Skip to main content

Gopher State Panfish Hotspots

Gopher State Panfish Hotspots

If you take your fishing seriously when it comes to bluegills, crappies and perch, you need to hit these waters this winter.

By Tim Lesmeister

It's a trick I learned from Dave Genz. He calls it fishing horizontally. I call it positioning the knot on the jighead so the lure sits right.

You use a standard jig. In Genz's case, it's one he designed called the Genz Worm. You position the knot on the eye of the jig, so the jig sits perfectly horizontal in the water and you twitch and flutter the lure until a fish grabs it. Genz says this is the perfect presentation when fish are being finicky, especially in the middle of the day or after a cold front moves through.

After a fish grabs the jig, you always reposition the knot so the lure sits perfectly horizontal in the water. Genz proved to me that if you allowed the jig to hang at an angle or used a jigging spoon or some other lure that fishes what he calls vertically, then you wouldn't get bites.

We were on a small lake north of St. Paul. Genz had a half-dozen holes drilled and was fishing while I set up the Fish Trap portable shelter. He was reeling in his fourth or fifth bluegill as I pulled the portable into position. I grabbed a rod and started fishing. Five fish later I asked Genz what I was doing wrong. I still hadn't had a bite.

"Tie one of these on," Genz instructed as he handed me a lure that would fish "horizontal." I attached the lure to the line and was about to drop it in the hole when more of Genz's wisdom was applied to my technique. "These bluegills don't get big because they hit anything that's put before them. You must make sure the knot is right in the center of the eye so the lure sits perfectly horizontal in the water."

If you want to catch some real jumbo perch this winter, go to Mille Lacs. Photo by Noel Vick

To prove him wrong I pushed the knot toward the shank of the hook and dropped it into the hole. After he caught three more fish, I pulled the lure and adjusted the knot so it was way to the front. I still hadn't gotten a bite. After four more bluegills by Genz, I did what I was told and almost immediately I received my first legitimate hit. I reeled in the big bluegill and swore out loud I would never question the Godfather of ice-fishing again.


Before I could get my bait down the hole for another fish, Genz announced we were moving, so we packed the shack and went to another productive location. As usual it was a smart move, and we both caught and released fish for a few short hours. Whenever things slowed down I would always check my knot, which would elicit a chuckle from The Master. I was anticipating that at any moment Genz would reach out, open his hand and say, "Now grasshopper, if you can snatch the jig from my palm, you will have mastered the secrets of panfishing." Maybe next time.

Let's look at a few lakes where you can practice the art of panfishing under the ice, a pursuit I've discovered requires more than just dropping a maggot down the hole.

Aitkin County
It's called Aitkin Lake, but to me it's really just the northern basin of Big Sandy Lake. In the past few years, anglers have discovered the outstanding crappie fishing in this lake, and the amount of stationary shacks has risen as the word gets out.

The crappies are very nice-sized fish with the average at a half-pound. Most of the fishing is situated at the deep water on the east and west sides of the lake. That's really the beauty of Aitkin Lake. The lack of depth in the center of the basin tends to move the crappies to the relatively small sections of deep water where they suspend and are easily spotted on your sonar.

For more information, call Big Sandy's Sports at (218) 426-4335.

Otter Tail County
"Stuart is a great lake for big bluegills," said Adam Johnson, a pro-angler who juggles his winter schedule so he can compete in largemouth bass tournaments down south, where the water is still open, and can chase panfish in the north, where the water is frozen.

Johnson was instructing me on the locations of the holes as he set up the sonar to make sure we were in the right spot.

"You drill and I'll check the depth," he said. "We're looking for 12 feet of water and some signs of vegetation. Once we find the right bottom we'll get out the cameras."

We weren't far from the boat landing on the north end of the lake. This made me nervous because I didn't see any remnants of holes from other anglers, an indication no one had attempted to fish where we were drilling.

"I like to find my own fish," Johnson said when he anticipated my thoughts from the look on my face. "If you want big bluegills, it doesn't pay to be fishing where the rest of the crowds are."

As usual, he was right. We lowered down the cameras and didn't see anything right away, but 10 minutes after we sunk some wax worms on small jigging spoons, the fun began. The bluegills in Stuart run about two to three to the pound on the average, with some nicer ones showing up with regularity.

