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Holiday Adventure Report

A few weeks ago I blogged about celebrating my New Year of fishing by being on the ice by mid-December, Happy New Year!  I also warned you at that time that I would be “out” a lot over the coming weeks with the holiday season and with my Dad’s health.  Well, those few weeks are past and it is time to show a few pictures and let you know that our Nebraska Ice-Fishing season is in full swing.  “It is the most wonderful time of the year”!

We spent some time at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, a fabulous place by the way, but got Dad home to our place before Christmas.  Mom and Dad stayed with us through Christmas then.  The kids and I managed to slip out on the ice a couple of times.  For those of you “softy” bass anglers who refuse to ice fish and kid yourselves by believing that largemouth bass are warm-water fish that do nothing but sit on the bottom during the winter, well, sorry.  Largemouth bass ARE warm-water fish, but they are far from inactive during the winter.  In fact so far this ice season, we have caught more largemouths than any other species.

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I dried off a few of those bass too, kicked one nice crappie back in the hole after taking a picture of it.

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We got Mom and Dad back home the day after Christmas and then spent some time over the New Year’s holiday out there with them and with my wife’s family.  Yes, we had lots of feasting, watching of football games (way to go HUSKERS!!!!!), family time, and one game night that got a little out of hand (I prefer not to talk about that, and I categorically DENY any pictures that might show up on the internet), but you know I spent some time on the ice while I was out there too.

Soon after we got “out west”, this was on the front page of the newspaper. . . .

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Now that is my kind of place, someplace where ice conditions are front page news!

My son, one of my nephews and I hit an interstate lake one afternoon.

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Caught a bunch more largemouths there.

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Another bass hits the ice.

We dried off some bluegills too, and at dark my nephew scored on one really nice black crappie.

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Now, I have caught dozens of Nebraska redear sunfish from open water on interstate lakes.  We have ice-fished many of those same interstate lakes a lot over the years and never caught a redear sunfish through the ice.  I have some theories about that that I am still working my way through, but let me tell you for the first time ever I pulled a redear sunfish through an ice hole.  It was not a big redear, but it was my first!

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Not long afterward my son also caught a redear through the ice.  His was even smaller than mine.  Honestly.

We have caught redears up to 12 inches from open water; will keep trying for some of those bigger fish through the ice!

In my experience the water clarity on most Nebraska interstate lakes is excellent and gets even more clear during the winter.  The ice bite can be very tough on those ultra-clear waters especially during the middle of a sunny day.  We always do better on those waters on cloudy days, do better if there is some snow cover on the ice, oh, and the last hour or so of daylight is PRIME TIME.  We typically down-size to lighter lines and finesse tackle to catch those fish.  I go as light as 1- or 2-pound test fluorocarbon, and if you take a close look here and you will have an idea of baits that worked.

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The thin plastic trailers work very well in that ultra-clear water too (e.g. Maki Plastics).  I believe those fish are very much visually-oriented while feeding in clear water and if you keep a small jigging bait tipped with a plastic moving, you can trigger some bites.  During the day, there will be a lot of fish that show up on your depth-finder screen and take a close look at the bait, but are hesitant to eat it–keep ‘em moving, do not let them get too good of a look at your bait, make it look alive.  Then expect that as light intensity fades, the bite will pick up.

Let me say something again about ice safety and ice conditions.  Nebraska is blessed with a lot of pits like the interstate lakes.  All of those pits get their water from groundwater flow and that groundwater flow can make ice conditions on pits a lot different than the ice conditions on other waters.  Even during cold winters there can still be some open water on the west end of Nebraska pits.  The groundwater flows in the same direction as the streams or rivers that flow nearby, and that flow generally enters those pits from the west.  There had been a couple of mild days prior to our fishing the interstate lake, and we found ice thickness to vary from 4 inches, just barely safe, to over 8 inches, plenty of ice.  Along the west and north shoreline the ice was significantly thinner and with some more warm weather was going to be very “iffy”.  Nebraska pits can offer some great ice-fishing but always, ALWAYS, double-check ice conditions even from one side of a pit to the other.

We also got in on a relatively good walleye bite while we were out west.  I believe with the abundance of cold-water stressed baitfish in most Nebraska reservoirs, catching walleyes through the ice can be a real challenge.  The walleyes and other predator fish simply have a lot of “easy pickins” the whole winter, so catching some illusive Nebraska ice walleyes always gets me CRANKED!  Here are a couple of the bigger fish we caught, we had several over 20 inches.

