My dad used to say “a tool for every job.” Most often, he would utter this phrase when he couldn’t find a hammer and the right sized punch to knock loose a bolt from any of the assorted equipment we had on the farm.
Far from anything specialized, most of these tasks simply required brute force, or an acetylene torch to heat whatever needed pounding. Still, it was a wonder how easily that bolt popped out when we had the right punch centered on it. I consider that analogy when reminiscing about how we used to catch panfish through the ice. Any jiggle-stick would suffice, provided there were ample amounts of mystery-line wound between two outward-angled pegs.
Bobbers were key to the presentation, which meant depth-bombs were, too, as we strove to be 10 to 15 feet off bottom in water as deep as 40 feet. On the business end of the line, we relied on homemade “teardrop” jigs, which were simply the smallest willow-leaf blades we could order from tackle supply catalogs armed with a home-soldered hook.
We dipped our creations in various colors of paint, using a finishing nail coated in a contrasting color to put an eye on the jig. Bait was something you could buy, but we also spent some knife-time carving out grubs from goldenrod bulbs. A Spartan supply of 25 grubs would barely cover the bottom of a 35mm film canister (remember those?); we did our best to do 100 per day, carving until our fingers were too raw to continue.
How times have changed. While my nostalgic side still longs for the simplicity of those days — I fully realize how specialization in nearly all ice categories has made for more successful fishing. Primitive tools and brute-force methods of panfishing have given way to gear that is highly focused, often on providing a singular distinct advantage in one of many categories.
Combine those technologies while utilizing the best of the best in as many of those groups as possible, and you’ll catch more fish. It really is that simple: better tools, used in the right situation, at the right time will usually yield better results. The right gear matters.
For panfish, a few classes of gear deserve priority. Here’s a breakdown of the most important tools in my panfishing toolbox, and how I use them effectively.
I’ll be the first to admit there’s no perfect shelter for every ice-fishing task. The sooner you migrate away from the one-shack-fits-all mentality, the better you’ll be able to function on the ice. What may serve the needs of a dad and kids is unnecessarily bulky and immobile for buddies looking to hit early ice on an after-work adventure.
For that reason, I consider the advantages (and disadvantages) of all systems, especially as it applies to panfish. I’ll also be the first to tell you that serious anglers fish out of hard-houses, too, especially the drop-down style ice-houses so popular among the weekend crowds.
I finally took the plunge last ice season and bought a Yetti Fish House, in anticipation of not only ice adventures, but also summer camping and spring and fall hunting trips. My initial observation was that fishing becomes a lot more accessible and enjoyable for my entire family when we are comfortable, resulting in all of us spending more time on the ice.
Staying warm and dry opens up a host of new presentation opportunities. Experimenting with a myriad of different lures, colors, bait and plastics options has really expanded the way I think about camping over fish.
For that reason, with a hard-house of any type, the goal needs to be finding fish first — only then can you spend time locked down on that location. For panfish, this can be an inside turn of a basin, where you’d reliably expect a recycled bite of crappies swimming around your general location.
It could also be a vast weed flat where, again, constant daytime fish movements make for a great, wait-them-out kind of bite. Sometimes I’ll drill 50 or more holes in several sections of the lake, as the Yetti sits behind my still-running truck, undeployed until fish start showing up on electronics.
Early and late ice, when conditions preclude a hard-house, I’m typically dragging a one-man shelter and packing limited gear. However, only in the coldest situations do I flip over the shelter during this time, as mobility is at a premium. Once I’ve located pods of early ice fish, I’ll often bring a popup-style shelter to camp on them, as the room to stand, move around and fish different holes all within a single shelter is a really nice feature.
I know that owning all shelter options is prohibitively expensive for most anglers, which is why I spent many years focused on the one shelter style that best fits the waters I fished, which was a traditional flip-over shelter. The best members of this class feature roto-molded sleds to stand up to the extreme cold and rigors of ice, seats that are comfortable and adjustable, structures that utilize square tubing to withstand twisting and warping, and a loft-insulated shell to defeat condensation and mold.
