Dead of Winter's Lifeless Approach

I t’s about this time of year when the ice is at its thickest. To boot, layers of snow have been covering the frozen façade for quite some time. How cold and dark must be…

But this is the very conditions fish of all species have been living in for quite some time now in the Ice Belt region.

Not only are these cold-blooded creatures below the solidified surface having a difficult time swimming because of stiff muscles from living in bone-chilling (literally) temperatures, but they are having a difficult time breathing, as well. The latter is due to the majority of weeds that were once producing life-giving oxygen have died off in the darkened environment. Instead, the decaying vegetation is now producing a noxious gas.

In short: This is not a good time of year to be a fish living in the Midwest.

But even though times are tough for fish that live under the ice, they still go about their business of foraging for food. Just a little slower, that’s all. And if you want to catch these fish in the dead of winter, you must often use tactics that don’t have much action to them.

I like to call it the “lifeless approach”.


In general, it’s not that fish are unwilling to move much this time of year, it’s more they physically can’t. Even if forage is nearby, the laws of living over dying dictate they cannot expend more energy to eat than they will get out of whatever it is they are eating.

Thus I like to move around a lot until I find fish under me rather than wait for them to swim by.

My Lowrance Elite-5 Ice Machine, when coupled with an SD card filled with detailed maps from Navionics, is one of my most important assets on ice. By utilizing the GPS portion of the product, I can drive my quad or snowmobile— Otter ice shanty and gear in tow—directly to areas where I think the best bite will occur. And then I drill holes directly over breaklines and other structures the Navionics mapping has shown is below me.

I drill as many holes as I am able the moment I get to the spot. This way I make all my commotion on the ice all at once. This allows the environment of the lake to settle down before I ever drop a line.

Boring holes is simple when I use my StrikeMaster Lazer Lite power auger. It’s light in weight (the 6-inch model weighing in at only 21 pounds) yet is powerful with its 32cc 1.5-horsepower Solo powerhead. And its twin stainless-steel Mora/Lazer Blades literally do all the work for you when punching holes.

Once all my holes have been made, I’ll walk around and place the transducer of the Elite-5 Ice Machine in each one and watch the screen. And when I spy fish on the screen of the Lowrance, I’ll deploy the camera of my MarCum Underwater Viewing System so I can see firsthand what species they are.

Once I determine the fish are my target species, I’ll immediately set up my Otter XT Pro Resort shelter and drill all the other holes that will be within its insulate walls. And I usually drill three holes for myself: One to jig from, one for my sonar’s transducer and one for one of the lifeless tactics.


Before getting in my shanty to fish, I’ll set up a tip-up or two – the quantity depending on the laws governed by the state I am in. And I make sure to place them where I can see then through the windows of the shanty.

Tip-ups are a great tool of the “lifeless” fishing trade, because of the “set ‘em and forget ‘em” way they are fished. But even though I call them a lifeless technique, I still want to use only the liveliest of live bait when using them. This is why I keep my minnows in a Plano 8-quart foam-lined minnow bucket, and keep them well oxygenated buy using a battery-operated Rapala aerator.

The rig I use the majority of the time when using tip-ups is a tiny Berkley Ball-Bearing Swivel tied to the main line, with a two-foot section of Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon as a leader when fishing for panfish or walleye. To the tip of the leader, I tie on a Daiichi Bleeding Bait (red) treble hook – the size depending on the species. This can may range from size 10 to 8.

If pike are my target species, I’ll beef the fluorocarbon leader up to 30-pound-test to ward off bite offs, and use a larger Daiichi hooks up to size 2, depending on the size of the baitfish I’m using.

Not until all the energetic minnows have been nipped just under their dorsal fins and set off towards bottom will I’ll then get inside my Otter, zip up the doors, open the vents and turn my heater on and get ready to fish.


While I’m jigging a Rapala Jigging Rap, Jigging Shad, Northland Live-Forage Fish-Fry Minnow Spoon or Macho Minnow from one hole, I’ll set a deadstick rig in another.

What is deadsticking, you ask? It’s a “lifeless” tactic much like tip-up fishing. But instead of pulling the line in hand over hand like you do when bringing in a fish on a tip-up, you use a rod and reel with an extremely soft tip. If you don’t have a rod with ultra-limber rod tip, then slip bobbers are a great way to keep minnows up off bottom when deadsticking. Either method allows a fish to grab you offering and swim off without them feeling any tension in the line. Usually, once a line goes taut, the fish will drop the bait.

When you get a hit while deadsticking, it’s best to let the fish swim off with it. Allow the bobber to completely disappear down the hole and under the ice before setting the hook.

As for jigging out of the other hole from within the shanty, I feel the lure often attracts the attention of passing fish, but then they go for the lively minnow hooked up to the “lifeless” deadstick rig. It’s a winning combination that works wonders.


There seems to be a million-and-one tactics for catching fish through the ice. But in the dead of winter it’s sometimes best to use an approach that offers the fish the easiest meal.

As soon as you get to your spot, drill your holes and then settle in. Deploy a tip-up or two and then deadstick from one within the comfort of your shanty. You’ll be surprised at the results when you try a lifeless approach during the dead of winter.

Mark Martin is a touring walleye tournament angler and instructor with the Ice-Fishing Vacation/ School. Check out his website at for more information about Mark, the school and links to all the products listed in this article.