With ice fishing season right around the corner, hardwater warriors across the Ice Belt are gearing up for the season ahead.
Organizing gear and stocking up on tackle are critical concerns, but veteran guide Bernie Keefe reminds us that pre-season scouting is another great way to pave the way to first-ice success.
“It’s a lot easier to find fish-holding cover and structure now than after freeze-up,” he says. “With a little effort, you can put together milk runs of high-percentage hotspots that will produce red-hot fishing at first ice.”
Based in the high country paradise of Granby, Colorado, Keefe guides year-round for a variety of prized salmonids including lake trout, kokanee salmon, rainbows, browns, cutthroats and cuttbows. Yet his pre-season scouting system has merit for a variety of other species, from bluegills to walleyes.
Much of his reconnaissance takes place afloat, as Keefe cruises slowly over potential areas in his trusty Crestliner, using sonar and GPS to find prime lies and save their location for future return.
“Weedbeds are hot zones for trout,” he says. “Rainbows and browns will be there feeding on minnows, scuds and crayfish. Big lakers and northern pike patrol the weeds to pick off the ’bows and browns.”
To keep his lines in front of as many fish as possible, Keefe focuses on inside and outside weed edges, along with points, cups and open pockets created by bottom content changes.
To find such sweet spots, he uses the side-viewing powers of his Lowrance HDS-12 sonar-chartplotter. “Setting StructureScan to sweep objects up to 60 feet to the side of the boat gives me a nice cross-section of the water column, plus plenty of detail to zero in on the kinds of things that concentrate trout in and around vegetation,” he explains.
When he spots an area he wants to revisit in the winter, he throws down a waypoint. “With the HDS system, it’s as easy as touching the sonar display with my finger to save the location,” he says.
To help him make sense of all the points on his plotter, Keefe systematically labels each with a symbol or name that helps him recall why he marked the area in the first place. There’s no right or wrong naming system, he says, as long as you’re consistent.
Because water levels fluctuate on the mountain lakes he fishes, Keefe also works the depth at full pool into the name. “It’s extremely important to have this baseline depth information, so I know if the lake is 30 feet low, the top of a 10-foot hump marked at full pool will be high and dry,” he explains. “Unless you’re after flying fish, such a spot will be useless until the lake refills.”
Properly identified, waypoints can serve as guideposts for years of ice fishing forays. “I never delete them,” he says. “Just because a spot isn’t hot one year doesn’t mean it won’t catch fire next season when conditions are different. I’ve had areas come to life after five or 10 years, so they’re definitely worth hanging onto for future reference.”
He also uses StructureScan’s DownScan Imaging to search beneath the boat for boulders, humps, transitions from hard to soft bottom, and other finds that can spell the difference between a slow day on the ice and something to write home about.
It’s worth noting that Keefe recommends using the mapping option of your choice. “You can use the chartplotter’s basemap, commercial cartography or create your own custom map with programs like Navico’s Insight Genesis,” he says.
Visual cues and knowledge of seasonal fish behavior also factor into pre-game strategizing. “With any of the fall spawners, it pays to keep an eye on the spawning grounds,” he says. “For example, lake trout spawn in November before ice-up. Once the lakers move out, rainbow trout move in to feed on their eggs, often providing great fishing the first few weeks of the ice season. Some of my biggest bows of the year come off these lake trout beds.”
Likewise, kokanee salmon spawning areas often attract super-sized lake trout and pike. “During the late fall, watch for salmon splashing on the surface along shore, and make a mental note of the location or mark it on a paper map or your GPS plotter,” he says.
“After the spawn, some of the older, spawned-out salmon often survive into early ice,” he continues, explaining that the “swimming dead” draw predators in droves.
Finally, he notes there’s nothing as surefire as finding fish on sonar a day or two before freeze-up. “As long as the food and habitat are hospitable, they’re not going anywhere,” he grins. “In fact, they tend to get comfortable, which makes them more vulnerable to anglers.”
If all of this pre-season scouting sounds like work, Keefe assures us it’s well worth the effort. “Planning your first-ice attack on open water eliminates the need to run around punching holes looking for fish once it’s game time,” he says. “And trust me, you’d rather be reeling in fish than scratching your head, wondering where to drill the next hole once the clock starts ticking.
For more information or to book a trip with Keefe, visit: fishingwithbernie.com or call (970) 531-2318.