What You Need To Know To Make The Best Of Lake Erie Ice Fishing

By on October 19, 2015
Travis Hartman uses a FishSens SondeCAM to ice fish on Lake Erie. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Erie Ice

The last two winters have renewed many anglers’ interest in Lake Erie ice fishing after well over a decade of relatively warm winters with inconsistent ice coverage. After two extremely good seasons, it’s clear that Lake Erie ice can produce numbers of walleye with many approaching trophy sizes. While the basics of Lake Erie walleye ice fishing are similar to other fisheries in the upper Midwest, there are differences that make Erie’s western basin unique.

Travel

The single biggest obstacle to consistently catching Erie’s nomadic walleye through the ice is having reliable transportation to get out to the best bite that could be 6 to 10 miles or farther from many of the common access points. There are plenty of options and the “best” option often changes with conditions. Snowmobiles are probably the most universal means throughout the entire ice season, although they can be limiting if you’re trying to haul other people or lots of gear with you. Four wheelers and side-by-side utility vehicles offer advantages when it comes to hauling capacity, but can struggle in big snow drifts. Airboats built for the ice are becoming more common on Lake Erie and are probably the safest option, but can be difficult to control in high winds and are more cumbersome for towing and maneuvering around over filled parking lots at access points. You can always walk out and fish when the bite is nearshore, but often the best nearshore bites are only early or late in the ice season.

Electronics

A series of underwater images shows the action beneath the ice. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

A series of underwater images shows the action beneath the ice. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

It’s certainly possible to head out on Lake Erie’s ice, find “shanty town,” and drill holes to start catching fish without any electronics at all; however, Erie’s walleye are so migratory that yesterday’s hot bite can be dead water and you wouldn’t know it until you’ve wasted valuable time not catching fish. On Lake Erie as much as anywhere, I would argue that you need to know what is below you and there are only two ways to confidently cut down your search time: A good sonar or flasher will help you “mark” fish and a good camera will quickly tell you what’s going on below the ice to confirm what you’ve seen on your electronics. In most cases, you will be fishing mud flats and looking for schools of walleye that are milling around or passing through. Since there isn’t significant structure that they are holding to, you have to find them and then move with them as they move. Personally I drill two extra holes in addition to the holes that I’m fishing in. One is for my Lowrance sonar’s transducer and the other is for my FishSens SondeCam camera. The two make a great combination because the SondeCam connects to the Lowrance and can be displayed right beside the sonar in split-screen mode. Not only can I watch one or both of my lures while I’m fishing, but I can see when fish higher in the water column show up on the sonar so that I can reel up to them in time to have a chance at catching them. It is literally like playing video games as you watch your lures and the fish on both the camera and also the sonar. When paired with a FishSens DVR, you can record all of the camera video for later viewing on a computer or TV. It’s really interesting to watch how fish react under different conditions. Many of the fish hit so quickly that they’re hooked before you have a chance to realize what is going on. Others come in slowly and need to be teased into hitting. One thing I noticed right away was that excessive noise in the shanty definitely spooks interested fish away. They don’t seem to care that the camera is there, as fish that I’ve caught have literally bumped the camera as they swam into hit my lure. I figured out right away that even in 20+ feet of water it pays to keep noise to a minimum. Maybe the most surprising observation is that many fish will hit multiple times on multiple lures if you don’t catch them on the first hit. I’ve had fish hit or chase up to 3 lures in the same shanty before finally being hooked and caught. A few even got lifted a few feet on the first lure that they hit, and then bit again and were caught on the next lure after shaking free from the first lure.

Gear

For rods I use 30” medium heavy spinning rods and size 10 or 20 spinning reels loaded with 15-pound test braided line tipped with about a 3’ feet 12 pound test fluorocarbon leader. It’s best to attach the leader with a ball bearing swivel to reduce line twist. Lures of choice on Erie are many of the various jigging spoons designed for ice fishing such as Swedish Pimples or even simple Hopkins spoons, or jigging lures such as Rapala jigging raps. Most colors will work when fishing is good, but my confidence colors include silver or gold-based baits with blue, green or chartreuse accents. There are days that you won’t need to tip your lures with live emerald shiners, but at times finicky walleye prefer as many as three emerald shiners on one jigging spoon. Play around with different numbers of shiners and different hooking locations to determine what profile and action they want. If you’re keeping walleye to eat, you’ll certainly want a gaff handy when a keeper walleye gets near the hole. Because many of Erie’s walleye are so big, you’ll want at least an 8” auger and I prefer a 10” auger. Nothing is worse than getting a giant walleye near the hole and then struggling to land it because the fish is too big for the hole or the ice is thick enough that you can’t easily get your hands on it because you didn’t bring a gaff.

Some of the gear Travis Hartman uses to ice fish on Lake Erie. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Some of the gear Travis Hartman uses to ice fish on Lake Erie. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

Creature Comforts

I have to admit that I probably wouldn’t do much ice fishing with a good shanty and heater. New designs like the popular “hub” style shanty set up in minutes and easily accommodate 3 to 4 anglers. On even the coldest days it’s possible to set up, fish an area for a short time, and then move on to the next spot if necessary without committing lots of time to setup and tear-down. Throw in a propane bottle-fueled heater and it can be downright comfortable, even though you’re sitting on 12” or more of ice. I like to use a simple padded bucket-top seat so that I can store tackle and tools in the bucket and it doubles as a seat.

Putting It All Together

If you are able to combine the right transportation with the right electronics and gear, and then keep yourself comfortable with a heated shanty, it can all lead to an extremely enjoyable day of Lake Erie ice fishing. When the fish cooperate, you’ll stay busy hooking numbers of fish and a few over 10 or 11 pounds are a common occurrence. It goes without saying that even in the harshest winter, Lake Erie ice deserves extreme caution and conditions can change as quickly as the northern Ohio weather. Compared to smaller protected systems, ice plates can shift exposing large expanses of open water and current under the ice can eat away thick ice to leave areas that are unsafe that might not be visible, especially under snow cover. It goes without saying that you need to contact local anglers, guides or bait shops to fully understand how to make the safest trip out on to dangerous Great Lakes ice. If you aren’t familiar with the area, it makes a lot of sense to go out with a guide or local friends that are familiar with Erie before venturing out on your own.

Top image: Travis Hartman uses a FishSens SondeCAM to ice fish on Lake Erie. (Credit: Travis Hartman)

About Travis Hartman

FishSens pro Travis Hartman is a two-time WBSA Lake Erie Walleye Trail points champion and 2015 Cabela’s MWC World Walleye Championship qualifier. He has 21 top 10 finishes and is also a licensed charter captain.

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