By Noel Vick
The heart of the panfish pundit is often bigger than the quarry they seek. These are passionate folks. Thankfully, the perceived size of a hardwater crappie or bluegill is brawnier than an identical specimen taken from softwater. An 8-incher in July looks like a “pounder” in January. It might be due to honest youthful enthusiasm, or perhaps wintertime scope and orientation to the hole in the ice. Whichever, they always seem meatier in the winter.
Then again, to catch a legitimate 1-pound bluegill or 1 1/2-pound crappie – ice or no ice – is a real feat, achieved by few, yet claimed by many. Boasting-sized panfish aren’t untouchable. If the right lake, spot, presentation and peak season align – sprinkled with a little luck – anything is possible.
Luck isn’t something Ice Team’s Dave Genz chooses to rely on, however. Rather, Genz, a hardwater mastermind, steers his own destiny. During early ice, he combines his knowledge of fish behavior with historical fishing data, and slots spots for wintertime conquests. It starts with the lake – for even Genz’s luster is diminished if he’s not standing atop fish. Early on, Genz goes for the small stuff, lesser-sized lakes with shallow basins and/or shallow and weedy bays.
Ice-fishing guide and Clam Corporation pro Brian Brosdahl echoes this sentiment, but underscores the value of hitting lakes “known for producing at first ice, ones with histories, no matter if they’re shallow or deep, clear or cloudy.”
That being said, Brosdahl and Genz agree that weeds hold the combination and password. And, if weeds are ever going to play a role, it’s right now, before snow and ice stifle the sun and brown the greens. You’ll be surprised at the shallowness of a weed bite, too. If there’s a bay sporting vegetation in only 5 or 6 feet of water, Genz and Brosdahl will be there to investigate.
Locations like that are often unfishable during the summer months, says Genz. But at first ice, you might find a choice cocktail of “good weeds” versus “bad weeds.” In an ice-fishing sense, good weeds are varieties like coontail, curlyleaf pondweed and other broadleaf cabbages. Junk weeds, says Genz, are the slimy types that choke your prop and foul your spinnerbaits in the summer.
By autumn, most, if not all, of the junky sorts of weeds perish. And if October and November welcome particularly lukewarm weather, there’s often a re-emergence of good weeds, which is good, and foreshadows a weed-oriented bite for first ice.
Once he’s in a bay, Genz scours for the thickest and healthiest greens, as well as their edges, because defined edges are pre-eminent spots. By day, panfish – both crappies and bluegills – “float,” as Genz says, amidst the heavy stalks. Characteristically, the daytime fish don’t cover much ground, so Genz picks pockets and cuts boatloads of holes with his StrikeMaster auger.
But nearer dawn and dusk, the same fish make way for clearings and edges, and become increasingly active, underscoring the importance of drilling holes on prime edges in advance of anticipated peaks of activity.
This bay action doesn’t last long, though. Soon, maybe just a couple of weeks into the season, oxygen levels wane and water temperatures sink. According to Genz, the optimum subsurface temperature is 39 degrees. He searches for that mark or closest proximity thereof with the Temp-Tech feature on his Aqua-Vu underwater camera. The weeds lose their charm once the bays and shallows drop into the middle and lower 30s.
Now, not every lake is built like a saucer and/or features a bowl-shaped bay. In fact, Genz says that in the upper tier of the ice-fishing belt, there’s more likely a deep-water thing going on. The opposite is true down yonder. In the best of all possible worlds, on lakes with a mixture of deeper basins and vegetated shallows, fish are kicking in both environments simultaneously.
Brosdahl’s mantra is to fish the weeds first, and afterwards the best features nearest the weeds. That might mean a quick break, point, hump or merely a nice hole positioned outside an expanse of vegetation. On such holes, he concentrates on the fastest dip of the upper lip.
This notion also feathers into Brosdahl’s “best hole theory.” For reasons known or perhaps veiled in perpetual secrecy, every lake has a shining star, a hole that outperforms all others, including ones of similar shape, size and depth. To this, Brosdahl says to “hit ‘em all,” even if every single one is half the size of a football field and bottoms at 30 feet. As an aside, don’t always pick the hole with the most anglers around, either.
As indicated, deep bites can occur at any time. At the same moment in time on the same lake you might find restless bluegills in the thicket and crappies flitting overhead a deep-water hump. Point being, don’t typecast lakes too readily, and come outfitted and mentally prepared for fishing the entire water column.
Lakes give us clues to the whereabouts of deep-water bites. While pre-mapping, Genz highlights features like narrows, pronounced shoreline points, basins or holes, and any dramatic slope that comes off vegetation and dumps into a hole.
Narrows or bottlenecks are foremost in his mind. Fish funnels form naturally between two islands, and island and a point, or two opposing points. Genz says the landmasses create natural and beneficial currents – they ferry food around, thereby concentrating fish.
Genz focuses on the sharpest slope, too, where he expects to find a “sticky,” not silted, bottom. The clayish grade likely holds bloodworms – immature midge flies – and possibly mayfly larvae. Down below, at the footing of the slant, sediment looms and aquatic edibles are rarer. Slopes falling off a shoreline point create similar circumstances. Genz gravitates to the point’s sheerest edge and works up and down the structure.
Genz really fancies places where crappies and bluegills mingle. Said cohabitation betters his quantity-of-fish-per-hour statistics, while reducing the peril of daytime doldrums. Aside from truly stained-water situations – where crappies feed at a moderate clip all day – they become “ghosts” by day, activating during the morning and evening hours. “Bluegills fill the middle,” Genz says.
In circumstances where bluegills and crappies mix, Genz says crappies usually suspend just off the break while bluegills nose along the slope for nourishment.
Brosdahl’s suggested targets mirror Genz’s. To those he adds deep nearshore humps. “Deep” is a relative term, too. On lakes that crash to only 20 or 25 feet, a 14- to 18-foot hump would be considered deep, whereas a pushup would need to rise to 30 or 40 feet if surrounded by 60 feet or more.
Besides the concentration factor – panfish tend to huddle during early winter – there’s appetite. Panfish are eager beavers, eating with enthusiasm and consuming ample-sized baits.
Brosdahl unleashes a vertical jigging spoon, namely a 1/16-ounce Lindy Frostee Jigging Spoon. The heavy-for-its-size lure hybridizes the appearance of an aquatic insect and small fish, lending it universal appeal. Normally, Brosdahl loads it up with maggots or wax worms, because foraging crappies and bluegills like both. If, however, crappies rule the roost, Brosdahl switches to a small minnow.
He employs an aggressive jigging course, quivering and hopping the Frostee at marks on his Vexilar. In shallow water, while monitoring the sonar, he drops the lure directly to fish on the screen. When operating in deep water, though, he lowers the bait more slowly and pauses and jiggles above the marks.
As for lure color, time and experimentation have taught Brosdahl that green and chartreuse bode best in clear water, while red and blue do better in discolored water or during low light periods. If he had to select one color for overall performance, Brosdahl would draft Lindy’s Techni-Glo Red.
Not every bluegill or crappie will kill a spoon, though. Brosdahl’s backup rod is armed with a Lindy Fat Boy and waxies or maggots. The small but weighty bait mimics a fry, marks splendidly on the Vexilar and tracks well on an Aqua-Vu underwater camera. For early-winter panfish, the camera’s chief purpose is for downviewing. With the Aqua-Vu’s lens pointed downward, Brosdahl locates it above the lure and watches the action like a perched vulture. Downviewing is especially effective for finding and catching fish in and around vegetation.
This is a good time to be ice-fishing. Go find out for yourself!
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