Every year I look forward to ice fishing. Scratch that....I obsess over it. When the first shallow bays and small lakes ice up you will find me gingerly shuffling my feet across ‘safe’ ice with a spud bar in one hand, life jacket on, and spikes around my neck. However, there is a reason why I can be found attempting what many think is nuts. Besides scratching the itch that only an ice hole, a Vexilar and a 28in rod can scratch, early ice is the BEST time to catch fish on the hardwater!
Unfortunately over the last couple of years, warm weather and late winters have forced me farther north to find safe ice. Fortunately I’ve stumbled upon a true gem in Clam Lake; the Clam Lake Lodge. Clam Lake Lodge has everything and the price is right too. If you get enough guys together you can stay for cheaper than you could at a hotel room. That being said I like the atmosphere and history of the place the best. There is something about staying at a lodge built by a Lumber Barron in the 1930's, not to mention the location on Upper Clam Lake which in itself is a great fishing lake. Besides the wonderful accommodations and one of a kind atmosphere, the fishing up in the Clam Lake area is PHENOMENAL!
Located in the middle of the Chequamegon National Forest, the remoteness of the area is amazing. In addition, Clam Lake is also home to the Wisconsin Elk herd and they can be seen almost at any night on the side of the road. This makes the trip almost worth it in itself but lets get back to the main reason why I’m up here...ice fishing.
When it comes to lake selection you won’t have a problem finding whatever size lake you want. There are excellent large fisheries like Namakagon, Round, and the Chippewa Flowage, but also countless smaller lakes that hold bundles of fish. There are lakes with houses and there are wilderness lakes surrounded by National Forest without a house on them. As you can see, the challenge isn’t finding a lake, but rather picking the right one. Luckily, almost every lake up there has a mix of slab Crappie, Walleye, and Northern with some nice Perch thrown in the mix. I personally like to fish the smaller lakes at first ice for a few reasons.
Most import, the smaller lakes usually have ‘safer’ ice on them and I really don’t want to take a polar plunge, life jacket or not! Next, the smaller lakes usually tend to slow down later in winter as oxygen levels get depleted so this is the best time to fish the smaller lakes. Lastly, and especially if your new to the area, you can find the fish on a smaller lake more easily. I like to focus on finding a green weed flat that has access to deeper water. This allows me to fish for Crappie and Perch, while also setting Tip-Ups out for Walleye and Northern which can be caught cruising the weed flats in search of a meal.
Once I find an area that I suspect is holding fishing I'll set out what I call the 'Re-con’ spread. In order to find fish quickly I'll spread my Tip-Ups out at many different depths. Depending on how many people I'm fishing with I'll put a few in shallow, some on the drop off and some at base of the drop. Sometimes, only one depth range gets hit, and if that's the case I’ll move more tip ups to that depth. Other times, especially during early ice, every depth is working and its pandemonium. I’ve even had days during first ice that I’ve pulled my tip ups so I could focus on jigging for Crappie because the tip up action is non-stop!
When I focus on Crappie and Perch I won’t go without my Vexilar. Some say you don’t need a flasher to catch fish, and although true, I would bet that I’ll catch two fish to your one if I'm setup with a flasher and you're not. It doesn’t really matter what brand of flasher you use as long as you know how to use it properly. I have an underwater camera as well, and if I could only pick one, I’d choose my vexilar any day of the week and twice on a Sunday. Simply put if you want to catch Crappie you need a flasher unit.
I’m a firm believer in drilling my way to fish. I'll make Swiss cheese out of the ice looking for those awesome red, orange and yellow lines denoting Crappies suspended off the bottom. During early ice once I find the schools of Crappie it generally doesn’t matter much what bait I use. See, early ice means aggressive fish and that is something we all enjoy. For starters, I may work a jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head moving quickly. Once I find fish I'll often downsize to the unbeatable micro jig and wax worm. Usually, when you drop your jig down you can ‘peel’ the fish off the bottom and this is where your flasher becomes invaluable.
As you see the fish race up to your jig, you'll always want to stop it right above them and slowly work the jig away. Once you’ve caught the first couple of aggressive fish you have two options. Option 1: move to a different hole that you are marking fish in, and catch them. Don't forget about previous hot holes though, often times if you let the hole rest you can come back 10 minutes later and start catching all over again! Its like the fish completely forget about your jig from 10 min ago, and get all jacked up again. Option 2: Target the less aggressive fish. This may be as simple as slowing your jigging motion down, to as complicated as trying every jig and shape and color in your tackle box. For this reason, I usually opt for the first method and hole hop.
At the end of a day on the ice, there is nothing better than heading back to the Clam Lake Lodge with a mess of fish, frying them up and the retiring to the library to relax before going to bed in hopes that tomorrow will be as great as today was.