What Do Panfish Eat in the Winter?

When our waters freeze over, the food supply for panfish is severely depleted. Here's what they eat to survive, and how you can "match the hatch" to catch them.

Ice Team founder Dave Genz uses maggots or mousies more often than any other variety of live bait because he says their appearance and action on the hook cosely resembles natural aquatic forage. Photo by Noel Vick

By habit and custom, we alter our diets by season. Nowhere is this more evident than along the "Ice-Fishing Belt" where our changes from one season to the next are dramatic. During our short-lived summer, outdoor grills cook steaks and fish. Winter is different, though. In winter, out comes the slow-cooker and into it goes the cream of mushroom soup, venison, potatoes and carrots. Seasonal preferences change our diets, not Mother Nature.

Fish, namely panfish, don't have that luxury though. Their summertime staples don't survive or are severly depleted by winter. Consider baitfish minnows. Garden-variety shiners and chubs reach population peaks sometime during the warm-weather months. But with winter's onset - after being stalked and dispatched for weeks on end - baitfish numbers have withered. Plus, residual baitfish have matured and may no longer be in the edible-size scope.

Summer's critters are gone, too, at least as we knew them. Mayfly larvae aren't rising to the surface. The same goes for the bajillions of midge, damselfly and dragonfly nymphs, and countless invertebrates and aquatic insects normally found shallow.

Crappies, bluegills and perch must modify their intake and adjust to the environment to survive. Hardwater anglers need to understand this transformation and consequently modify where they fish and what they use.

Ice-fishing expert Dave Genz understands this transformation as well as anyone. He has invested untold hours studying this change in feeding habits, and some of his findings may surprise you.

"You know," says Genz, founder and skipper of Ice Team, "I've never found minnows in the stomach of a crappie that was caught while ice-fishing. I've found the fathead I just lost a minute or two ago, but never partially digested minnows. But I see that brown gooey stuff all the time."

The "gooey stuff" Genz speaks of can come from a multitude of sources and can take numerous shapes and consistencies, too.

Bloodworms or midge larvae - also known as chironamidae - are one of the commonest forms. As the immature stage of short-lived winged insects, bloodworms live on and in the bottoms of lakes, streams and rivers. Genz says the pasta-girthed grubs dwell in tiny burrows in soft or "sticky bottomed" areas, such as clay or marl, but seldom pure muck and definitely not in sand.

Such areas are found on the edges of the main basin, deep flats and just outside the weedline wherever dead vegetation settles and decomposes. Colonies can be found in 15 to 40 feet of water and become most active during lowlight when they rise from their burrows.

"You know you've hit a good soft or sticky bottom when the Vexilar (flasher) doesn't echo," Genz explains. "And depending on the lake, you can find perch, bluegills and crappies feeding in a good spot."

To fish in the midst of the bloodworms, Genz strives to imitate them in appearance and behavior. But first he needs to effectively deliver the merchandise, and that means "fishing heavy," as Genz describes.

"I use a small jig that fishes heavy, can reach the bottom and take the kinks out of the line," thus promoting overall feel. Genz fixes up a red Lindy Techni-Glo Genz Bug and impales three red Eurolarvae (maggots) with it, each lanced through the "eyes" or scent sac. Red is chosen to closely duplicate a bloodworm's color.

Glow is added to provide supplementary punch along the darker bottom. The Genz Bug is a standup-style jig that presents its hook at a 45-degree angle when settled on the lake floor. Genz sends the jig quickly to the bottom, after of course having observed fish, or "flutters" as he calls fluctuations on the bottom. "If a fish is grazing on the bottom, it won't show up as a bar. You'll just see flutters on the Vexilar."

He then precedes quivering or pounding the jig just above the bottom, letting it hit and situate motionless periodically. He suggests, though, not pounding right on the bottom because oftentimes there's a layer of suspended silt above the sticky stuff, and that band can mask your presentation.

Professional guide Brian Brosdahl likes it heavy and buggy, too. Lately, he's been tricking fish with Northland Tackle's new Bro Bug. The lure features a tubular and lead-infested midsection with bulging, lifelike eyeballs. It was designed to imitate aquatic organisms, and it does. When jigged with short, continuous strokes it teeters ever so seductively. Panfish won't leave it alone.

