By Terry Battisti
Special to BassFan
For those anglers who live in the southern-tier states, ice-out is a foreign concept. Moderate winter temperatures allow year-round fishing in water temperatures that rarely dip below the 50-degree mark.
In the north, though, the scene is much different. Summer transitions into fall and then winter – when the surface of lakes, reservoirs and even rivers freezes solid. About all the serious angler can do is drill holes through the ice in order to placate the desire to catch fish for up to 4 long months.
Late winter brings one of the best times of year, though – ice-out. To a southern angler, ice-out can only mean one thing – bitter cold weather. Whereas, to the serious northern angler, it means something else – free water and a rapid increase in surface temperature. This rapid increase in water temperature also signals the fish to move shallow into the warmest water they've seen in months.
In this installment of BassFan Pro Fishing Tips, FLW Tour pro and Pennsylvania resident Dave Lefebre talks about fishing ice-out – one of his favorite times of the year to be on the water.
Sun and Weeds Dictate Area
“Ice-out offers the most dramatic surface temperature increase you’ll see the entire year,” Lefebre said. “But that isn’t the only thing an angler needs to consider when fishing at this time. Sun angle is also really important. In the southern lakes, the sun is relatively high in what we consider spring. But in the north, it’s still low on the horizon, and this will dictate what area of the lake to fish.
“In nearly all the lakes I fish in the north, the northern side of the lake always has the biggest concentration of fish that are willing to eat. The fish are always where the sun shines most.”
But there’s another variable that plays a major role in Lefebre’s ice-out success.
“Weeds are the second thing that come into play this time of year. I generally start out in the same places that I fished in the fall, the last places that had good weed growth. These areas have the best grass and actually hold bluegill, crappie and perch all winter long. Where you have the bait, the bass will be close by. It’s your typical forage-prey relationship.”
He doesn’t just look for any weeds, though. He’s primarily looking for milfoil and coontail, the latter being the best.
This isn’t just going-down-the-bank type of fishing, though, he added.
“What you’re looking for are flats in 4 to 14 feet of water. Once you locate the flat, then look for the dark and light areas. The dark areas are where the grass is and where they butt up against lighter areas signify a change in the bottom composition.
"You’re not really keying in on one thing because the fish are pretty random this time of year. You just have to search them out day to day."
Tactics and Tackle
Once you’ve located a flat that contains a good weed population, Lefebre suggests two baits – one to find the fish and the second to clean up.
“When I first come into a weedy flat this time of the year, I prefer to throw a blade-type bait like a Jann’s Netcraft VibE,” he said. “This bait allows me to fish the area quickly to find the fish. Then, once I find the fish, I throw out some buoys and change to a Countdown Rapala.”
“The Countdown Rapala is a lost bait, but it’s my favorite bait to throw right after ice-out. I cast the bait out and let it sink into the grass. When it sinks, it kind of has a Senko-like fall, so always pay attention when you go to move it the first time – a lot of the time this is when you get bit.
“If you don’t get bit on the initial fall, pull the bait as if you were fishing a worm. As soon as you feel the lip hit the grass, stop it for a few seconds and then give it a sharp yank to clear the grass. As soon as you feel it wobble, stop it and let it sink back to the bottom. Work the bait like this all the way back to the boat.
“The best flats seem to be in the 6- to 12-foot depth,” he added. “The bait sinks slow and you have to fish it slow, so any deeper than that isn’t good.”
He mainly uses the CD9 version, but sometimes will use the CD7. He also keeps his color selection simple by using only silver/black, gold/black and chartreuse (if the water’s dirty). But he has a little trick he does to the bait to make it more weedless.
“I take off the belly hook completely,” he said. “Then I replace the rear hook with a No. 3 Gamakatsu treble hook and cut off the bottom hook all the way to the bend so it doesn’t hang in the weeds.”
His rod of choice for the Countdown isn’t the typical rod you’d normally throw with a jerkbait.
“I use a 6 1/2-foot medium-heavy casting rod with 14-pound fluorocarbon,” he said. “I’m fishing the bait more like a worm and don’t need the shock-absorbing characteristics of a rod normally used for cranks and jerkbaits. Also, the fluorocarbon line sinks and gives me better contact with the bait."
For the VibE, he uses a little bit different tackle.
“With the VibE, I use a rod like you’d throw a 'Trap on. I also use 30-pound Suffix 832 braid with it. It’s just like fishing a trap in the weeds and the braid helps me rip the bait free from the weeds.”
His color selection for the VibE is the same as for the Countdowns – silver, gold and chartreuse – and he prefers the 3/8- to 1/2-ounce sizes.
“Like I said before, this is a bait that no one throws,” he said. “It’s my favorite way to fish this time of year and I’ve had days when three of us in the boat caught over 200 fish. It’s not just a northern thing either. I’ve caught fish like this at Okeechobee in the winter and any lake that has a lot of grass flats."