Sight-Fishing for Winter Panfish

Everyone knows about sight-fishing in the spring and summer, but it's also possible through a layer of ice. Here's how.

By Calvin Christopher

Sight-fishing is an ancient art. For a long time, stream-casters have eyed profiles in pools and then placed flies within slurping distance. From the bow of his bass boat, an angler can see spawning largemouths in the shallows. In a johnboat, anglers watch for telltale spawning craters of bluegills.

Ice-anglers sight-fish too but in a less observable fashion. A jigger and sight-fisherman can fish side by side, but unless you scrutinize and appreciate the individual techniques, you would swear they were mirroring one another. Winter sight-fishing isn't overt, but instead inconspicuous, refined and best of all, learnable.

The act, in its simplest form, involves gazing down a hole and surveying the underwater world. Fish come and fish go. Some enter the viewing area fast and hit the bait. Others inspect your offering.

In the natural world, it's about seeing but not being seen. The same is true for the sight-angler. Tom Roberts, an ace sight-fisherman and Ice Team power stick, appreciates the need for stealth, too. Roberts sight-fishes up a storm, but is careful not to make a scene, permitting his quarry - bluegills and crappies - to identify his position. He treads quietly and doesn't bore as big of holes as you might think. Roberts cuts with whatever size auger is handy, be it 6, 8 or 10 inches. Contrary to conventional thinking - which says to maximize diameter for best viewing - Roberts downsizes. He's says a large window works two ways.

Roberts neutralizes "up-viewing" by leaving some slush in the hole, blurring the portal. With the end of his rod, he clears a 1- to 2-inch diameter opening to fish through. That's it. That's his only line of sight. But, as Roberts says, it's worth sacrificing some peripheral view to know that he's not spooking fish. Big fish are the most easily offended, too.

If electronics aren't part of your winter arsenal, you could be missing out on big crappies, bluegills and perch. Photo by Noel Vick

Now, before delving deeper into the nuances of sight-fishing, it's wise to discuss the "when." As a norm, Roberts considers visual means when jigging in less than 5 feet of water. He will, however, sight-fish in water as deep as 12 feet if clarity permits.

Clarity is the key. Obviously, you can't operate visually in boggy or murky conditions. Besides, the darker the water, the less likely weeds survived into winter. And generally speaking, sight-fishing is a weed thing. Without vegetation, panfish can't survive in the shallows. Weeds - green weeds, specifically - provide crucial oxygen, protective cover and are a leafy refrigerator full of panfish food. On lakes featuring dark to stained water, the bulk of the vegetation withers and dies in late fall or early winter. Subsequently, the panfish move to deeper basins, flats and breaks where they feed on zooplankton, baitfish and invertebrates.

So when the water is clear and sight-fishing possible, Roberts hunts for the most succulent vegetation around. Thick is good, too, especially if it's cabbage with distinct edges or pockets.

With a sprinkling of holes to choose from, he pulls over the top of his Fish Trap to retard sunlight and exploit the glow from below. Note, too, that Roberts doesn't get crazy drilling holes, either. The blast of an auger and the crunch of boots sends fish packing. It's wiser to drill as necessary in such tranquil conditions.

Crystalline lines of sight also influence what a fish accepts or rejects, so Roberts is equally as thoughtful about his presentation. He, for instance, endeavors to keep the jig from spiraling. Fish don't like spinning, he says. He keeps the lure in line by employing a continuous but delicate stroke with 1/4-inch motions. Clear water isn't the place for aggressive jigging. He works it up and down the brief water column, too. And when a fish enters the screen, Roberts continues the soft motion, not speeding up or slowing down. A change in action can turn the fish off.

Roberts spends as much time jigging near the surface as he does the bottom, too. He asserts that heftier panfish maneuver in the upper half of the water column.

A low-profile presentation must be coupled with the right bait. Roberts threads a single wax worm on the jig. He pinches off its tail and inserts the hook to where the point is buried near the grub's head. Waxies are better than maggots for this application, too. A maggot's casing can't be manipulated as well.

As for line, he fishes with 2-pound-test Berkley Micro Ice. It's thin, camouflaging gray and quite strong for its weight. Roberts spools the line on a lightweight Slater Pole Reel and arms himself with a custom-made 9-inch rod by Thorne Brothers. The pygmy-length pole allows him to hunker over the hole while jigging in a comfortable position.

That's Roberts' manner of sight-fishing. There are, however, other ways to go about it. Glen Martin, another Ice Team power stick, combines the genius of sight-fishing with a technique called tightlining. He, like Roberts, works with a short rod and gawks down the hole. But rather than relying entirely on the aquarium show, Martin also watches his line, putting the pins to anything that makes the high-visibility gold monofilament go twitch or ping. For him, tightlining is a failsafe or backup to effective sight-fishing.

The tiny slush-opening, tightlining and no-spin tactics are advanced sight-fishing practices. You don't need to get that technical to enjoy the sport, however. In fact, I suggest drilling three holes and chiseling the group together into a giant viewfinder. Not too big, though, so a person could pass through. You might scare a few fish with the commotion, but on the flipside, you'll see more fish, more of their environment and learn a lot about fish behavior.

Sight-fishing is proven, but what about in deep or stained water? Dave Genz, Ice Team's spiritual leader, has developed a technique called "down-viewing," where he uses the lens of an Aqua-Vu underwater viewing camera as his sight-fishing eyes. He lowers the lens, which is pitched vertically with a special clamp, to whatever depth is required to watch his lure and associated fish.

By using the camera in this style, Genz eliminates the backaches associated with sight-fishing. The lens does the work. As well, he doesn't need a big hole, can sight-fish at any depth and can fish from the seat of his Fish Trap with the lid flipped back so he can soak up the rays.

The trick to using the camera is understanding the field of view, which is one-to-one. Lower the lens to the bottom, then raise it a foot and you're looking at

a one-foot diameter panorama. Three-feet high equals three-feet wide, and so on.

Genz is remains a disciple of the flasher, too. The Vexilar, with its wider radial scan, reveals incoming fish as well as those camped outside the camera's eye.

Another upside of down-viewing is what Genz calls, "selective harvest." He's able to pull the bait away from smaller fish and feed it to desirable suitors.

Like Roberts, Genz hates to see a lure spinning. Previously, even with a flasher in play, you weren't able to establish if the bait was stationary or not. With an Aqua-Vu, however, Genz can verify that his pounding-style of jigging has prevented spinning. He, through practice, can even direct the offering and swim it toward partisan panfish. He even aims the hook at the fish's mouth, improving hookset percentage. Normally, without hesitation, fish go for the lure's harmless head.

Down-viewing, or deep sight-fishing, offers additional insights into the panfish world. Genz has noticed that aggressive, feeding fish maintain different posture - erect dorsal fin - than their uninspired brethren. He's also observed that by upsizing the lure you can trigger larger and previously uninterested fish.

It needs to be said, too, that sight-fishing isn't relegated to crappies, bluegills and perch. Walleyes, northern pike and trout can be seen and targeted as they cruise through shallow feeding zones.

Sight-fishing is an ancient art, but a timeless one, and today's tools only add greater clarity.

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