A great tool in ice fishing is a flasher, or as some times called locator. Unfortunately we don’t always have this tool because of budgets, leaving it home, or some other reason. Whatever the reason may be, finding fish without a “locator” can be accomplished if a few simple procedures are followed.
One way that some anglers start is by drilling holes in the same areas other holes are found, or reopening some where old bait or bucket/shelter tracks are found. Most of the time this works, but there are those times where there are no holes, or it is better to find an untouched area. In these cases, if possible, the search should start before ice-in, by finding brush piles, points, old creek channels, and drop offs on a depth finder in a boat, and trying to look at places on shore that will be visible landmarks in the winter.
Some structures are partially visible from the surface, or if the ice is clear enough they can be seen through the ice. So, these are the simplest to find during ice season.
Once the general fishing area is found, it is time to drill holes. So that the drilling isn’t scattered everywhere, and making the ice look like Swiss cheese, try using a pattern. First, drill 4 holes in a square, and one in the middle of the square over the area that brush is known to exist. The square can be any size, but if trying to cover smaller areas of a larger structure, move around the area with several such patterns, until a good hole is found. Another pattern to use is a zig-zag of holes back-and-forth about every 3 to 4 feet along a dam, rip-rap shore, point, old creek bed bank, etc.
Fishing the holes quickly, or “hole-hopping”, is a big key to locating fish. Not only is the spot important, but also the depth. To do this, the correct technique and equipment is very important. Several depths must be covered. This necessitates the use of a straight-line method instead of a float. Because it is still important to have a sensitive strike detector try something like Frabill’s fast tip rod, or coil spring and Titanium bobbers. These will show the slightest of strikes, and, in the case of the Titanium bobber, is adjustable.
The next thing to help find fish quickly is using a lure/bait that is known to be a good fish producer. For this I rig 4 rods with Custom Jigs & Spins products from Coralville: Pro Glow Slender Spoon (with or without bait tipping) for quick drop and active fish; Ratfinkee — slower horizontal presentation with bait; Demon — vertical presentation with bait; and Gill Pill — fished like Ratfinkee. Baits primarily used for tipping are wax worms, Crappie Nibbles or Gulp Waxies. Each hole is fished from top to bottom with each rod until strikes are encountered.
The technique I use to work the hole up and down is slightly bobbing the rod tip about 6 inches at a time, pausing between the 6 inch downward or upward movements. After the lure/bait hits the bottom I start upward in the same way. I will also use a lift and fall for areas that have crappie, with the falls being about 1 to 2 feet. If part of the structure is hit, then I fish slowly around the spot (usually slightly above or below it, or outside edges).
If at all possible, use a flasher, such as the Vexilar with multi-colors. My Team Vexilar teammate, Dave Genz hit it right on the head when he said, “I won’t go fishing without my Vexilar.” Using such a unit saves time in locating fish and structure, shows fish activity, teaches how to fish structure, and really does help you become a much better ice angler. However, if that isn’t possible for the previously mentioned reasons, try above mentioned techniques and equipment. Hopefully you will have as much success as I have found.