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Catch fish by finding the right depth

Part 1

Editor's note: The story below is the third in a four-part series about a fun activity to do in Utah in the winter — ice fishing! The series explains the benefits of fishing through the ice and provides tips to get beginning anglers started. Experienced anglers should learn something too. Part one: Cold ice, hot fishing, part two: Basic equipment

Putting your bait or lure at the depth the fish are — and then not moving it much — are the keys to catching fish through the ice.

You don't need a lot of fishing equipment to catch fish through the ice

Finding where the fish are — and then not moving your bait or lure much — are the keys to catching bluegill through the ice.

Photo by Ron Stewart, Utah Division of Wildlife Resources

And using some simple devices that will help you know when you have a fish on the end of your line is a big help too.

Drew Cushing, warm water sport fisheries coordinator for the Division of Wildlife Resources, says fish become lethargic when they're under the ice.

"Fish will often stay at a certain water depth all winter long," Cushing says. "Also, they aren't able to move as fast, to catch their food.

"Keep those two things in mind," he says, "and you should find plenty of fish on the end of your line this winter."

You can stay updated on where fishing is best in Utah this winter at wildlife.utah.gov/hotspots.

Two additional websites — utahwildlife.net and bigfishtackle.com — also provide updated information.

Technique

Cushing recommends two techniques that will help you find fish and catch fish after you've found them:

  • The first technique is simple—simply drop your bait or lure to the depth where you think the fish are, and then let it sit. Keep it still. If you've put your lure or bait near a fish, there's a good chance the fish will take it.
  • The second technique is called "lift, drop and hold." To use this technique, drop your bait or lure to the depth where you think the fish are. Then, using only your wrist, slowly lift the bait or lure about six inches, and then let it flutter back down to the starting point. Once the bait or lure reaches the starting point, let it sit for a few seconds, and then lift it again.

    Cushing says a mistake many ice anglers make is lifting their bait or lure too fast and lifting it more than six inches. "Remember that fish that are under the ice aren't willing to expend a lot of energy to catch their food," Cushing says. "If you move your bait or lure too much—or too fast—the fish might decide it's not worth their effort to catch what you're offering them.

    "The best thing to do," he says, "is find the depth where the fish are. Then drop your bait or lure right in front of the fish so it's easy for them to bite it."

Water depth

The depth at which you'll find fish varies depending on the species you're after. No matter which water you're fishing in Utah, you'll probably find the following fish at the following depths:

  • Yellow perch

    Either right on the bottom of the water you're fishing, or no more than six inches above the bottom.

  • Splake

    Close to the bottom.

  • Trout, kokanee salmon

    Suspended at various depths. The depth at which trout and salmon can be found ranges from just under the ice to as much as 15 feet below the ice. "Once you find the depth at which trout or salmon are suspended in a body of water," Cushing says, "there's a good chance you'll find them at that same depth throughout the winter."

  • To catch trout and salmon, Cushing recommends fishing your bait or lure just under the surface. If you don't get a bite, lower your bait or lure a few feet. Try that depth for awhile. If the fish still aren't biting, continue lowering your bait or lure a few feet at a time. If you're using the right bait or lure, and you're still not catching fish, you'll know trout and salmon are not using that part of the lake at that time.

  • Bluegill, largemouth bass, smallmouth bass

    Near brush, bulrushes, rocks and weeds. Look for vegetation that's sticking up through the ice or ridges that extend down into the water. To find the depth where the fish are, start by dropping your bait or lure all the way to the bottom of the water you're fishing. Then raise your bait or lure 6 to 12 inches at a time until you find the fish.

  • Burbot, walleye, tiger muskie, Northern pike

    Near the bottom of the water you're fishing. Each of these fish likes to pick baits or lures up, swim a ways with them, and then drop them. Fishing with the bail on your reel open, or using a device called a tip up, are good ways to let the fish run with your bait or lure before you set the hook.

If you're not sure which depth to try, ask others who are catching fish near you. "Most anglers are very willing to tell you the depth at which they're catching fish," Cushing says.

Cushing also reminds you that fish aren't everywhere in a lake. If you drill a hole and fish for 30 minutes without getting a bite, move to a new spot.

"Once you find a spot that has fish," he says, "keep coming back. More often than not, an ice fishing hotspot will stay hot throughout the winter."

Bobbers

Not only do fish move less under the ice, they also bite less aggressively. And that can make it challenging to know when a fish is striking your bait or lure. "If you're relying on your fishing rod to tell you when a fish is on the end of your line," Cushing says, "you might not know when it's time to set the hook."

Fortunately, inexpensive items such as ice bobbers are available. Simply measure the amount of line that will put your bait or lure at the depth you want to fish. Then attach your bobber at that point on your line. The bobber will sit on top of the water with your line dangling under it.

"When you see the bobber move," Cushing says, "you'll know it's time to raise your fishing rod and set the hook."

Tip ups

An item that will cost you about $15, but that's effective and fun to use, is called a tip up.

A tip up is a device that takes the place of your fishing rod. When a fish takes your bait, a mechanism on the tip up sends a small flag up, letting you know a fish is on the end of your line.

"Using a tip up makes it easier to fish in two holes," Cushing says. "You can drill two holes a ways apart and still know when a fish is biting the line in either hole."

Remember that in addition to your fishing license, you must have a two-pole permit to fish with two poles or two tip ups. Also, your poles or tip ups cannot be more than 100 feet apart. And you must be able to see each pole or tip up clearly.

Videos

More ice fishing basics are available in six videos produced by the DWR.

Part 4

Our final story will list some of the best ice-fishing waters in Utah.

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