For more information, call Ben's Bait Shop at (218) 864-5596.

St. Louis County
We were supposed to go chase crappies on Upper Red Lake, but tackle designer Jeff Beckwith had heard through his many connections that some big fish were being caught on a lake just outside of Evelyth. Guess where we went, and we were sure glad we did.

There were others on Ely Lake that beautifully clear day when we pulled onto the ice. When you're not familiar with a body of water, sometimes it's a good idea to see what the other anglers are doing to shorten the learning curve. In this case it turned out to be the right move, even though no one else on the ice had caught any fish.

"They told us they caught them here over the weekend," surmised Beckwith as he studied the map, "so they've moved deeper,"

Beckwith had gathered from his conversations with the anglers that the day before the crappies were suspended just a few feet off the bottom in 25 feet of water near this point just off the deepest hole in the lake. Since the cloud cover was gone and the skies were bright blue, those fish moved deeper.

We drilled a number of holes in depths from 20 to 40 feet deep and after about an hour and a half the crappies were found suspended about 15 feet off the bottom in 40 feet of water. After we caught about a half-dozen

12- to 13-inch crappies, Beckwith invited the other anglers over that were about 150 yards from us, gave them each a dozen of the productive lures he makes and we all had a great day catching big crappies.

For more information, call the Lucky Seven Store at (218) 741-9649.

Rice County
About a dozen years ago a longtime fishing buddy of mine took me to Mazaska, just west of Fairibault, for some crappie fishing. What amazed me on that trip was the size of the bluegills we caught that were mixed in with the crappies. It was the first - and maybe only - time I couldn't be sure when I set the hook if I would pull a big sunny or a huge crappie out of the hole. I've been back to Mazaska many times, and while I've never been able to duplicate the dual-species action I had on that first trip there, I still catch some mighty big bluegills.

Just head for the north end of the lake. Either drill some holes right on the tip of the long, wide point that extends off that big tapering shoreline flat, or punch a few openings on the inside turns that the point creates.

You'll be fishing in anywhere from 8 to 20 feet deep depending on the time of season. The bigger bluegills will be shallow at early ice and move deeper as the season progresses. Don't be surprised if one of those big bluegills turns into a nice crappie when it pops out of the hole. There are plenty of them there, too.

For more information, call Fairibault Bait at (507) 334-2768.

Isanti County
"Just another backyard basin that I don't get to see in the summertime, but I like to chase crappies on it in the winter," said touring walleye pro Mark Courts. "There's a bunch of little lakes around me that I don't have time to explore during summer because I do travel a lot these days, but come winter I get to visit these old friends."

Blue Lake is one of those winter destinations for Courts where he rides out on his ATV pulling a portable shelter in search of crappies. From the boat landing where we unloaded the gear, Courts pointed out a spot where the shoreline narrowed.

"There's a trough in the bottom there about 30 yards wide that runs north toward shallower water," he said. "The crappies come out of the deeper water, run up and down that trough, so you get them coming and going."

The crappies came best on just a plain hook and crappie minnow. Courts uses a bobber stop on the line along with his sonar to get the bait to the right depth each time. If the fish are biting extremely light, Courts slips a sliding Ice Buster bobber just under the bobber stop so he can set the hook as soon as the fish nibbles the bait.

For more information, call Tails and Trails Sport Shop at (763) 856-3985.

Aitkin/Mille Lacs Counties
The day after Courts and I fished Blue Lake we took a trip to see our fishing buddy on Mille Lacs. Aaron McQuoid and his family have been part of the Mille Lacs scene for many years. While McQuoid fishes plenty of other bodies of water in Minnesota and the surrounding states through his tournament pursuits, he won't leave Mille Lacs in the winter because of the phenomenal perch fishing.

"This is the season for big perch," said McQuoid. "There were huge schools of tiny perch all over the lake in the summer and the perch that carried over from last season were well fed. This year you'll know why we call them jumbo."

McQuoid recommends staying on the move to stay on the perch. We set up shop in one of the stationary shacks he maintains on the lake, and when we only found walleyes below we set out in the portables to find perch.

