Anyone can look on a map, drill some holes and then start ice-fishing. But knowing where to go, what to look for and then what to use is the key. These experts will provide guidance. (January 2007)
The term "run and gun" as it relates to fishing has become somewhat of a cliché for any style of angling that has you running all over in search of a bite. But just because some people fish the run and gun that way doesn't mean they know what they are doing.
The run-and-gun approach is often considered an open-water-only tactic, but many ice-anglers use this technique to target active winter fish. Just like in the summertime, an effective run-and-gun attack needs to be carefully planned.
Bryan Sathre and guiding partner Brian Jones of First Choice Guide Service won the Ice Series event on Lake Winnibigoshish last year by using a modified ice-fishing run-and-gun approach for jumbo perch.
"What we did on Winnie is what we do on most bodies of water -- mark a few locations ahead of time, run out there and use our electronics to locate them, and then drop the line down to see what bites," Sathre said.
Anyone can look at a map, drill some holes, and then start fishing. However, the key is knowing where to go, what to look for while you are there and then what to use when you find the fish.
Moving around to different locations on a lake can be quite effective, but ice-fishing expert Terry Tuma cautioned anglers about moving just for the sake of moving.
"I think we sometimes move too much to catch fish, which creates more noise and wastes more time," Tuma said.
His advice is to be very strategic in that early phase of selecting the best places to fish.
"Even if you don't have a map or contact with a bait shop for the best locations when you get on a lake, you can usually read it pretty well and figure out where the fish should be holding," Tuma said. Points are great structures to locate, as are shorelines with steep inclines. "Usually when I go out, I'll take a look at the lake on the map, then I'll ask some questions at a bait shop or local anglers, then I do some scouting with my electronics to see where the fish are holding and at what depths."
The run-and-gun assault on the ice could mean you spend the entire day on one section of the lake, but you'll be fishing numerous locations within that section. Any given bay of a major body of water holds more panfish locations than you could effectively fish in a weekend. Add to that the fact that most panfish are in a constant state of movement both to elude predators and pursue their own food sources, and the run and gun can be done without crisscrossing the lake.
How many holes to drill is something that every run-and-gun angler seems to disagree on. Tuma said he'll sometimes drill only one hole on a spot if he is confident, while Sathre said the sky is the limit when it comes to drilling holes.
"If I've marked fish on a spot and know I'm going to catch them there, I'll drill three holes -- two to fish from and one for my underwater camera," Sathre said.
This brings up another critical point when ice-fishing for panfish, especially with a run-and-gun approach. Spring bobbers, traditional bobbers and simply "feeling" the bite are great techniques, but something the underwater camera has taught us is that most panfish bites are never felt by any of these methods.
"When I'm ice-fishing, it's amazing how many fish I can catch simply by watching my Marcum that I'd never feel or see otherwise," Sathre said.
The first thing to consider when choosing a panfish lake is its age. You want a good middle-aged lake that is moderately fertile because it will usually host a tremendous population of one or more of the panfish species.
"If a lake has a good walleye and bass population, it probably also has great crappies, perch or bluegills," Tuma said.
These lakes tend to maintain healthy oxygen levels throughout the wintertime and green weeds are usually easy to find throughout the lake. Green weeds are critical for panfish because it provides cover from predators, food and oxygen. While the weeds will typically hold large numbers of panfish, the larger-sized panfish will be in deeper locations nearby. Tuma said most anglers on these lakes end up fishing too shallow for panfish. In many cases, the bigger fish can be down in water 25 to 30 feet deep.
"The smaller fish are going to be in the weeds, while the bigger ones will be alongside the humps where rocks and weeds are found together, points that go into deeper water and near sharp shoreline breaks into deep water," Tuma said.
Many times these lakes are heavily pressured by other ice-anglers and snowmobile riders, which has an impact on the fish.
"What I've seen on pressured lakes is that the fish that normally sit in the 4- to 12-foot depth range slide out to 20 to 24 feet of water because the above-ice noise is too much of a problem," Tuma said.
The following lakes were selected for this article because they hold tremendous numbers of bluegills, crappies or perch, and they offer good opportunities for big fish -- plus they have hotspots within a relatively close distance of each other.
