Contrary to popular lore, smallmouth and largemouth bass do bite under the ice. In fact, I’ve caught some of my biggest bass that way! But we have to adjust our tactics in response to the wintery conditions. The fish congregate on the bottom and are lethargic and slow. They only eat a small fraction of what they would normally eat in the summer. But here’s the thing: they do need to feed and can therefore be caught. Below are some ways to catch more bass under the ice.
(1) Fish deep: A proven early-winter tactic on small bodies of water with depths less than about 40 ft is to fish over the deepest part of the pond or lake. The bass will school in those areas because the water is – relatively speaking – the warmest down there. The reason is that water at around 39°F is densest and therefore sinks to the bottom, whereas the colder – but less dense water – water remains on top.
(2) Bass don’t move much: A school of bass under the ice will stay put in the same general area for long periods in the winter. Hence, if bass are caught in one area, chances are that they will be there (or close-by) the next time around. It is a good strategy to icefish a spot that produced bass in the recent past.
(3) Put the baitfish right off the bottom: Place a live minnow no more than 2-3 ft off the bottom. The sluggish bass sit on the bottom and don’t want to spend any effort chasing their next meal. The best approach is to put the food right in front of their noses!
(4) Set the hook fast: A bass under the ice will not swim far after catching its meal. Instead, the fish drops back down to the bottom and plays with its food (naughty, naughty)! So, run to a flag as fast as possible to set the hook. The bass has already spit out the bait if the spool does not turn when you reach the tip-up. You now have three options: (a) reset the flag without bringing up the line and hope that the bait is still attached to the hook and swimming; (b) remove the tip-up and jig the hole; or (c) bring up the line, re-bait, and place the minnow 4-5 ft of the bottom. This last tactic buys a few extra seconds to reach a flag in time to set the hook if the bass decides to feed again.
(5) Get on the ice early: This advice is true for all ice fishing: get on the ice at the crack-o-dawn because fish in the winter feed early in the morning and then become lock-jawed until later in the afternoon. The best chances of hooking bass are within two or three hours after sun rise. Catch rates drop quickly after that.
(6) Jig slooowly: Don’t forget to jig the bottom for winter bass, but do it slooowly. Again, the fish are sluggish and don’t want to chase a fast-moving lure. Use a “tube bait” or a small airplane jig or Swedish pimple and slowly twitch it up and down a foot or two above the bottom. Don’t be shy to bump the lure on the bottom and let it sit there for a few seconds. The bite is always subtle: the bass will gulp in the lure and just sit there, which feels like “weight” at the other end. Quickly set the hook.
(7) Move tip-ups: This strategy is very important with winter bass. Move non-productive tip-ups and place them around an active “honey hole”. That hole is producing flags because it sits above a school of bass! Drill new holes within 15 ft of the honey hole and move tip-ups accordingly. Then drill more holes 15 ft farther out and jig them. Pay attention to flags and jig bites. Do they occur mostly over here or over there? These signals tell you how the school below is oriented. Keep jigging and moving tip-ups until the bite gets consistent.
(8) Find drop-offs in late winter: Know thy lake in late winter. Starting in early- to mid-March, bass schools congregate at the bottom of drop-offs that lead to spawning beds further up in the shallows. I use this pattern, which is consistent from year to year, to plan my late-winter bass trips. Set tip-ups over the drop off in 20-40 ft of water. Place your bait 2-3 ft off the bottom and watch for flags. They will signal where the bass school is located. Move your tip-ups as explained in the previous paragraph and have a glorious late-winter day on the ice catching lots of large, fat, pre-spawn bass!
(9) Mix it up: Don’t be afraid to think outside of the box if the tactics described above don’t work, because bass can and do have a mind of their own for reasons only they know… I’ve caught bass in 3 ft of water while ice fishing for brook trout along a rocky shore line, or 5 ft under the ice in 30 ft of water while targeting splake or brown trout. The bottom line is to stay flexible and try something else or unusual if the regular approach doesn’t yield the expected results. Remember that the prize goes to the bold!
Good luck on the ice.
Was the information in this blog useful? I invite you to share your thoughts and opinions by posting a comment. Also, feel free to tell us about your bass ice fishing experiences.
I love this website you have created, almost everything written on here i have proven myself. Bass hit early, and are usually found in deeper waters. What size bait do you use though? I usually use 2-3 inch shiners. Also, if you don’t know where the deep spots are located on a pond\lake what signs do you look for to place your tip-ups on that lake? I have heard that you should look for weeds but what are your thoughts?
Hi there, thanks for your feed back. You provide the right range of bait size to catch winter bass through the ice: 2-3 inches, with the larger bait fish reserved for largemouth bass. As far as finding the deep spots, the only reliable way to do that is to obtain a depth map for the body of water you want to fish. You should definitely book mark this website (www.maine.gov/ifw/fishing/lakesurvey_maps/index.htm) if you fish in Maine. It provides hundreds of depth maps for ponds and lakes throughout the state. These maps can really help you find the right areas to tarhet. By the way, if you haven’t done so yet, feel free to sign up on my blog to be automatically notified when I publish new fishing stories in the future. Best of luck. Stan
My dad is thinking about buying an ice tent in order to go ice fishing this winter, and he is looking to find some tips on how to be successful in this activity. It is good to know that it is good to get on the ice early. I did not know that the best chances of hooking bass are within two or three hours after the sun rise. I will be sure to share this article with my dad, thanks.
Glad to hear that you and your dad are thinking about getting into ice fishing. It’s a blast! Check out this blog (http://amazingfishametric.com/13-ways-to-catch-more-brook-trout-ice-fishing) on how to target brook trout through the ice. My website is also full of ideas of where to ice fish for trout. Best of luck.
My grandfather taught me the trick of clipping the tail of a bait fish 50 years ago while icefishing; have followed his advice ever since. He sometimes even cut his bait ever so slightly with a single blade razor – to show blood.
Thanks for all your tips. I will certainly use some of them this year. I fish only fresh water for largemouth bass. Thanks again.