Hardwater Wake-Up Call
September 24, 2010
When winter weather slows your ice-fishing action to a crawl, try these panfish tactics to turn up the heat!
Jigging spoons like this Forage Minnow by Northland Fishing Tackle can help prompt bites from sluggish midwinter perch. Photo by Noel Vick.
"To every action there is always an equal and opposite reaction," professes the Third Law of Motion. Quite evidently, Sir Isaac Newton never found himself authenticating classical mechanics while scratching out a meal of panfish in mid-February. Had that been the case, he might not have survived to see the spring of 1689.
We've all been there, lending ample action to a lure with no return on the backside. Where was the reciprocation? You put the ball in motion. The fish put on the brakes.
Fortunately, ice-fishing has scientists too -- guys who are committed to understanding and explaining earthly physics, while simultaneously keeping panfish from disturbing the natural order of things.
Tony Boshold boasts ice-fishing's version of a PhD in Applied Physics. The application component relates to how he applies his findings to figuring out fish -- and sluggish midwinter panfish in particular. He opens the discourse by speaking specifically to lakes on the southern fringe of the Ice Belt -- his home ice.
"Midwinter means different things in different areas," said Boshold, who is one of the central figures in the ice-fishing-based reality television show, "Ice Men." "To me, in northern Illinois, midwinter is February. There are 15 inches of ice on the lakes, maybe a little more or less depending on the year. Some weeds are up, some are down. Panfish will be in them either way."
Now springboard to our other virtual fish physiologist, Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. His definition of midwinter falls within the same time -- February. But in northern Minnesota, the geographic core of the Ice Belt, ice thicknesses will be double, perhaps triple what Boshold encounters. Moreover, "basin bites" are commonplace.
On Boshold's local lakes, like much of the southern tier, basin bites are basically a non-factor. "We don't see that classic deep-water winter migration. Panfish don't generally move out and suspend over deep water. Either there's no deep spot to go or they decide it's safer in the shallow weeds."
So, to Boshold, dead of winter translates into rummaging around in the weeds -- live and dead, green and brown. "Bluegills, crappies and perch will stay in the shallows all winter long, even if that means holding in rotten weeds."
In February, not only are anglers dealing with a period when fish are traditionally less enthusiastic about life, but now they're scattered and drifting about inconspicuously.
In Boshold's world, that's a recipe for reconnaissance: "You need to pick apart the weedbeds. Find lanes. Find holes. Check every side of every clump."
The mentality behind the madness is that Boshold knows fish don't move much in the throes of winter. They're less likely to find him, so he goes to them -- or, perhaps more aptly, he fishes through them.
Boshold employs what he calls "Power Fishing" -- pulling raucous crankbaits at a fast pace over wide swaths of water. During winter's worst, he power fishes through the weeds, not coaxing comatose fish into biting, but rather staying fleet-footed and chasing feeders.
Locating fish begins by dissecting fields of green. A StrikeMaster as his surgical tool, Boshold slices a sampling of holes, three to five steps between each, leaving no stones unturned. Quickly, he lowers a MarCum underwater camera to assess the surroundings.
Fishing fairly fast and with undeniably large offerings, Boshold maneuvers a Northland Fishing Tackle Forage Minnow Spoon up and down the water column. The meaty, minnow-like vertical presentation causes an uproar on its way down. Sometimes, the unaided baitfish profile sparks a sleepy fish to strike. If baiting is in order -- meaning they approach but don't slam the spoon --Boshold sticks a single maggot on each of the three barbs. Perch, crappies and bluegills will fire at the baitfish-inspired lure. The Swedish Pimple is a fine alternative, as is the Little Atom Bug Eye Spoon.
Boshold's prime weedbeds root in 10 feet of water or less. In climes that shallow, panfish can hold about anywhere from top to bottom. Subsequently, Boshold "fishes the entire water column." His approach and jigging sequence are as precise as his hole selection, too.
"It's a rip, flip and nod cadence," Boshold said. "Deadly for triggering panfish."
The rip is a 1 1/2- to 2-foot wicked snap of the rod tip followed by a freefall back to the starting position. From there, he "flips" the bait twice, each motion consuming about 6 inches. Flips are akin to soft rips. The final act is the nod. Rod tip pointed toward the hole at about a 45-degree angle, Boshold gets the lure to "nod" with short but smooth mini-hops. This succession is repeated again and again, each time lowering the originating point 6 inches to a foot until finding fish or the bottom.
Truthfully, as the ice-fishing gods would have it, there are times when shock therapy with a glitzy spoon serves only to frighten fish. In those events, Boshold sets up shop over the biggest grouping of fish -- as spied with his camera -- or the best available cover, like an inside bend or slashing in the weeds.
Finally, only after being defeated by going big, Boshold takes things down a few notches. And he has pet offerings. "When the chips are down, I have two secret weapons. One is the Little Atom Mega Glow jig with a soft plastic Nuggie. The other is Bro's Bloodworm from Northland.
The farther north you travel, the better the odds of encountering basin bites.
Regardless of the lay of the lake, however, Brosdahl, too, makes a living on cooperative fish: "Play to the active crowd first. Stale fish are no fun."
While Boshold searches in the weeds, Brosdahl gets going over the basin, which typically means 25 to 40 feet of water. (Note that the most productive basins often occur just outside heavy shoreline vegetation.) Out there, midwinter generally finds panfish schooled and suspended anywhere from 10 feet down to 10 inches off the bottom.
"There are a few options. First, you can fish down to something they'll actually peck at. That's definitely not my first choice, though. Another option is fishing at dawn and dusk, when there's an increase in activity. You can always catch a few then.
"Or, do what I do, which is upsize and fish hard."
Brosdahl, like Boshold, starts by filling the joint with holes. He drills a grid, zigzagging stretches of holes spaced 10 to 15 feet apart. Out in the open, with no cover to obstruct lines of sight, this is plenty close enough. Humminbird flasher at his side, Brosdahl gets a feel for the depth at which they're suspending. Once established, he also brandishes a Forage Minnow Spoon. Brosdahl covers each treble with a waxworm.
Brosdahl works the spoon a generous 2 feet overhead. He gives it a couple of solid jerks followed by lifeless tumbles. At the end of the second act, the spoon is throbbed in place.
Brosdahl, too, realizes there are days when there isn't a single risk-taker among a horde of panfish. For those times, he switches to a dropper-rig. Using the same spoon, but with its hook removed, Bro figures in a 1-foot span of 3-pound-test P-Line Floroclear. At the line's conclusion, he ties on a Northland Bro Bug with two maggots or half a waxy.
In a dropper-rig, the spoon plays the dual role of attractant and weighting apparatus. In the above example, the Bro Bug and grub acted as the clincher.