Lake Bemidji is a great pike and walleye lake, but it also boasts a tremendous population of jumbo perch. Expert Brian Sathre loves to fish for perch on Bemidji throughout the winter, and he said if you can find the muck, you'll find the fish.
"There are some beautiful areas to fish by The Northwoods' access in 25 to 30 feet of water," hinted Sathre.
The rockpiles also have an abundance of nice perch up to 12 inches. The key with perch on Bemidji is that they are always moving, so you need to do the same.
"I'll run and gun in a general area until I pinpoint the areas they are relating to, then I'll set up the portable ice house," Sathre said.
The perch bite starts out good on deadsticks and jigs, but it really heats up once the midwinter wiggler hatch gets going.
"They get more aggressive and go after lures like a 1/16-ounce forage minnow or any style of jigging spoon," Sathre noted.
For more information, contact the Bemidji Visitor Bureau at 1-800-458-2223, or go to www.visitbemidji.com
Most people know Cass is a good lake for jumbo perch, but it's also home to some of the biggest bull bluegills around. Sathre said he thinks the Cass bluegills are
a well-kept secret because they are so skittish. "The lake is pretty clear in the wintertime, and if there's no snow cover, they can be pretty tough to pin down," he said.
The key is to locate one of the nice points along the northern portion of the lake where there are plenty of green cabbage weeds. The bluegills tend to sit in 10 feet of water right in the cabbage. If they aren't there, and the ice is snow-free, slide out to the deeper breaklines.
"I'll use the underwater camera to locate them, drill six or seven holes and then let it sit for about 10 minutes," Sathre said. "When it's quieted down, I go back and drop down a No. 2 Ghost Grub, Creep Worm or Doodle Bug tipped with a wax worm or two."
For the best perch fishing, any of the nice humps on the south end in front of Cass Lake Lodge in 15 to 25 feet of water are good.
On the other side of Highway 2 is Cass Lake's Pike Bay, which contains jumbo perch. Sathre said the jumbos are not as big now as they were in the past, but it's a good bet for sheer numbers of decent fish. On the north shore, fishing on top of the weeds and sand flats in 5 to 10 feet of water is the best way to go for these jumbos.
"If you find the cabbage, you'll find the perch," Sathre said. "It's a great lake to fish and a lot of fun, and between the numerous eating-sized perch, you'll catch a few 10- to 11-inchers."
For more information on both Cass Lake and Pike Bay, contact the Cass Lake Chamber of Commerce at 1-800-356-8615, or online at www.casslake.com
Winnie is a great spot for jumbo perch. Sathre makes fishing this behemoth body of water sound easy.
"The flats are so big that we move around looking for dropoffs, and then we drill five to 10 holes per break, then move down to the next structure hump," Sathre said.
This requires plenty of drilling to pinpoint the perch, but once you find them, it gets going like gangbusters. Sathre said they usually start drilling at 15 feet and go down as deep as 35 feet. The head of a fathead minnow pinched off below the gills is the bait of choice to be hooked on a jigging spoon for perch.
Big crappies are also prevalent on Winnie, especially in front of Sugar Lake and in front of the Richard's Town access on the southwest corner. This is a great area for a combo fishing experience because the crappies are usually mixed in with the perch, although they are usually found in the 15- to 20-foot range.
Sathre recommended using an underwater camera on Winnie so you know what you are setting your hook into when the bite is on, and so that you know they are down there when the bite is cold.
"You can do some great sight-fishing on the north end, but they don't always bite, and it's frustrating to see them down there with lockjaw, but at least you know they exist," Sathre said.
For more fishing information on any of the lakes along Highway 2, contact First Choice Guide Service at www.firstchoiceguide.com. Additional info on the area can be had by contacting the Lake Winnie Resort Association at www.lakewinnnie.net.
NORTH LONG LAKE
His guiding name is "Walleye Dan" Eigen, but when the walleye season is over, he's strictly a panfishing man. He has also been known to take the occasional panfish trip during the walleye season. When he is in hot pursuit of slabs, his first stop is usually to North Long Lake.
"I usually get after them in the deeper holes of 371 Bay and then Merrifield Bay late in the season," Eigen said.
