The middle of February is the time when fish begin to move a bit under the ice. The days are getting longer, meaning more light under the ice. Fish begin to move and think about food. Some lakes produce fish all winter, but in most of the Interior lakes, fishing is very slow through the shorter days of winter. Lakes with winter spawning whitefish and a viable lake trout population may get lively for several weeks in late December. But, realistically, most folks fish stocked lakes and are dealing with hatchery raised fish.
Hatchery rainbows move and feed throughout the winter. If you drop a camera down in 15 or 20 feet of water you may find one coming to your bait. Fish will be moving slowly and may mouth it, then spit it out and swim off. Without a camera you would never know they are in the area. December hatchery lakers are similar; they move and act like they might bite, but rarely bite hard enough to feel.
I own an underwater camera set-up that is used for prospecting. I do not use it for fishing ... seems like cheating. A decent portable ice fishing house is also a plus (which is also cheating, though I claim an age exemption and use them anyway). A fish house should have a portable heater. Propane is the most portable and efficient. Below zero fishing requires something a bit better than the Little Buddy heaters. It is best to go with a sunflower-head type of heat source that screws directly on to the propane bottle. Sunflower-head heaters emit a ton of heat. The drawback is that you can burn your coat quite easily if you don’t pay attention.
Paying attention is the main challenge for winter fishermen. Summer fishing is easy by comparison. The fisherman goes to the fish during summer months. Ice fishing requires the fish to come to you. Patience. Location, location, location! Unfamiliar lakes require experience and time to learn. Or luck. Remember; “luck and superstition always prevails over science and skill.” This from an old fisherman.
[With thousands of miles of wilderness, there’s space for everyone to do their own thing, together or in solitude]
Look for points that jut out from the shore line. The rule of thumb is to go three quarters of the way along the point of land and drill your first hole 20 steps off the bank. Work your auger holes 10 feet apart straight out from where you started until you find a break. If you are fishing for rainbows or lake trout, start in 18-20 feet. Hatchery fish like eggs. Have both yellow and red eggs available. Cluster eggs work well also. Some folks like shrimp. Shrimp have the drawback of being worth more than the fish you might catch (or not). PowerBait is always pushed in the stores and shops. My success on PowerBait has been minimal, which means I’ve never had a bite on it.
The latest and greatest addition to winter fishing is the electric drill mounted ice auger. They are wonderful in two feet of ice. The standard with these drill augers is a 4-inch hole. They are fast and efficient. Carry an extra battery or two. Hatchery lakes rarely have fish over 20 inches. The majority of your catch will be in the 8- to 12-inch range. One can tell stories of fish that wouldn’t fit up the hole.
There was a hardcore fisherman who used to live and fish on Paxson Lake. This was back in the day when you could use bait and set lines. Big Ed used set lines made from #18 hanging twine wrapped around a two-by-two. Ed caught some big fish. His best story was about a lake trout that broke one of his two-bys in half — over an eight-inch hole.
Personally I am a fan of an 8- or 10-inch gas-powered auger. A larger hole allows one to see down the hole. Bigger fish won’t cut the line as easily on a big hole. This past week, my daughter and I prospected some Delta-area lakes. We found landlocked silvers in 6 to 10 feet of water. We cut holes 2 feet square so there was good visibility. We caught fish readily, though we never felt a fish bite until we struck. The silvers were taking the bait so softly one couldn’t feel them hit. When the egg moved it was time to strike. The 2-foot hole gave us visibility. None of the fish we kept had anything in their stomachs.
The fish are beginning to move and thus ice fishing will show continual improvement over the next couple of months. The time to get ready is now. Buy one of those short poles made especially for fishing through the ice. Hatchery fish are going to bite pale eggs, red eggs or cluster eggs. A silver jig, a chartreuse spoon or a florescent spoon will attract the ones that have an aversion to eggs. Extras might be a couple of lead head jigs; white and chartreuse. If you really like to fish, consider a gas-powered contraption. They don’t run out of power unless you forget gasoline. A good one will last forever. My auger is older than my wife. I won’t say how old either is ... luck be with you.