As I write, guys have gone out the past couple of days on newly formed “black” ice here in northeast Pennsylvania and northwest New Jersey. We had snow covered ice but a warm spell and rain caused melting but now, with another cold snap, the ice is back. Some ice seasons just don’t satisfy the manic urges of ice anglers who want a winter marked by a continuous hard freeze. Even though we got an early start this year in December, it has certainly been up and down of late. Hope continues as the winter is young.
Many years ago, an older friend and I ice fished two consecutive days on the newly formed “black” ice of a six-acre private pond in Mercer County (we had permission to fish). Bright, sunny skies prevailed, the ice clear as a pane of glass, water underneath pure as if from a well. Our tip-up flags sprang constantly both days. Oddly, it seemed that half the largemouths took the shiner, ran four or five yards and dropped the bait. The third day, we arrived to a transformed environment. Snow had fallen overnight, four inches covered the ice. Clouds remained overhead. Since we could not find our previous holes, we whacked new openings for tip-ups with our splitting bars. Then we waited….. and waited. We fished for hours, but action was limited to just three flags.
This got us thinking and theorizing. We theorized that bass in clear water, under clear ice with lots of sun penetrating through, would strike in reaction and behave more as they would during open water months. If you’ve ever noticed a silver shiner’s scales catching sunlight, you may have felt astonished at the pulse of reflected light. We further theorized that such pulses provoke bass to strike, but that some bass may drop the shiners after the initial strike, not interested in eating.
To us, it made sense. What we have subsequently discovered is that ice fishermen everywhere tend to agree that first ice is the best ice, so we strongly suspect our observation is correct along with our reasoning. As the ice fishing season deepens, ice develops milky-colored surface layers of melted and re-frozen snow. Towards the end in late February or early March, ice can feature water flowing between a thinly frozen surface and a body of thick ice beneath, or present a mess of melting under slushy snow or a few inches of water. These “murky” ice conditions are a far cry from “First ice”- that illusion of “black” ice when seen from a distance. First ice is remarkably clean and simple by comparison. It invites an ice fisherman out to experience this frigid new condition. Likewise, under these conditions, the bass seem to respond with frisky bites.
If you are new to ice fishing, I recommend you find someone with some experience to “show you the ropes”. If you don’t have someone to introduce you, at least consider a guide or fishing somewhere where questions would be welcomed. I have found that observing activity on a lake community such as Lake Hopatcong, will give you a clear indication of whether or not the ice is safe. I was taught that three inches of hard clear ice is safe for foot traffic, although I would never recommend this measure to anyone venturing out for a first time ice fishing experience.
Let me cite some good reasons: 1) Large lakes and reservoirs freeze unevenly. Round Valley Reservoir, for example, froze 18 inches thick by March, 2014, and yet 25% of the water in the reservoir remained open all winter; 2) Other lakes never freeze evenly- coves freeze first, main lake points last as a general rule; 3)
Ponds of a few acres do generally freeze evenly, unless a little cove or two is protected from prevailing wind and freezes first. One could write an entire book on ice conditions if someone ever wanted to go to the trouble of cataloging the dozens of variations found on lakes, reservoirs, ponds and rivers. For this discussion, the rule is clear, hard, safe ice is a must.
My experience has honed in on the following: 1) Fish where there is clear water underneath. 2) Choose a sunny afternoon if you can, and stay out until dusk. Dusk is often the magic hour that offers the potential for a lunker bass as it is the last feeding time of the day. Nevertheless, in my experience, the most direct sun rays possible make for the fastest first-ice fishing, meaning the most flags tripped. 3) Due to the light conditions, shallow lakes and ponds may prove best. A deep lake offers bass the opportunity to escape brilliant light by settling deeper. If you set a shiner 25 feet deep, it will not reflect light as sharply as it will in 10 feet of water or shallower. If you fish Lake Hopatcong, notorious for its main lake points dropping off into 40 feet of water, one of the better places to try is the River Styx shallows or the State Park flats.
I contend the best kept secret for first-ice fishing is ponds. They are certainly less likely to be crowded by virtue of the fact that many ice fishermen are habituated to lakes and reservoirs that draw greater fanfare thinking they too will have the best luck. Shallow ponds freeze to safe thickness before protected coves freeze safely on lakes and reservoirs. Snow may fall before ice is safe on lakes or reservoirs, yet shallow clear ponds usually offer a day or two of catching bass that other bodies of water don’t.
Whether lake, pond or reservoir, you really do need to know the water before it freezes to reduce the random element when setting tip-ups. Bass frequent many of the same sorts of habitat during winter as during the warmer months, although in ponds, for example, you will catch plenty in the deepest water of perhaps 10 feet, even if most get caught hugging shorelines in the summer and fall. Just as when the water is open, any cover in the water should result in you setting a tip-up as close as possible while providing just enough distance so as to avoid getting the shiner entangled. Such over is often situated in relatively shallow water. I recommend setting a tip-up in the deepest water that is still in close proximity to the shallower cover, whether brush, boulders, sunken dock or anything else that might draw forage.
Residual weeds remain remarkably thick during winter and these can attract bass. Not every weedy situation means an outside edge adjacent to deeper water. Sometimes flats also comprise many acres of reduced weed mass with enough tendrils and leafy greens to hold fish. Tip-ups can be spread over a flat, based on your knowledge of that flat or a chart if you have put in the work to have one. Sometimes it just takes a best guess. Once set, check on every tip-up to make sure the shiner doesn’t entangle in the weeds. Occasionally lifting a tip-up to check on it also helps ensure that a shiner remains active- a reflective- on the hook.
A light wire, plain shank size 6 hook is all you need for each tip-up. The light weight isn’t a burden for lively bait to carry. Crimp a medium split-shot about 15 inches ahead of the hook to a three-foot fluorocarbon leader. I recommend using 15-pound test if pickerel are present. Lower the rig to the bottom until the dacron main line goes limp. Turn the dacron back onto the tip-up spool as you lower the spool to the water surface, until the line comes taut with the split-shot directly on bottom and your index finger and thumb holding the line at the surface. Turn seven loops of dacron onto the spool and set the tip-up over the hole. The shiner will swim slightly suspended above bottom. Now the wait begins with a feeling of satisfaction that you have set it well ready to give way to the pure joy when the flag has sprung. Start reeling and Live The Passion!
Bruce Edward Litton first published at 16 in The New Jersey Fisherman, adding numerous articles by the time he was 18. Despite a long hiatus, Litton never lost his passion for fishing. In 2005, armed with deeper knowledge, he began to cover subjects as varied as trout fishing New Jersey streams and wrangling Outer Banks bluefish. Litton’s work was noticed by New Jersey outdoor writers/editors Jim Stabile and Jim Hutchinson, The Fisherman’s managing editor leading Litton’s photography and numerous articles on fishing places, techniques and tackle being published. Litton solid reputation as an outdoor journalist caught the eye of iBass360’s Rob Zorn, a fellow Lawrence High graduate, and Litton was asked to join the team. iBass360 values Bruce’s vast fishing knowledge, his journalistic contributions, and his friendship