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Gotta tell you about the rod in my teeth in that last picture.  Earlier this winter I described to you our fishing strategy while on the ice, Ice System.  That strategy is based on mobility, “drill baby, drill”, keep moving until active, catchable fish are found.  For that reason I am fishing outside, without an ice shelter most of the time.  Another reason I like being outside the shelter is because I prefer using longer rods.  I will tell you that your open water rods can be used while ice fishing, but short rods are a necessity if you are fishing inside an ice shelter.  I do not use my open water rods for ice fishing, but I prefer my ice rods to be longer than most of those that are on the market.  In my opinion, and I may offend some hard-core ice sticks by saying this, but in my opinion, most of the ice rods on the market are too short and are nothing but toys.  If you get serious about catching fish through the ice, big fish, not just a bunch of little panfish, you need more serious gear.  Why there are nothing but toy rods on the market for ice anglers is a mystery to me.  I am sure that is what sells, but I am telling you that you can do better.

So, I said all of that to say this. . . . Before Christmas, lo and behold my son and I found three, yes, exactly 3, Tony Roach ice-fishing rods in one of Nebraska’s most popular outdoor outfitter stores.  Now, I have never met Tony Roach, but from what I have read about his strategy on the ice, he thinks the same way I do!  In fact he has called it “ice trolling”–drill lots of holes, cover a lot of water, look for active fish, keep moving.  And most of the time he does that outside of an ice shelter and he likes longer rods!!!!!  So when Daniel and I found 3 of Tony Roach’s ice rods on a sporting goods store rack, WE BOUGHT TWO OF THEM!  I had been using an old homemade jigging rod and needed to upgrade–perfect!

So the rod clinched in my teeth that you see above is that brand new rod.  Tony Roach designed those rods specifically for walleye fishing on the ice and I will be darned if my son and I have not caught more walleyes through the ice already this winter than we have in the past several winters combined!

Should have ordered one of those rods a long time ago!

Those rods have standard reels seats and you can screw your favorite reel onto the rod.  I added black electrician’s tape because it is warmer on my hands than gripping the metal of my reel and the rod’s reel seat.  As far as I am concerned, all spinning reels should be attached to spinning rods by electrician’s tape.  K. I. S. S.– Keep It Simple, Stupid!

I ain’t gonna tell you where we caught those walleyes.  I have said before in this age of the internet and cell phones there ain’t no secrets anymore and I have told you enough already that if you have not figured it out yet, you can.  If you need some hints, watch my blog in the coming days, there will be more hints.

I also ain’t gonna tell you what we caught those walleyes on.  Let me just say that we were not finessing them.  If you do your homework, there is plenty of information out there about catching walleyes through the ice.  I read that “stuff” religiously, especially “stuff” from In-Fisherman.  I believe the key to becoming a good angler is not so much going where everyone says to go and doing what everyone says to do.  The key is learning, always learning, always thinking, and then taking those new ideas to the waters you fish and applying them.  If you learn to do that, your experience likely will be different than mine, and we can all learn from it!  If you are reading my blog just to find out “where” and “what on”, you will probably be disappointed.  Hopefully you are not, and my hope is you will learn something, learn a problem-solving process without my giving away all the answers (once again, thanks SAM!).

If you need a clue, those walleyes ATE the baits.  The answer lies within. . . .

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I kept a couple of small, but legal-size walleyes, for my folks.  My son is getting a craving for some fried bluegill fillets so we harvested a half-dozen of those too.  But everything else, including the tasty walleyes, went back down the hole!  If we would have kept everything we legally could have over the past few weeks, well, first of all, I would be tired of cleaning fish, and secondly, I would have a freezer full of fillets–a freezer full of fillets that would freezer-burn and be spoiled.  I believe the freezer-filling days should be a part of history–keep a few for a meal of fresh fish now and then, selectively harvest the species and sizes that can withstand some harvest, turn most of ‘em loose, and especially release the big fish, even big panfish.

Yes, even on ice!

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It has been a great ice season so far; we have caught a lot of fish, lost a couple of big ones–gotta get back after them!

About Daryl Bauer

Daryl is a lifelong resident of Nebraska (except for a couple of years spent going to graduate school in South Dakota). He has been employed as a fisheries biologist for the Nebraska Game and Parks Commission for 25 years, and his current tour of duty is as the fisheries outreach program manager. Daryl loves to share his educational knowledge and is an avid multi-species angler. He holds more than 120 Nebraska Master Angler Awards for 14 different species and holds more than 30 In-Fisherman Master Angler Awards for eight different species. He loves to talk fishing and answer questions about fishing in Nebraska, be sure to check out his blog at outdoornebraska.org.

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