Bites aren't regularly violent or heavy, either, but rather signaled by the absence of weight on the line and pole. Due to the finesse nature of the atmosphere, Genz uses light hardware, too. He operates with a 24- or 28-inch light-action Genz Series Berkley Lightning Rod and 2-pound-test Trilene Micro Ice line.

There's a relative of the bloodworm that also makes for fine wintertime food. Phantom midge larvae, or chaoburus, are maggot-like in size and shape, too, but they lack the coloration and are nearly transparent. They, unlike bloodworms, are fully nocturnal, and instead of writhing on the bottom they actually rise and pulse through the water column. Swarms appear on the flasher as green flickers or thin bands that come and go. Brosdahl catches panfish further into darkness than most people by using chaoburus.

The world of the midrange - or interior water column - is occupied by other notable critters as well. Genz was a pioneer in the discovery and subsequent code cracking of zooplankton. These miniscule invertebrates - daphnia, copepods, etc. - rise, fall and chug beneath the ice all winter long.

Individual specimens can't dent a bluegill's or crappie's appetite, but devoured by the masses, they provide sustenance when bigger foodstuffs are wanting. "Zooplankton suspends over a lot of the same areas that bloodworms live in," says Genz, "but they're usually hanging more over the basin itself."

These animated invertebrates, like phantom midge larvae, are perceived as flickers on the screen, and the level or depth they appear at is largely dictated by light conditions. "If it's cloudy, they'll be pretty high in water column, going deeper when it's sunny," said Genz. "Zooplankton stay at depths where it's hard for fish to see them, blending into the terrain. It gives the

m a sense of security."

Typically, once flickers are uncovered, Genz continues drilling holes until finding the outer edge of the zooplankton horde. That's where new, hungrier fish will likely enter the buffet line.

Now, the zooplankton thing isn't a full-throttle dining experience, either. Fish fin a bit and gobble, loiter, spot another couple victims and glide in their direction. There'll be no shower of scales and body parts. With that in mind, Genz is quick to move from hole to hole seeking one or two fish from each hole, knowing that it'll be tough to draw numbers of fish to a single location.

Genz continues fishing heavy, favoring small but well-leaded lures like a Lindy Fat Boy or Genz Worm loaded with maggots. Pounding is OK, too, but to get things rolling, he'll first rip the jig a couple of times, mimicking the darting escape maneuver of a copepod.

Depending on the quality of the bite, he might also incorporate a dropper arrangement. Genz ties a 7- to 9-inch section of 4-pound-test monofilament line to the jig's hook and finishes it off with a No. 14 or smaller single hook and lone maggot. By doing so, total weight is maintained while concurrently offering a smaller, more palatable morsel.

Brosdahl busts out a dropper, too, one that's been appropriately dubbed the Bro-Dropper. His apparatus is anchored by a Bro Bug, but instead of tying onto the hook, he ties around the lure's neck and drops down with only a few inches of mono and ends with a No. 18 or No. 24 Mustad sproat or Viking fly hook.

Friends of Genz's achieve similar outcomes by tying - via a blood knot - a tiny fly 10 to 12 inches above the primary lure. They'll jig until a fish materializes on the flasher, gawk at the lure, and then they'll swiftly drop the fly down to fish level. The rest is history. Tightliners are notorious hole-hoppers, too. They understand the merit of fishing active fish in fresh holes.

A final bug-related phenomenon worth considering befalls at last ice. Genz says that at season's end as water seeps back through the ice, the actual ice covering begins to float. As a result, weedtops sealed in the ice rip their roots from the bottom, stirring the already re-oxygenating shallows. As this occurs, oodles of aquatic insects race to the surface and are trapped beneath the ice - and opportunistic panfish arrive to feed on the prisoners. During these episodes, Genz recommends fishing large stands of bulrushes, especially those with cabbage or coontail.

Soon thereafter, fish return to larger, more satisfying open-water fare with the arrival of spring.

Get Your Fish On.

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