We only had to go 100 yards to the edge of the rubble reef we were on to find the big perch. McQuoid put on a clinic for Courts and I the first half-hour, pulling six fish to our one. Then he told us what he was doing.

Watching on the underwater camera, when a perch would move up to the bait and not take it, he would drop the bait and lure on the bottom. The perch would tilt down and inhale the bait and he would set the hook. It's what they wanted that day, and when Courts and I matched that presentation we were all even in our success.

For more information, call McQuoids Resort at (320) 676-3535.

Cass County
"There's no structure on this lake," said Jeff Beckwith as he surveyed the frozen landscape. "We just drill a lot of holes, and hit and run. There are a lot of crappies though, so maybe we'll get lucky and we won't have to look long."

We started on the north end of Mule Lake and drilled holes from the weedline in about 12 feet of water out to 25 feet deep. While I cleaned the ice out of the holes, Beckwith moved over to one that was over 20 feet of water and dropped an Angel Eye spoon with a crappie minnow impaled on the hook. He no sooner set the bail and he had to set the hook.

"That's bad luck," I said. "When you catch one on the 'first cast' it's going to be the only fish you catch."

Was I ever wrong. No sooner had Beckwith dropped another minnow down the hole and he was reeling in another fish. I set up in a hole about 10 yards from his and could not buy a bite. Same lure, same bait, no fish. Finally I got the auger, drilled a hole 10 feet away and started catching, too. We caught a lot of nice crappies that day on Mule and some of them were very nice-sized fish.

For more information, call Mule Lake Bait at (218) 682-2549.

Kandiyohi County
Adam Johnson likes winter fishing because he can use two rods. It was paying off for us on Eagle Lake near Wilmar. What Johnson was doing was fishing suspended crappies over the top of a saddle between a sandbar on the west side and a sunken island to the east of the bar. The crappie rod had a minnow on a tiny jig suspended under a bobber, and with the other rod he was jigging for perch on the bottom. I was just fishing for crappies, so when he got a bite on both rods I would reel mine in and grab his crappie rod.

The crappies were two to three fish to the pound. There were actually some nice perch mixed in with the dinks. You had to catch a half-dozen 6-inchers for that one that pushed 10 to 12 inches. But when you looked in the bucket, you could see that a real meal was accumulating with a nice mix of crappies and perch.

According to Johnson the only difference in the presentation is the depth you place the lures.

"Perch are most often found on the bottom," he says. "If you have the bait more than a couple of feet from the bottom you aren't really targeting the perch. The crappies on the other hand like to suspend. You can see the crappies pretty easily on the sonar, but for perch I pre

fer the camera."

For more information, call Brad's Bait and Sport at (320) 235-4097.

* * *
There is one variable that never changes when you're ice-fishing. You are over a hole and you have to set up a vertical presentation. The variation to the program not only encompasses how you set up the presentation but also where you position yourself. If you're finding yourself on that same body of water every time you take to the ice, consider positioning yourself on a different lake and do some exploring. There are a lot of great panfish lakes in Minnesota so make it a point to visit one in the near future. And while you're fishing that vertical presentation, if the bite seems a little tough, think horizontal. It makes sense to me.

Discover even more in our monthly magazine,
and have it delivered to your door!
Subscribe to Minnesota Sportsman

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Recommended Articles

Recent Videos

Game & Fish Magazine Covers Print and Tablet Versions

GET THE MAGAZINE Subscribe & Save

Digital Now Included!


Give a Gift   |   Subscriber Services


Buy Digital Single Issues

Magazine App Logo

Don't miss an issue.
Buy single digital issue for your phone or tablet.

Buy Single Digital Issue on the Game & Fish App

Other Magazines

See All Other Magazines

Special Interest Magazines

See All Special Interest Magazines

GET THE NEWSLETTER Join the List and Never Miss a Thing.

Get the top Game & Fish stories delivered right to your inbox every week.

Phone Icon

Get Digital Access.

All Game & Fish subscribers now have digital access to their magazine content. This means you have the option to read your magazine on most popular phones and tablets.

To get started, click the link below to visit and learn how to access your digital magazine.

Get Digital Access

Not a Subscriber?
Subscribe Now

Enjoying What You're Reading?

Subscribe Now and Get a Full Year

Offer only for new subscribers.

Subscribe Now