Ice Fishing Backwaters and Sloughs

Hard Water Spots

Throughout our Midwest river systems are many backwaters and sloughs where an angler can experience some of the finest ice-fishing of their lives. From small, pothole-slough areas, to expansive running sloughs, the choice of locations is almost endless. Not only are these areas great open-water fisheries, but they also are fantastic spots to drill some holes in the ice. Many species winter over in these types of locations, which can make for some fast and furious ice angling.

But, before heading into these areas, here are a few things you should know to help make your ice-fishing adventure more successful. Not all backwaters and sloughs are created equal. Let me explain.

Make it back from backwaters: ice fishing safety

Before talking about fishing, let’s talk about why you need to be extra cautious and always thoroughly check the ice conditions. Keep in mind that river ice is much different from lake ice. On rivers, even the slightest current running under the ice can affect its strength. Current, no matter how slow-running under the ice it is, tends to eat away and erode the ice from underneath, which can make things dangerous in a hurry. The bad part is that, this eroding can take place quickly. In fact, I have been on river backwaters in sloughs where the ice was fine in the morning, but iffy by afternoon.

Conditions can change rapidly on river systems. Because of this, it’s always advisable to wear your PFD when heading out into these areas where ice can change fast. Remember, what may look like good, solid ice from the shoreline can become deadly quickly if you’re not paying attention to the rivers ever-changing conditions. Okay, I’ve told you about the possible drawbacks of fishing these river backwaters and the safety concerns. Now, let’s talk about the good things.

Cold is your biggest enemy when ice-fishing. Dress for success. 

Multispecies mecca

Just as in open water, many different fish live in backwaters under the ice, too. Many of these sloughs offer great crappie and bluegill fishing. You can also catch some real trophy fish, like beautiful walleyes and brute northern pike. It seems that most anglers, here in the Midwest, love to concentrate on catching panfish more than any other species. Still, set out a tip-up or two for some of those huge northerns that cruise the backwater areas searching for an easy meal. Use something like a frozen smelt on your tip-up, and you might catch a real trophy. Pike have had a great, widespread comeback the past few years and are available more than many anglers realize.

Promising points for panfish

You can really have a ball catching these tasty crappies and bluegills. Look for them in the deepest water available in the area you plan on fishing. Small ice jigs tipped with a minnow for the crappies or a juicy larvae-type bait for the bluegills usually result in some fast action. One bonus to this backwater fishing is that, while you fish for those pan fish, don’t be surprised if you suddenly find a decent walleye on the end of your line. Many anglers are not aware that walleyes also winter over in these backwaters. The chance of catching one is fairly good. It’s great to have a walleye or two to complement your catch of tasty panfish.

For those panfish, look for the crappies holding close to sunken timber in the deepest water available. They suspend in the water column, so bring your sonar to locate how deep they’re holding. This way, you know how far to drop your presentation. As far as bait for crappies, a minnow suspended on a flashy ice jig usually triggers strikes. Experiment with action because, most times, the minnow’s action alone is adequate. Also, a plain minnow head on a small gold hook can be deadly at times. Use a slow-jigging action and then let it sit, motionless.

For those big bluegills that call the backwaters and sloughs home, search out the deeper edges of the many weedbeds available. The big bluegills love to hold in these areas. Small larvae-type baits work well when fished off small ice jigs. Bright colors and also glow colors work well under the ice.

Seeing fish

For my ice-fishing adventures in these types of areas, I have been using the Aqua-Vu 760CZ  underwater color camera. The results have been nothing short of fabulous. With its color picture and big 7-inch screen, I can see all the action going on below. If the water is stained, I simply turn on the LCD lighting. That LCD illuminates the area and makes visual contact easy. Once I find the fish, I can even zoom in on them for a close view. Best part is, it’s really neat to watch your lure on camera as a fish approaches and then strikes it. It has helped me determine what kind of action the fish want. For more information on the best underwater cameras available, check out Aquavu.

I’ll tell you folks, ice-fishing on the backwaters and sloughs of our Midwest rivers is truly an experience to be enjoyed. The peacefulness and solitude, along with the great ice-fishing these areas offer, is something all anglers should experience. But beware, once you try it, I guarantee you will be hooked for life.