle trends and tactical tricks to help you ice more fish all winter
In recent years, ice fishing has been transformed from a brutal and often fruitless battle against bitter conditions into a wildly popular winter pastime. Much of the credit goes to improvements in tackle and techniques that have ushered in the dawn of a new and exciting Ice Age.
On the walleye front, Hall of Famer Mike Gofron rides aggressive jigging tactics to banner catches on the Great Lakes and large natural systems across the Ice Belt. "It all starts with the right gear, which makes you a far more efficient angler," he begins.
Indeed, advanced cold-weather apparel eliminates the piscatorial purgatory suffered by previous generations of hardwater warriors, while high-tech sonar and GPS mapping speeds Gofron's search for fish-holding structure such as breaklines that link deep-water resting areas with shallow feeding flats. "Sonar also lets you mark fish and see how they react to different lures and jig strokes," he adds.
Tackle-wise, Gofron relies on a solid fiberglass rod that offers ample backbone with a snappy tip for surgical jigging precision. "My go-to is a 30-inch, medium-power Berkley Cherrywood HD spinning combo, spooled with with 4-pound Berkley FireLine Fused Micro Ice mainline," he says, explaining that the smooth-handling superline is thinner, stronger and more sensitive than standard nylon monofilament.
"Mono has its place, though," he adds. "Four- to 6-pound Berkley Trilene XT is another great mainline." Indeed, it's easy to use, offers shock-absorbing stretch when you're fighting big fish, and slows your lure's fall rate—which can be a factor during tough bites. Other top picks include Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon Ice, which delivers sensitivity and is virtually invisible underwater, and ultra-thin, high-performance Berkley NanoFil.
When using FireLine, Gofron recommends adding a 24- to 36-inch leader of 6-pound mono or fluorocarbon, for reduced visibility and added abrasion resistance. He links the two lines with a small yet sturdy swivel. "Make sure your leader is long enough so it clears the ice when you're reeling in a fish," he notes. "That way, the swivel lets you know the fish is close to the hole, without getting caught on the ice at the moment of truth."
Gofron packs a variety of 1½- to 3-inch-long jigging spoons, and experiments with profiles, flutters and other variables until he finds the hot pattern for the day. Berkley Gulp! trailers often assist by adding color, allowing Gofron to really fine tune his presentation. Sharp lifts and animated twitches call curious walleyes from a distance, while more subtle strokes seal the deal once fish appear on sonar. Once in range the Gulp! scent cloud increases the strike zone and results in more fish.
Potent Panfish Patterns
Panfish are also popular wintertime targets, and ice fishing expert Steve Pennaz blends high-tech tackle with cutting edge tactics to ply deep water for jumbo yellow perch and slab crappies other anglers miss. "Depths of 30 to 45 feet hold plenty of fish, but a special approach is key to catching the most fish possible," he begins.
After zeroing in on a fish-holding area such as a food-rich, main-lake basin, Pennaz deploys small jigging spoons tipped with tantalizing softbaits such as Berkley Gulp!, Gulp! Alive! & PowerBait Fish Fry, Maggots, Minnow Heads and Waxies. Such baits are lethal on panfish, but Pennaz notes that other tackle considerations are also critical to success. "When fishing deep water, I'm a huge fan of Berkley NanoFil superline," he says. "It comes off the spool smoothly and doesn't kink or coil, which would kill your ability to feel the lure working and tell when a fish takes the bait."
Pennaz favors 4-pound NanoFil mainline with a 24-inch leader of 2-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon Ice. He uses a uni-to-uni knot to attach the leader, except for the rare cases when line twist is a factor, in which cases a small swivel gets the nod.
Jig strokes are tailored to the mood of the fish, while Pennaz's end game hinges on a major departure from hook-setting norms. "People miss a lot of bites because they don't realize how fast a fish can suck in and blow out a bait," he says. "I watch fish move up to the bait on sonar, and when the signals converge, I slowly raise the rod a few inches." If he feels any additional weight, Pennaz continues lifting to firmly yet gently drive the hook home. "A stiff rod like Berkley's 28-inch Lightning Rod Ice is key to this process because of the feel and control it provides," he notes.
So successful is the lift-and-test method of hooksetting that Pennaz often outfishes fish-house partners using standard setting strategies by a three- or four-to-one margin. "I'm not getting more bites, I'm just converting more of them into catches," he says.
Winter Trout Made Easy
Thanks to their love of cold water, trout are active beneath the ice and offer great opportunities throughout winter. Few anglers know the drill like veteran guide and noted salmonid stalker Eric Hataaja, who targets Great Lakes harbors for giant brown trout and hard-fighting steelhead.
Despite his quarry's immense proportions, he relies on slender jigging spoons and a variety of jigheads in the 1/16- to ¼-ounce class. Like Gofron and Pennaz, he tips with Berkley softbaits. "Two- to 4-inch Gulp! Minnows are deadly on round- and darter-head jigs," he says. "Swim the bait up and down in the water column, waiting for cruising trout to home in on it." Strokes range from subtle pulses to more animated pops, interspersed with plenty of strike-triggering pauses.
"Trout fight extremely hard, so make sure your reel's drag is set properly," he warns. "It's nothing for a big brown to peel off 75 yards of line in a matter of seconds." For such extreme duty, Hataaja likes the power and performance of 4- to 6-pound superlines such as Berkley NanoFil and FireLine Micro Ice, along with a number of the company's fluoros and nylon monos.
Hataaja advises trout seekers to have patience after setting up over a promising hotspot. "Trout are swimmers," he laughs. "They move around a lot. So it's often far better to wait for them to come to you than to run around looking for them." Prime lies include areas offering fish-funneling features such as marina corners, though he notes that given his quarry's highly mobile demeanor, just about anywhere in a harbor with depths of eight to 15 feet is fair game for trout.
Whether you tackle trout, panfish, walleyes or all of the above, following these veteran ice anglers' tactics can help you enjoy icy good action all winter long.