North Long Lake in Crow Wing County is full of big crappies and bull bluegills, and run-and-gun fishing for them is the name of the game for Eigen. The bluegills tend to sit anywhere from 6 to 10 feet of water along the edges of the reeds and throughout the cabbage beds. An ice fly tipped with two or three eurolarvae in different colors is usually the best technique for those bulls. The crappies tend to sit farther down along the same locations and prefer biting on a small Jigging Rapala tipped with several eurolarvae or a crappie minnow head.
Crow Wing County's Round Lake has received a bad reputation in recent years because it has turned out smaller than expected numbers and sizes of walleyes. Ice-anglers in the know let people complain about the walleye bite because it keeps people off the lake and prevents them from discovering the tremendous bluegill fishing in the winter.
Eigen knows about it, and said Round is really easy to fish, particularly along the west side adjacent to Highway 371.
"It has the reputation of being a late-bite lake, but they are going throughout the winter along the first break, although sometimes you need to move out deeper into the 12- to 14-foot range," Eigen said.
While the walleye anglers pound the central portion of Gull, the panfishers love exploring the southern bays and smaller chain lakes on the north end. Either side is perfect for some hardcore running and gunning, whether it be for bluegills or crappies.
Access on both ends can be tricky, especially with the prevalence of springs and narrows where ice conditions are not always ideal. Walking is the safest option, but following the numerous snowmobile marks is even better, if you use caution.
In either location, finding the cabbage and coontail is the way to begin finding these fish.
"If it's green, fish it," said Eigen, adding, "and if you don't mark any or catch any in that location, just keep moving on to the next location."
The crappies tend to hang deeper in the basins of the minor bays of Gull, such as Booming, Steamboat and Wilson.
"They like the muddier stuff at depths anywhere from the 20s down to almost 40 feet," Eigen said.
Most people know Cass is a good lake for jumbo perch, but it's also home to some of the biggest bull bluegills around.
Sathre said he thinks the Cass bluegills are a well-kept secret because they are so skittish.
For more fishing information on Gull Lake, Round Lake and North Long Lake, contact Walleye Dan Guide Service at www.walleyedan.com. For other info, contact the Brainerd Lakes Chamber of Commerce at www.explorebrainerdlakes.com, or at 1-800-450-2838.
YOUR BACK YARD?
Minnesota is also home to thousands of small bodies of water with big bluegills, perch and crappies. These lakes would be very susceptible to pressure if more than a few anglers knew about them. With names like Forest Service La
ke No. 3 and City Pond No. 8, they are usually fished by only a handful of anglers -- or nobody at all.
Sathre said there are at least a dozen lakes within a few miles of his Bemidji home that are full of big bluegills. Having their names published is nothing he's eager to do, though he said local bait shops gladly give up the names to inquisitive anglers.
Likewise, Eigen said the Brainerd Lakes Area's well-known bodies of water are great panfish spots, but the smaller bodies of water are the best-guarded secrets.
"I love the big water, but it's tough to beat being the only guy on a small lake pulling in panfish hand over fist," Eigen said.
Eigen, Tuma and Sathre all urge anglers to use their best judgment when they stumble onto these smaller bodies of water. Because they are guarded secrets, the only way the fishing will remain good on them is if people release most of what they catch.
"Keep what you need for a good meal, but let the rest go so you can catch them again," Tuma said.
A run-and-gun approach can be used on these lakes -- only on a smaller scale. While no self-respecting angler or bait shop would reveal the name of one of these lakes, it's easy to figure them out with a little research on the DNR's Web site for stocking reports.
"Many lakes in your back yard will offer some good bluegill fishing, so if you don't want to drive halfway across the state, you don't have to," Tuma said.
If that little lake near your house doesn't interest you, Tuma recommended fishing the Mississippi River backwaters near Wabasha. There's current flowing through there, so be careful with the ice conditions, but the bluegills are huge and easy to find in water 4 to 7 feet deep.
Lakes in the Twin Cities, such as Harriet, Calhoun and Prior, are also great locations, though they tend to be more about numbers than sheer size. Still, it's tough to beat a solid day of pulling panfish out of a lake within sight of downtown. Waconia is another metro panfish hotspot for crappies and bluegills.