According to Gerhardt's records, the time of day is very important in ice fishing. "The best time is from first light to about eight or nine o'clock in the morning," he says. "The second-best time is from 3 or 3:30 until dark. Where to fish is important. In most cases, panfish will be in water 10 feet deep or less, except for New York City reservoirs, where huge perch, 16 inches or more, are taken in 60 to 70 feet of water."
When exploring a frozen pond that he does not yet know well, Gerhardt drills a five-to eight-inch-diameter hole 10 to 15 feet offshore, preferably off a point of land. He used to make his holes the traditional way, with an ax or a big hand auger, but nowadays he uses a power auger, not unlike the kind that phone company workmen use to install telephone poles. The machine goes for $250, but it can bore through 24-inch-thick ice in 30 seconds. Gerhardt doesn't fish a hole immediately, but instead works his way along the ice, drilling nine or 10 more holes every 10 yards. "Fish are very sensitive to sound," he says. "When I've finished drilling all the holes, I go back to the first one and start fishing there because the fish near it have had time to calm down."
Gerhardt uses a three-foot graphite jigging rod of his own make and design. The guides are extra large so they don't ice over, and at the tip is a spring "strike indicator." Essentially it is a sensitive metal spring that will flex at the slightest nibble by a fish, which is important because winter panfish, especially crappies and yellow perch, generally have a very soft strike. To make certain that he can see the softest of strikes in dim light, Gerhardt paints the eye on the tip fluorescent orange.
Almost inevitably, the first lure Gerhardt clips on—he uses quick clips so he doesn't have to tie knots in frigid temperatures—is a small ball-head jig with a gold-plated hook and a soft plastic grub. "The gold adds a little flash," Gerhardt says, "and before I add on the grub I put a drop of Krazy Glue behind the head of the jig and push the tail into it. Bluegills have a nasty habit of stripping the tail off, and there's a certain cost in comfort in putting a new tail on in the cold. This way there's no problem. Finally, I add a moussee—the larva of a fly—to the hook point, just for scent. The motion of the jig attracts the fish, but the moussee triggers the biting.
"This whole system has been years in the making. It is based on utility and efficiency in catching fish, even on very cold and windy days. I fish the jig at three levels: first just off the bottom, then 18 inches above the bottom and finally 36 inches above the bottom, or three reel turns. The motion I use with the jig is just a slight jiggle, jiggle, jiggle. I do six jiggles, pause 10 seconds, do six more jiggles and then give the jig a slow lift-up before letting it descend to the bottom again. I let it sit for about 10 seconds and then repeat all the jiggles. I do this about eight or 10 times at each level. After I've gone through one cycle, I'll repeat the whole cycle once, maybe twice. If I catch a fish at the hole, I'll keep fishing there until there are no more bites. Then I'll move to the next hole out from shore. A lot of fishermen make the mistake of drilling just one hole and staying there even if they don't catch fish."
Gerhardt has found that in small ponds, panfish feed in pulses. The fish will feed avidly for five or six days and then stop for 14 to 18 days. Gerhardt keeps years' worth of detailed records on four such ponds, and says, "The fish feed and stop feeding at the same time, almost to the day, year after year." He knows this because he has purposely fished those ponds on days when his records said the fish wouldn't hit, and he was delighted to come up empty. "Ken can catch a lot of fish," says Letts, "but he really is more interested in finding out about fish behavior. He's always probing."
Gerhardt reasons that in a small pond, panfish feed the way they do because of population booms of daphnia and other organisms. Then, after gorging themselves, they spend 14 to 18 days digesting their food because cold water temperatures have slowed their metabolisms.
When Gerhardt's logs tell him that the panfishing will be poor, he often switches technique and goes for trout. "Jigging for trout is a different story," Gerhardt says. "You should be fishing in 30 to 50 feet of water, and you need a rod with a bit more backbone. The lure is a flat silver jig with a treble hook and a half-inch to three-quarter-inch-long piece of minnow tail hooked on one of the prongs. I let the lure down until it hits the bottom, I lower the rod tip to almost the water surface, then I snap the rod up four feet and let the lure flutter down. I do this 10 or 15 times. Then I take in four feet of line and repeat this until I've worked all the way to the top. Trout can be anywhere in that column of water, although 90 percent of the ones I've caught have been within 18 inches of the bottom.. The 14½-pounder that I took in the West Branch was 40 feet down, on the bottom. Just two minutes before I hooked that fish, I had landed a 2½-pound trout."
Gerhardt employs a similar technique when he is fishing for walleye. But instead of a solid jig he prefers a lightweight spoon about two inches long that he will jig just off the bottom in 10 to 20 feet of water. He also has found that painting his spoons fluorescent green or orange is an improvement over their standard metallic finish.
In looking at his fishing objectively, Gerhardt says, "My ice fishing and my deep-jigging for cod are under 95 percent control. Every time I go out it's a learning experience. No one can ever say they know everything about anything, especially fishing. I'm constantly changing. Not everything comes up roses. But I always keep trying to find a better way." Which is hardly good news for the walleyes of Oneida Lake.