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Few simple tricks can boost ice fishing success |

Few simple tricks can boost ice fishing success

Dave Lefebre of Erie County holds a crappie caught through the ice in northwestern Pennsylvania. He recommends fishing shallow through the ice in man-made impoundments, and deeper in natural lakes.
Ice fishing can be a productive way to get good catches of panfish, like these from F.J. Sayers Lake in Bald Eagle State Park.

Andy Shiels finally traded in his bucket.

For 35 years, he has been ice fishing, always using an upturned 5-gallon bucket as a seat. That was the extent of his on-the-ice creature comforts.

This past December, for Christmas, he got his first ice fishing shelter.

“I told my dad, and he was like, ‘What? You’re turning into a wimp,’ ” said Shiels, the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission’s deputy director for field operations and an avid ice angler, with a laugh.

He’s not so sure about that — there’s something to be said for comfort, after all — but Shiels will admit it doesn’t take a lot of gear or gadgets to catch fish through the ice. That’s one of the beauties of the sport, he said.

“You can make it as simple or as involved as you want it to be,” Shiels said. “But either way it’s a lot of fun, and that’s the bottom line.”

As with all outdoor sports, though, there are some tricks to enjoying consistent success.

For starters, consider the nature of the lake you’re fishing, says Dave Lefebre, the Harbor Creek bass pro who spends his winters ice fishing Western Pennsylvania’s many lakes.

If you’re at a man-made lake, said one in a state park, he recommends fishing shallow, in water 6 to 10 feet deep, around the same coontail and milfoil weedbeds that were productive in summer.

“A lot of times that means fishing bays,” he said. “That’s a really sure bet. If you can find weeds, there’s a good chance fish are there.”

In such situations, he uses tiny baits, jigheads that weigh 164-ounce at most, and sometimes as little as one two-hundreths of an ounce.

In natural lakes like those across northwestern Pennsylvania, he suggests fishing in the lake’s main basin. That can mean fishing 35 to 45 feet deep, using jigs that weigh between 116– and 132-ounce.

At all times, but especially when fishing deep, it pays to fish with tungsten jigheads, Shiels and Lefebre said. Tungsten is denser than lead, so it sinks faster. It’s also more expensive, but you don’t lose many jigs through the ice, Shiels said. And when the fish are really biting, speed is critical.

“If the bite is hot, you want to get your bait right back down the hole as quickly as possible. Seconds can count,” Shiels said. “That’s why tungsten jigs are so good. They’re more efficient.”

It pays to have some electronics, too.

That doesn’t necessarily mean a camera costing more than $500 that can see through the ice, giving a television-like picture of what’s below, the anglers agreed. Shiels uses the same fish finder that’s on his boat in summer; Lefebre uses a Marcum flasher that shows his bait and any fish as lines on a screen.

But both say a similar gadget of some kind is worth an investment.

“The main piece of equipment I don’t skimp on is my flasher,” Lefebre said. “It’s the one essential if you’re not just going out to sit in the same spot on the lake where everyone else is. It can tell you how deep the water is, and you can see fish on it.”

If nothing else, a fish finder will tell you where the lake bottom is, Shiels added. That’s important.

Some species such as trout can be anywhere in the water column, he said. You will catch them near the bottom one day and almost directly under the ice another.

But panfish, the staples of ice angling, often are found as deep as they can get. Getting your bait to within 6 to 12 inches of the lake bottom “is a good place to be,” he said.

Another tool to arm yourself with, which costs even less, is a good barrel swivel, Shiels said. He puts them on all his lines to keep his baits from spinning.

Using a friend’s underwater camera, he noticed panfish in particular would rush up to a spinning bait but wouldn’t touch it until it stopped moving. By comparison, baits that fell without spinning triggered faster, sometimes immediate, strikes.

“You’re killing yourself if you’re not stopping your lures from spinning,” he said.

From there, ice fishing can get as involved as you would like based on the kind of fish you’re after, the way you like to fish and more, Lefebre said. But at its core, it’s a pretty simple, he said.

“It’s like a caveman’s sport, when you really think about it,” he said. “But it’s really fun.”

Bob Frye is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. Reach him at [email protected] or via Twitter @bobfryeoutdoors.

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