When it comes to fishing through the ice, most anglers are content to target the ubiquitous panfish species, which include bluegills, yellow perch, crappies and similar “small” varieties of fish. It’s certainly acceptable to sit on the ice all day in hopes of catching a trophy-sized bass, trout, walleye or other popular game fish, but if you want hot action and plenty of it, downsize to “pan-size” and join in the angling fun!
Humans, even ice-fishermen, have a knack for taking things to the nth degree no matter what the pursuit, and it’s certainly possible to go state-of-the-art with panfish, but that’s not necessary. When the fish are feeding heavily you can catch all the bluegills or perch you want using nothing more than a limber twig, a length of line, a hook and a chunk of bait — live, dead or cut.
The more important consideration is not how you fish but where you drop your line. Set up with high-tech gear in shallow water over a featureless, sandy bottom and you won’t have a flag all day. But, if you are hand-lining in water that’s 10 feet deep or more, has some structure or weeds nearby and some degree of drop or slope to it, the odds are you are going to run out of bait before you can fill your bucket with tomorrow’s filets.
If you are familiar with your target water, look for bluegills in the areas where weeds were most prevalent in summer. These year-round battlers like to stay close to structure of any kind, so don’t overlook rocky bottoms or areas with lots of downed trees, logs and other obstacles.
Yellow perch are just as likely to be found in open water as in weeds, offering anglers more opportunities when weeds or structure are not prevalent. The trick to fishing for perch, of course, is finding them. Sonar gear designed for ice-fishing can make the process much simpler, but there are other ways to find schooling perch. The easiest method is simply to watch what other anglers are doing. On the best perch lakes, there will be clusters of anglers over the most productive holes. They may be sitting on buckets or they may have set up shacks and shelters for the winter. This means the fishing is good in these places, so take advantage of the local knowledge and set up nearby as well. But not too close; it pays to be courteous.
Another way to find perch is to study a topographic map of the lake and select a spot that is 10 to 40 feet deep over a channel, steep dropoff or other sudden elevation change. Set your tip-ups perpendicular to shore in 50-foot increments and set your baits at varying depths. This is considered “prospecting” for perch and can be very effective on unknown, untested waters. When the first fish hits, take note of the depth and set all your tip-ups correspondingly. Tweak the depth setting as necessary throughout the day, but in most cases once you find fish they will remain in that range at least long enough for you to fill your bucket.
Keep in mind that same-sized perch often travel in schools. If you start catching a lot of undersized fish, keep prospecting (different areas or different depths) until you find the size fish you are looking for.
Crappies are notoriously cover-oriented fish, which makes them easier to find in most lakes where brush, natural structure and artificial fish habitat such as Christmas trees, pallets and the like can be found.
Crappies tend to like shallow water with cover close to shore, although if there’s an island or dropoff with suitable brushy cover nearby, they will gather there as well. Crappies seem to school vertically, meaning that the bulk of the fish will be found close to cover, more like a “blob” of crappies than a widespread, horizontal school. This is why it’s possible to fill a 5-gallon pail with crappies while sitting in one spot. When you find one crappie, you’ve found them all!
Other fish, notably pan-sized bass and trout, tend to be loners and are more difficult to locate than the standard panfish species. These fish are most likely to be caught during the prospecting phase, when you have several tip-ups set at varying depths in an effort to find schools of feeding fish. If you are using sonar gear, those big, lone blobs are the bass, trout, or other “I travel alone” species that add spice to an angler’s catch.
Another popular winter species that, unfortunately, receives little press, is the white bass, a larger relative of the white perch. The white bass is common in rivers and “brown” lakes and is often taken incidentally by anglers targeting bluegills, perch or other winter species.
White bass are aggressive fish with great fighting capabilities. They can grow to 6 pounds and more, although most fish will be less than 14 inches. They are excellent eating and should be considered a welcome addition to any angler’s winter catch. Get into a school of white bass and you won’t feel slighted by the lack of other panfish. Where they are common, white bass are the preferred target among year-round panfish enthusiasts.
Here’s a look at some effective baits and lures that will work for all species of winter panfish.
Nothing attracts (and catches) more panfish in winter than live bait. Options run the gamut from small minnows (1- to 2-inch fish are best), mousies, grubs, garden worms or maggots. Most of these may be purchased at bait shops, which typically are not far from the best panfish lakes. Take a few minutes to talk with the shop owner to find out which baits seem to be most productive in recent days. If no pattern has developed, bring some of each and vary your tip-ups until the fish tell you which baits they prefer
Any standard tip-up will do for delivering live baits to cruising schools of panfish. One trick is to spool your tip-up with heavy, braided line, which helps keep your bait from wandering in the water column. Attach about 2 feet of 4-pound-test monofilament to the end of the line and then attach your bait or minnow to a No. 6 or No. 8 fine-wire hook.
