Modern fish finder technology has given anglers a huge advantage when fishing open water or on the ice. Finding fish and understanding the underwater terrain has never been easier.
However, sonar units and ice fishing flashers are expensive. And let’s face it, you may only enjoy braving the cold a couple times a year to chase fish under a sheet of ice. If that’s the case, is it really worth spending the money to buy specialized electronics?
So, can you go ice fishing without electronics and still catch fish? Absolutely! Ice fishing has been around longer than electronics and people have caught plenty of fish without fish finders. All it takes is a good understanding of your fishing location and the species you are targeting.
Now, let’s highlight some key strategies for locating fish without electronics. Whether you plan on getting a fish finder someday or not, understanding a few basic tactics can drastically boost your odds of success.
Where do fish go under the ice
Not surprisingly, fish movement is greatly influenced by water temperature and oxygen levels. As cold-blooded creatures, metabolism and activity level depends on their surroundings.
When ice starts to form, several things begin changing within the underwater ecosystem and anglers who take note of how it affects the fish generally catch more.
Let’s take a quick look at what happens when a lake freezes over.
- Ice forms and prevents oxygen exchange between the water and air. Ice also blocks sunlight and aquatic vegetation stops producing oxygen.
- Oxygen levels slowly decrease as winter progresses.
- Water temperatures drop and water at 39°F sinks to the bottom since its maximum density is at this temperature. Fish tend to relate to the bottom layer of water for this reason.
- Organisms like zooplankton, crawfish and insects enter resting stages to conserve energy.
- Plants with living vegetation still harbor active ecosystems that attract fish.
So, what does all this mean to ice anglers who are not fishing with electronics? It means we can start to predict where fish will be throughout winter. However, each fish species utilizes these changes in differing ways.
Different species, Different places
Panfish, like perch and crappie, will remain shallow and close to active vegetation during early ice. They take advantage of the last boon in easy forage that aquatic vegetation hosts. Minnows, mayfly larvae and crawfish are still abundant.
As the temperatures cool and reach the 39°F mark, perch move out toward deep flats in schools to cruise for prey. Crappie tend to suspend over deeper water where the temperature and oxygen levels suit them. Although, you will often find perch and crappie schooling together.
During the ice melt, panfish tend to move shallow again to begin their pre-spawn feeding frenzy.
Walleye, arguably, are one of the most popular species targeted by ice fishermen and they also have predictable habits throughout the winter season.
They also prefer where the water is a relatively warm 39°F. In an effort to conserve energy for the long winter, walleye may move very little from underwater structures and a localized forage base where they cruise to feed.
Mid-winter walleye are usually found roaming flats, rock spines and reefs in the 20 to 50 foot depths.
As late winter arrives, pre-spawn is on their mind and they move to inlet waters to stage and feed. Walleye on late winter ice are quite aggressive and make for an exciting day.
Trout are another story all together. Well adapted to cold water, trout tend to move freely throughout the water column. They actively feed and develop diurnal feeding habits.
Early and late in the day, trout stalk the shallows in search of invertebrates and other food sources. As light levels increase, trout tend to remain suspended over structure, near points and near natural travel corridors like gravel beds or channels.
Tactics for locating fish without electronics
Learn the underwater terrain
Now that we’ve covered how fish move around, all you need to do is match up the patterns with your fishing location.
Ice fishing without electronics means having good knowledge of your area’s underwater terrain.
Underwater topography maps of popular lakes and large rivers are often available for free. Try locating one with as much detail in the contours as possible. A good place to look for lake maps is your state’s fish and game department.
There are plenty of other free online resources for lake maps as well. It may take a bit of searching but getting a hold of one means you can start finding likely spots where fish will hang out. Points, underwater humps, flats and reefs are all great spots to look for.
Use structure to your advantage
Unlike finding general areas to fish using a contour map, finding the right structure requires some detective work. A fair amount of guessing is needed too, but once you find structure that supports fish, you can come back and repeatedly have success.
You can look to the shoreline to see hints of what it looks like beneath the water.
If the shoreline near you has large trees with some that have fallen into the water, then there is a good chance wood debris is protruding farther out.
Rocky shorelines often extend into the water until they meet muddy flats. This hard to soft transition is a good starting place.
Also, the underwater reefs and humps you find on the map are magnets for fish and usually have some hard rock or transition points nearby.
Since you can’t see what the bottom is made of, one way to feel it is with a heavy lead weight on some fishing line. When you drill your hole in the ice, lower a 4 or 5 oz weight to the bottom and gently tap it. You should be able to feel the difference between hard and soft bottom. This will also tell you the depth.
Drill plenty of test holes to locate fish
Even after learning the contours and structure it takes a bit of trial and error to find pockets of fish. They tend to hold in tighter schools during the winter. You could be fishing 20 feet in the wrong direction and never know they’re nearby.
Electronics, like a flasher or portable fish finder, do help find fish but it is still possible without them. It just requires a bit more time and effort.
That is why I drill several holes once I pick my spot. To start, drill shallow and move deeper. Drill the holes 10 to 20 feet apart and fish each one for about 15 minutes. No bites? Simply move to the next hole.
It’s all about covering more water until you find interested fish. Where you catch one, there will be more.
Use more than one rod or tip-up
When you have several test holes drilled, the most efficient way to prospect for fish without electronic is with more than one rod or tip-up.
Depending on the regulations in your area, you may be able to have 2 or 3 separate rods and tip-ups deployed.
Most experienced ice anglers fish one hole with their active jigging rod and have a couple tip-ups or deadstick rods rigged with bait in nearby holes.
Not only is this a great way to locate fish in a bigger areas, it also shows you what bait works best. Switching all your setups to the best bait is easy once you discover what they like.
Benefits of using electronics when ice fishing
No amount of technology and electronics can replace the basics of learning a lake and understanding fish behavior. Plenty of novice ice anglers purchase expensive flashers, underwater cameras and sonar units only to still go home empty handed.
While you can’t ignore the fundamentals, ice fishing electronics do have an important role in improving your odds of success. Let’s go over a quick list of reasons why you may want to invest in ice fishing electronics.
- Provide information on depth, structure, contours and temperature.
- See when fish swim below you and what depths they hold.
- You can learn how fish respond to your bait to entice more bites.
Just remember, electronics won’t improve the skills of a bad angler but they will make a good angler more successful.
There are lots of options for incorporating electronics into your fishing tactics so definitely check out our guide to converting a regular fish finder for ice fishing.
For those of you ready to buy an electronic fish finder specific for ice fishing, you won’t want to miss our in-depth discussion of flashers vs. fish finders.
Anyone can go onto the ice without fancy electronics and still catch fish. With patience and practice you will learn the best spots and familiarize yourself with the patterns fish follow throughout the season.
There is no substitute for developing the basic skills of finding likely spots where fish hold. Hopefully, with the right knowledge, you can start to catch more fish this winter without electronics.