The calendar says it is early February. Most winters we would be about halfway through our ice-fishing season. This winter has not been like most winters.
Ice in Nebraska this winter has been highly variable. We have had good ice in some areas while others were unsafe, and then the situation flipped. We had a relatively late ice-up no matter where you were, but the one thing that has characterized this winter has been temperature extremes. We have had ice on, ice off, ice on, ice off and then ice on again. Be careful on the ice. Get a spud bar and use it.
With the variable ice conditions, the bite has been all over the place, too. When a water body finally freezes over, conditions stabilize. When there is a later-than-normal freeze-up, water temperatures will be colder than if there had been a cap of ice. Likewise, when there are variable ice conditions — frozen, then open and then frozen again — it can take some time for conditions to stabilize and for fish to settle into more active feeding behavior.
Generally, first ice can produce a good bite in relatively shallow water, and fish tend to move deeper as the winter progresses. But what about this winter? Are we looking at first ice now? Or with open water later into the winter, have the fish already moved deeper? Is it a mid-winter bite, like always?
Every day is different, but experience can give you an idea of where to start. Ultimately, you have to start working through the puzzle of finding fish and getting them to bite.
I recently started on the basin of a small reservoir I fish, expecting fish to be where they were mid-winter last year. Within an hour, I concluded they were not there, so I kept drilling holes and looking for fish. Where I eventually found them was shallow, where I would expect them at first ice.
I believe in big baits when ice fishing for big fish, especially for big predator fish. I have been fishing with bigger baits on ice the last few winters and I do not think I am going back.
Last winter, two of the biggest bluegills I caught all ice season smacked a large jigging bait. With big baits, I am catching more big fish — less fish overall, but definitely better quality. I am still attracting fish, including panfish, to the larger jigging baits. Even if I am not hooking fish, I am finding fish. In the process, I am covering more water and finding more big fish.
Most of those larger fish have been largemouth bass, even though in most cases big panfish have been the target. Maybe those green bass are actually more active under the ice than some anglers believe. Maybe in the past we have not been catching as many bass through the ice because we spent all of our time jigging small panfish presentations.
It looks like we might have solid ice for some time now. I have some more ideas floating around in my head and need more time on the ice to try them out.