“Two secrets to catching early season panfish are stealth and safety,” ice-fishing guru Brian “Bro” Brosdahl said. “Early in the season your best friend is a spud bar. If you ever go through the ice, it’s an experience that you’ll never forget and never want to repeat. Don’t outwalk your spud bar. Take your time. Check the ice religiously as you go to make sure it’s safe.”
Having a life jacket on when venturing out on first ice is great insurance. “Although inflatable life jackets are very comfortable, they may not be the best for ice fishing,” advised Brosdahl. “When you go through the-ice you’re going to be in a state of shock, panicked, and you may not have the wherewithal to pull the handle to inflate the life jacket or if it’s automatic, it might not deploy right away. Conventional life jackets are not that bulky anymore. Wear it while you’re walking out and once you know the ice is safe, you can take it off. Any life jacket though is better than no life jacket.”
Brosdahl says he tends to err on the side of caution when it comes to ice thickness.
“I really don’t venture out until there’s at least 4 inches of good, clear ice,” he said. “I know there are guys who will go out on less and will be boasting about all the fish they’re catching, but the risks just aren’t worth it.”
The good thing, though, is that early-season panfish are typically shallow — shallow enough that if you do break though you can stand up and not drown.
Ice spikes or ice awls can be life-saving devises should you fall through. All of us are probably saying to ourselves that we could just quickly crawl back out or roll out onto the ice. But when you have a heavy suit on that is soaked with water that is so cold and so unexpected that you can hardly breathe, it’s not that simple.
Frabill’s (frabill.com/apparel/ice-apparel.html) line of ice-fishing jackets come complete with ice-awl holsters and ice awls that are conveniently stored, but readily available should you need them. The jackets also come with Frabill Ice Safety inter label drainage mesh, which allows water to quickly drain from the suit so there’s less weight to deal with when you’re trying to get back on the ice.
Brosdahl advised spreading out when heading out on the ice if you’re fishing with other anglers, both for safety purposes and to prevent spooking fish. Use a long rope to pull your shanty behind you.
“Early ice is just a continuation of the fall bite,” advised Brosdahl. “There’s no wind or wave action to deal with so the water is clearer. The ice is also thin and clear so there’s a lot of light penetration — so the fish can be really spooky.”
Stealth is critically important when targeting first-ice panfish.
“Drill only as many holes as what you think you need to begin your search,” said Brosdahl. “It’s not the sounds of the motor that spooks the fish, but the cutting sound.”
To avoid alerting the fish, Brosdahl advises, use hand augers or electric augers early in the season when fish are shallow and the ice is thin.
“Don’t plunge your auger a half dozen times clear to the bottom to clean the slush out of the hole either,” said Brosdahl. “In fact, you’re better off leaving some slush in the hole and fishing through a little slush to prevent light penetration and casting a shadow over the hole.”
Look for patches of snow to fish on if you can. The snow on the ice will prevent light penetration, cast a shadow that panfish will use for cover, and may indicate still-growing weeds that are giving off oxygen.
“On first ice the fish are going to be right where you left them in the fall,” noted Brosdahl. “Don’t panic if you don’t find the fish right away. They’re still adapting to the stillness and even a little commotion will shut them down. They might even still be tucked into the weeds, but eventually they’ll come out. Many times they are very tightly schooled at this time of year and it can be pretty incredible how many bluegills or crappies can be packed into a small weedbed. It just requires a little patience. Panfish love vegetation because there are bugs in the weeds. Bloodworms eat the decaying weeds and they attract schools of perch.”
First ice is the one time when you’re likely to find perch in the extreme shallows.
“A good place to start for perch is around shoreline connected points,” said Brosdahl. “Shiners in the fall migrate into these shallow coves and the perch are right behind them. Perch don’t mind open areas and are used to cruising flats. Later in the year they’ll roam flats that have chara on the bottom because crayfish, mayflies and bloodworms take up residence there. Big schools of perch will sometimes shadow schools of suckers as they root along the bottom and kick up goodies.”
One thing to keep in mind is that bluegills and sunfish are bug eaters for the most part; crappies and perch tend to prefer to eat minnows, although that’s not always the case.
“In shallow water, you don’t want or need heavy tungsten jigs,” advised Brosdahl. “Insects don’t go crashing to the bottom. So you want to use a lighter, flashy jig that sinks slowly. Start at the top just under the ice and work your way down. This is especially true if you’re in the weeds. Work on developing a jigging cadence. Most people jig too much. You just want to quiver or jiggle your bait. Use real subtle movements to start with and then get more aggressive if that doesn’t work.
“Bluegills seem to have a definite affinity for green, orange, even black and purple sometimes. I really like Northland Tackle’s Gill Getters, Mud Bugs and Hexi Fly for bluegills and sunnies.”
The Hexi Fly is good because it’s molded with Mustad Ultra-Point fine wire hooks and features a horizontally balanced Slab Torso that allows the jigs to fly, dart, and scoot on the free-fall like a live insect. Unlike other small jigs that have round backs and oval torsos, Hexi Fly’s are designed with 1/4 Wave Technology to reflect two times the sonar signal of similar sized jigs.
Experiment with vertical and horizontal jigs. Horizontal jigs are perfect for swimming and quivering and enticing bites from lethargic or only slightly interested fish. Vertical jigs can be popped and hopped and worked more aggressively to induce strikes from fish on the edge of a feeding frenzy.
Early season panfish are typically aggressive and rarely do you need live bait to fool them. Scent-enhanced plastics, like Northland’s Impulse Panfish Baits, preclude the need for live bait. The Impluse baits come in a myriad of colors and designs like mayflies, stoneflies, mini-smelt, bloodworms, wax worms, tapeworms, scuds and slugs. Crappies and perch will bite these same bites as well as slightly larger versions and Impluse Perch Eyes, Minnow Heads and Paddle Bugs.
Because perch and crappies have an affinity for minnows, spoons are often the ticket.
“The Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and Forage Minnow are both killer spoons for perch and crappies,” claimed Brosdahl. “Northland is making them in specific sizes for panfish and that added flash can draw fish in from a distance.”
You can fish them clean, add plastic or add a live minnow. Brosdahl’s new Bling Bug has a small blade on a loop for added attraction. Jigging one rod with a spoon to attract fish and using another dead rod can be a deadly combination.
“I always seem to do well on gold- and perch-colored lures for perch,” said Brosdahl. “Perch are not above eating their own kind and bluegills, so perch and bluegill are good colors for the big jumbo yellow bellies. Crappies like pink and white and combinations of those two colors.”
Chartreuse seems to be a good color for specks, too. Glow and UV colors are killer during low-light situations for all panfish it seems.
First ice produces some of the hottest ice-fishing for panfish. You just need to walk softly and carry a light stick.