By John Martino
I learned something that day I will always remember and it has paid off through the years. It was one of those typical midwinter afternoons. The mercury rested at the bottom of the thermometer and a thick layer of snow blanketed the landscape. Several friends and I decided to enjoy an afternoon of ice fishing.
Although the conversations were fast, the fishing was slow. Between the four of us, we did manage to pull in a few bluegills here and there but nothing like we had hoped for. We all knew the lake held good numbers of fish and our electronics proved they were there. In spite of our best efforts, we could not entice them into taking the tear drop jigs that dangled at the end of our lines. So we did what any respectable hard water angler would do when the “catching” is less than expected – we popped open a Corona.
We had barely taken that first sip when Jeff Ellis said “what the heck are these?” He was now on one knee staring intently into the round hole he had cut earlier into the ice.
Closer inspection revealed dozens of tiny, white, comma like creatures moving in chaotic fashion up and down through the water. “It is some type of zooplankton,” I surmised. “Maybe that’s why the fishing is slow.”
Then it hit me. I grabbed a rod spooled with two-pound test line. After rummaging through the small tackle box, I tied on the tiniest ice fly I had. It was so small in fact, the two pound line barely fit through the lure’s eye.
The bait never made it to the bottom before I felt that unmistakable “thunk” of a hefty bluegill inhaling the fly, which I made even more appealing by tipping with a mousie. After several fish lay flopping on the ice everyone started searching for similar lures in their arsenal of baits.
It was evident the fish were eating zooplankton, the smallest of underwater animals. Not to be confused with Phytoplankton, which are the tiniest of aquatic plants.
Since then I have learned these little creatures go by names like Daphnia and copepods. I remembered learning about these small aquatic creatures in Patty Zeck’s botany and zoology classes at Northwestern High School. Now I wish I had paid more attention back then, maybe it wouldn’t have taken me so long to put this piece of the puzzle together. Slowly it came back. Zooplankton eats phytoplankton and planktivorous fish (like bluegills, crappies and perch) eat zooplankton, especially in winter under a layer of ice when other food is scarce.
Normally residing on the bottom, these tiny animals migrate up and down through the water column, especially during times of changing light like sunrise and sunset. This could be the reason why sometimes the screens on our ice fishing electronics become filled with dancing flickers.
Later that season Ellis purchased an underwater camera. For the first time we actually viewed how fish fed on these diminutive creatures. We inquisitively watched bluegills and crappies move through the screen as they slowly swam through clouds of zooplankton raking them in. They were filtering them much like some types of whales do when gorging on krill (also a type of zooplankton). These panfish would slowly pass through the zooplankton with their mouths barely open sucking them in. It was a totally different style of eating that we many times don’t consider.
When you think about it, humans are no different. We don’t eat a big, greasy double cheeseburger deluxe the same way we sip a fruit smoothie and these fish were doing the same thing. This explained why our initial offerings were ignored until we began using baits barely larger than the print on this page. We were matching the hatch, so to speak.
Because they were filtering food, instead of attacking it like they normally do the bite was extremely light and would have been nearly unnoticeable. A spring bobber attached to the end of the rod to detect the slightest of bites was a necessity.
Is it time to give up your standard presentations for ice fishing? Absolutely not. But do pay attention to what is going on around you, even if that world is contained in the small hole at your feet. If you notice tiny larvae moving throughout the water or notice numbers of fish on your electronics that refuse to bite, try downsizing to a white, brown or black colored fly. I am willing to bet this technique will put fish on the ice when other methods leave you scratching your chin.
John Martino is the Tribune’s outdoors columnist. He may be reached by email at email@example.com.