Minnows should be lively and checked often to ensure that they are working hard for you because few panfish will be interested in dead, listless baits. The added movement created by checking baits also attracts fish.
Minnows seem to work best when fished just over weeds and other structure where panfish expect to find most of their forage. Keep lively minnows well below the bottom of the ice because they sometimes swim into a crevice and will stay there all day, another good reason to check your baits frequently.
To add flash to maggots, mousies, grubs and other such baits, place a small silver or gold spinner blade over the shank of the hook before you add the bait. Even
the slightest underwater current will impart some movement to the spinner, attracting fish from great distances. When checking the tip-ups, jig the bait for a few seconds before bringing the hook up for inspection. If there are fish nearby, the initial movement will catch their attention and possibly render a strike. And, even if the bait is gone, the jigged spinner could bring fish in to investigate.
Whenever you check your baits, re-bait the hook and get it back down to work as soon as possible. This is especially important when prospecting for fish. Your baits can’t work for you if they are not in the water!
LURES FOR PANFISH
The basic rule when considering lures for panfish is “bright and small.” Most panfish will take any flashy lure they see, and because panfish waters can be brown, murky or sediment-laden, it’s important to use lures the fish can easily see from long distances.
Panfish also have small or paper-thin mouths, so any lure you select should be in the 1/8- to 1/32-ounce size — smaller if you can get them. Generally speaking, the classic “crappie jig” is the best lure for basic panfishing. These tiny leadhead jigs are offered in kits featuring a wide variety of colors and shapes, so “matching the hatch” should be easy.
Where it’s legal to do so, string two, three or more jigs in dropper or spreader rigs and jig slowly and deliberately from top to bottom until you find fish. It’s often possible to make multiple catches on these rigs, so be sure all knots are tight and all lines are fresh — abraded or frayed lines will result in lost fish and/or jigs before the day is over.
Ice flies are all the rage on many waters where panfish are the primary target. Ice flies are similar to flies used for trout or salmon fishing with an added twist — each fly has a heavy brass or gold bead attached, usually at the curve of the hook or soldered to the shank just behind the hook’s eye. At the very least, attach a small split shot to the hook. This adds weight to the fly and keeps it at the end of the line where the angler has the most control over it.
Ice flies should be jigged constantly, which means a small jigging rod is in order. These are essentially miniature spinning or casting rods about 3 feet long with most of the line guides located near the tip of the rod. The anger sits on a bucket or seat near the hole and jigs constantly at various depths until he finds fish. He then marks the line to aid in maintaining the proper depth. Jigging then begins in earnest.
Ice flies may also be used in tandem, in dropper or spreader rigs (only where legal, of course), or ice holes may be cut longer or wider to allow variations in jigging techniques (sweeps, staggers and the like).
Some of the most effective winter panfish lures are called flutter spoons. These are small, thin, flashy spoon-shaped lures that, when jigged a foot or so at a time, flutter back down to the end of the line with a great deal of flash and movement. Color variations abound, but anything with silver, gold, red or chartreuse in the color scheme will not escape notice.
Jigging of any lure type is most effective when you start the lure just under the ice and continue in 3-foot increments to just over the bottom. Repeat as necessary until a school of perch, bluegills or crappies responds, and then mark the line to ensure that you present your offerings at the same depth until the school moves.
A good trick to ensure higher catches is to crimp down the barb on each hook and be certain that each hook is sharp and clean. Dull or dirty hooks usually mean lost fish, and a barb is unnecessary if you keep steady pressure on the fish as you bring it in. Unhooking a fish caught on a barbless hook is quick and efficient — you can have a new bait or lure back into the water and working for you mere seconds after you’ve unhooked the last fish. Panfish schools move fast, so make every second count when the flags start flying!
In general, winter panfish anglers can hit the ice expecting plenty of action from abundant, aggressive fish that travel in large schools in relatively shallow water. Target areas with structure that may include weeds, brush, logs or fallen trees, or look for creek channels, dropoffs or points of land off islands, sand bars, bays and inlets where fish will congregate in large numbers.
The joys of panfishing are many, but fast action and simplicity has kept anglers coming back for decades. Go once and it’s likely you’ll be hooked for life!