The very thing your parents accused you of with that worried look on their faces, being lost
in your own little world, becomes one of the great joys of ice fishing. It’s still everybody else’s
world, too, especially when you’re working together to find fish. But once you drill the hole
and flip the walls of the shelter around you and it’s just the steam of your breath, you take
that first good look down into the water and it’s time for tunnel-vision therapy.
Serious modern ice anglers don’t spend much time in one hole, unless they have a hot
bite going. But sometimes, it feels good to slow down and just settle over a scenic location
and watch the underwater world. After all, ice fishing, like all other kinds of fishing, is a sport
of peak moments. Big fish, and memorable outings, come when they come. It can be
random, on nature’s timetable, even in good waters.
Find yourself a clear-water lake with good ice and go there. Bring a portable shelter that can
shut out most of the light. Get over a spot about 8- to 15 feet deep and drill a big hole. Ten
inches is perfect. The view down a 10-inch hole can be amazing.
They call it sight fishing, and it’s fun even when you’re not catching anything. In the old days,
we used to lay down on the ice on our stomachs and block the light using an oversized
hood. It’s much more enjoyable when you’re seated in a shelter that blocks the light for you.
It can be a dark-house (the ultimate) as used for spear-fishing, or any other shelter with dark
walls. I use my Fish Trap, because it sets up in two seconds and does the job.
The fishing is like a puppet show. Take a four- or five-inch plastic minnow-shaped body and
position it ‘sideways’ on a large single hook. (In the water, you want it to lay on its side,
rather than swim upright.) You can use a light jig-head, or embed tiny nails in the body, so
that you end up with just enough weight for the bait to sink slowly on a slack line. Allow it to
flutter downward, perhaps halfway to the bottom. Close the reel and lift sharply, but not too
far, with the rod tip. The minnow body should lurch upward and to the side; then you allow it
to flutter downward again. It should stagger as it goes. Twitch it ever so slightly, in an
unpredictable rhythm, as it drops. When the line is almost tight, pump again and keep that
You want that thing to look like an injured minnow on its last legs. Big fish know the signals
and will come, on their own timetable.
Sight fishing offers the same benefits supposedly derived by people watching expensive fish
swim around in aquariums. They say it reduces stress, lowers blood pressure, improves your
overall mood and other possible good things. All I know is that it’s fun, borderline addicting,
to run the puppet show. If you’re in a good spot, you’ll attract a group of little fish that will
take turns attacking your bait, then swim in formation around it. Keep them around, partially
because it’s good for your blood pressure but primarily because they are helping you call up
big predator fish. Draw them slightly upward if you can.
Enjoy the show. One second the little fish are all around your puppet and then they vanish in
panicked wiggles of their tails and your plastic dying minnow is struggling down there all by
itself. Then there it is, a big dark head gliding in under the hole, followed by pectoral fins the
size of fly swatters. One artful circle, the power of it causing the fake minnow to flow
helplessly upward. That’s all the big fish needs to see. The next thing is this bright white
mouth straight out of shark week, and your blood pressure is back up where it was when you
got to the lake.
Your plastic minnow is there one second and then it’s only the line trailing out of the big fish’s mouth as it swims off and you rear back, pretending you’re the boss. It takes a long
time, but you battle the fish close enough to see the shine under the ice. Slow, wide, head
shakes right there below you, the fish never admitting that you win, and when it comes out of
the water and into the shelter there really isn’t enough room for both of you.
The prospect of the next peak moment will keep you going after this one is over. You can
settle back into the calming effect of watching little fish hang out with your plastic one, and
let yourself go back into your own little world.
Mark Strand has been a writer, photographer and filmmaker since 1977. He has been on the
cutting edge of open-water and ice fishing his entire career, writing extensively about the ice-