My Five Ice Fishing Goals For The 2021 Hard Water Season

In the last week, the upper midwest was hit with its first snowfall of the season, which momentarily blanketed upstate New York, Ohio, Wisconsin, Indiana, and other northern regions with a light dusting of fresh powder. While deer hunters were likely happy with this sudden change in the forecast, motorists like myself were less enthused.

I spent my Saturday driving through snow in all but one of the states mentioned above as I made my way from Maine back to Chicago. Deer were indeed easier to spot, as their tan hides stood out in the snowy white background, however, the driving conditions suffered, which delayed my ETA. 

With so much time on the road, my mind couldn’t help but wander, It was a mix of the apparent things like fuel level, miles completed, and the urgency of our next bathroom break. But I also dove deep into thoughts about fishing techniques, lures, angling lore, and upcoming fishing trips. For me, it’s a seasonal thing too. In the summer, I think about frog fishing for largemouth bass, in the spring I daydream about shallow water crappie, and in the winter – it’s all about ice fishing. 

So, with 17+ hours of driving time between Portland, Maine, and Chicago, Illinois – I thought long and hard about the upcoming ice season. After countless coffees and an array of gas station snacks, I distilled my decisions by putting together a list of 5 realistic fishing goals.

This list may seem hard or even intimidate some while coming off as a “walk in the park” for others at the same time (I’m looking at you northern Minnesota & Canada). For me, an angler who lives in Chicago, this list will require planning, scouting, traveling, and a little bit of luck. But if I combine those things and get after it, I should be able to knock out each item.

1) Put The Hammer Down On Some Slab Crappie

Like the bulk of ice anglers, I target panfish most often through the ice, and more specifically, I’m going dinner plate-sized crappie that are commonly referred to as “slabs”, in my book, anything over 12 inches is big enough for slab status.

In Wisconsin, I chase crappie early in the season as they transition along a specific creek channel that meanders through a shallow protected bay on a small flooded reservoir. Using tungsten jigs tipped with soft plastics or wax worms, I pound my jig off the soft bottom, stirring up muck before subtly raising my offering inch by inch. This particular spot is shallow, and most of the fish I graph come off the bottom, unlike later in the year when I target suspended fish.

Later in the year, I fish main lake points, ledges, or deep basins (the deepest section of a natural lake). I start by drilling a large grid of holes in the area I’m targeting and then walk from spot to hole carrying a Vexilar fishing graph, which allows me to see crappie suspended throughout the water column.

A small mark on the Vexilar indicates fish, and once I noticed a fish, I’ll drop my bait down, which is also detected by the graph on its way down. I let the lure drop until it reaches roughly 1 foot above the fish’s head, and then I slowly lower my jig while subtly twitching the rod tip as my bait descends. This method alerts the crappie and causes them to react to the bait. On a good day, they’ll come up and gobble it right away. But on others, you’ll need to coax them with precise jigging cadences.

2. Take Someone Ice Fishing For The First Time

Ice fishing might seem unapproachable with its specialized equipment, inherent risk, and unique differences that separate it from open water angling. This is why I recommend fishing with experienced anglers for the first time. Doing this reduces the learning curve by pairing you with someone who knows how to operate equipment, locate fish, and explain the subtle rigging and fishing methods it often takes to get a bite. While I’m not saying you can’t get into ice fishing on your own, it’s much easier to start with someone who knows what they’re doing and has all of the gear. If you don’t have any buddies who fish, go online and look for a fishing guide or a local fishing club.

Last year I brought my sister-in-law from southern California on the ice, and she picked things up instantly. This year I have plans to bring a buddy from Houston.

3. Jig Up A Jumbo Walleye

While I’ve caught nice walleye in open water, I’ve never jigged up a jumbo walleye while fishing through the ice. I spend more time chasing panfish with little jigs or setting tip-ups for northern pike, but this season, I have the plans to dedicate a few trips to strictly ice fishing for walleye. 

I have two particular trips in mind that should put me in proximity to trophy-class fish. If everything plays out how I’ve imagined it in my head, I’ll have at least one jumbo walleye flopping topside on the ice before this season is over.

4. Go Ice Camping

Ice camping has become incredibly popular within the YouTube ice fishing community over the last few seasons, and I have to admit, it looks awesome. I’ve winter camped on land and ice fished nearly all night long, but I’ve never actually slept on a frozen lake. This year, I plan to safely camp on a frozen lake in northern Wisconsin and share my experience with the community through Karl’s fishing blog.

5. Catch A New Species Through The Ice (Burbot)

After chatting with Minnesota ice anglers this past summer while attending the Randy Moss Charity fishing tournament, I’m determined to pull up burbot through the ice this season. Because burbot are found in only far northern lakes, mostly in Minnesota and Canada, and I live in Chicago, this accomplishment will require a little travel, but based on the pictures and stories I’ve heard about the prehistoric creatures, it should all be worth it.

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