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Ice Fishing For The New Millennium
By Ted Takasaki and Scott Richardson
Lindy Little Joe Tackle

Time for the New Millennium. What ice-fishing guru, Dave Genz, wants to know is why so many people still use ice fishing tactics that were developed in the Dark Ages? He had that fact driven home to him most recently at an outdoor show last year. There, among the gear offered for sale, were rods actually made from thin tree branches like our grandfathers once used to lower a minnow and a hook through a hole. "Ice fishing today is nothing like what our grandfathers did," said Genz of Minnesota. "And, ice fishing in the 21st century will change even more."

Like Genz, your first breakthrough in the hard-water sport probably came when you discovered you could attach a motorcycle battery to that new-fangled Green Box you had purchased for your boat to locate fish on structure in open water. Finding fish through the ice was no longer hit-or-miss. You could see them and decide whether you should stay or move on. You also knew the exact location of your jig in the water column for the first time. That meant you could target specific fish whether on or off the bottom.

Later, advancements like the Vexilar FL8 came along. The flasher signal changes color as the fish move closer or farther away from the center of the cone. You can see how fish react as you jig. Sonar units that look sideways, like the Bottom Line Buddy, were developed to be taken on ice, too.

Today, the newest innovation is an underwater viewing camera like the one from Nature Vision called Aqua-Vu. An Aqua-Vu can be used in conjunction with a flasher or sonar to eliminate unproductive areas fast. Simply lower it to the bottom of large basins to spy on nomadic schools of walleyes or jumbo perch. The cameras also reveal whether those marks you see on the flasher are truly the fish you seek. They may be actually be rough fish, like suckers, or even boulders or logs. "What we've found is that often they are not walleyes," said Jeff Zernov, president of the Minnesota-based corporation that markets Aqua-Vu.

Perhaps most important is that fishermen see what walleye see for the first time ever. Drill a hole 6 feet away from the one you are fishing through, turn the camera toward you and watch fish come and go. What you learn may surprise you. "We have all been over-jigging," said Zernov, who ice fishes four times each week on average. He's watched neutral and negative fish actually spook and move away from a darting ice jig when the angler on top thought he was only jiggling the bait.

Where to start

Too often, fishermen fail to apply what they've learned while open-water fishing to their time on ice. For one, how many ice fishermen do you see referring to a lake map once they step onto hard water? Not many, we'd guess.

Use your lake map to search out potential spots that might hold walleyes. Early in the season, check shallow places that feature hard bottoms. Try rocky areas near shore where some types of forage fish spawn in the cold water and frogs and other tasty critters lurk. Look for the fastest break to the deepest water in that section of the lake. Use your flasher and/or an underwater camera to look for targets. Later in the winter, move to deeper structure like mid-lake humps, similar to where they can be found in summer patterns. As ice-out nears, check spots near spawning areas.

For panfish like bluegill, look for basins hosting green weeds, which will grow deeper in clearer-water lakes. In small lakes, oxygen may become depleted over the winter, causing fish to slip into a lethargic, inactive mode. Avoid that problem by fishing larger lakes or even the backwaters of rivers, like the Mississippi.

When you talk about changes in ice-fishing over the years, old timers will recall the old spud bars once used to break holes. Today's spiral, motorized augers remove much of the work. Still, don't get carried away when it comes to choice of what size to get. As Genz said, "If I ever get a fish up that can't fit through a 7-inch hole, I am going to buy a bigger auger and spend a lot of time on that spot."

The point is that the bigger the auger, the more ice you must drill through and the more work you must do. The more work, the less mobile you will become over the course of an outing. Don't get carried away drilling holes in one location for the same reason. Drill three or four that you will fish rather than 15 that you won't. Genz fishes every hole he drills.

No fish? Don't stay. The more you move, the more likely you will locate active schools. There's been other advances that make ice fishing more mobile as well as comfortable. Genz's first canvas-covered frame of PVC pipe became the Fish Trap portable ice shanty. The more comfortable you are, the more willing you will be to move when you must.

Forget those tree-branch rods once you find a few fish. The popular misconception is that whippy rods equal sensitive rods. Not so. Genz's new series of ice rods made by Berkley average 30-inches in length and seem relatively stiff at first. But, the solid graphite blank telegraphs even light-biting panfish.

Ice fishing's traditional emphasis on small jigs may work against you. They may not show up on your flasher and their slow drop will keep you out of the fish-catching zone far too long. Genz designed small jigs that "fish big." Genz developed the Pounder and the Fat Boy (both made by System Tackle, a Lindy-Little Joe Company), which have a flat profile that reflects a sonar's signal easily. They are also made a bit heavier so you can stay in contact with the bait.

"Trigger" bites rather than trying to "trick" finicky fish. Genz will often jig aggressively for walleyes in order to prompt reaction strikes from the most active ones. For panfish, he "quivers" the bait to keep the jig moving as through it were swimming. If you let it stand still, line twist may cause the jig to spin, which turns off fish. For exceptionally light-biters, use strike indicators to signal bites, like the Thill Shy Bite series.

A few other things to remember;

-Loose-fitting, layered clothing has given way to breathable materials that keep anglers warm and dry

-Take a friend with you in case you run into trouble. Don't fish alone

-Take your flotation pillow out of your boat and tie several feet of rope to it. It can be a lifesaver if one of your group falls through thin ice.

Don't let cold weather force you to stay inside this New Year. Just get the right equipment, bundle up and ice-fish your way into the future.

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