Closely examine modern ice-anglers at work, and you’ll see very few jiggle sticks. Today’s ice rods are technologically advanced tools, designed with specific presentations and finned targets in mind.
Much of this innovation was spawned from advances in the custom ice rod market, where for years anglers would flock to specialty shops asking them for one-off blends and grinds of specific blanks in certain lengths. By adjusting rod lengths, actions, power, guide options and bite-detection methods, anglers could customize a rod blank for their individual needs.
“Outside” rods addressed the needs of hole-hopping anglers who rarely fished in a shelter, while extremely short “sight-fishing” rods allowed anglers to methodically twitch a bait while looking down the actual ice-hole at their quarry.
Most custom rods these days aren’t cut to length, hand-painted with your initials, and wrapped with threads of your choosing; they’re instead engineered to address a specific challenge on ice. In that light, Croix Custom Ice rods from St. Croix Rod serve most of the panfish needs I have. Each of these is focused on a specific presentation that I regularly employ.
Consider the “Tungsten Tamer,” a rod specifically designed to be both a noodle and a tungsten rod. The two seem to be on opposing ends of the power and action spectrum, with most noodle rods bowing far too close to the slush and ice under the weight of any tungsten ice jig.
Still, tungsten fishes great on a bouncing rod, provided engineers speed up the tip, strengthen the butt of the blank, and provide a visual means of bite-detection.
Most anglers fish heavier tungsten for its advantages in speed, depth-raiding ability and overall small size-to-weight ratio; choose the appropriate rod for presenting these baits to panfish, maintaining control of the bait from jig-stroke to hookset.
Don’t be surprised if your favorite ice rod comes bare at the butt-section, as premium rods allow you to seat the reel wherever and however you choose. Castration-bands, as they’re affectionately known in the pork and beef business, will secure a reel to any rod, but I find them to be a bit uncomfortable for my taste. I prefer a high-quality electrical tape to secure reels, mounted forward on the cork so I can put an index finger on the blank and feel for bites.
There’s no more critical link between you and the fish than the line that connects you. More so than any other variable, line provides the greatest opportunity for something to go wrong and lose a trophy fish. For panfish, there’s a tremendous spectrum of lines to consider, and which pound-test you choose can determine more than just whether you’ll land big panfish, but also whether they’ll bite in the first place.
Simply put, I’m not a fan of the hyper-thin 1-pound-test line varieties. I’ve been on bites where line thickness has made a difference, but most often, 2- or even 3-pound-test line will suffice. I typically use the latter, allowing me to land many more incidental bass and walleye that raid my panfish grounds, while losing fewer baits in the process. I’ll use 4-pound test for any application with a larger spoon or for deep-water fishing, as a stiffer line can prevent a tumbling lure equipped with a treble hook from fouling.
Line memory is the Achilles’ heel of a panfish angler, especially considering the small spool size of the 500-series reels we favor. For that reason, supple lines with fluorocarbon coatings, or preferably 100 percent fluorocarbon lines, represent the perfect blend of translucency and manageability.
I’ve been asked many times if plastics can outfish live bait, and the answer is always a qualified “yes.” That said, there are times when the wiggle, taste and smell of live bait is hard to beat — but more often than not I’m fishing with only plastics on my jig.
While designs abound, I tend to group soft plastics into a couple of major categories. “Buggy” plastics frequently have tentacles, antennae and other anatomical appendages, and can look like anything from an invertebrate to a make-believe mini-monster. Those baits, presented in basins and sporting natural colors, can garner a lot of panfish attention.
The other primary plastic style is anything with a “flicker” tail. There could be one or several, but a tail that quivers with the slightest rod drop or pulse is the look I’m going for in panfish plastics.
Plastics offer flexibility. Not only do they work, sometimes exceptionally well, but plastics also give me a chance to make quick changes to any presentation that I couldn’t adjust with live bait. I can add bulk, slim down, rapidly switch colors, or offer a wide range of looks for a single bait. I can rig it shrimp-style, with the plastic riding the length of the hook shank almost to the hook point, or just nose-hook the bait for optimized mobility.
So often, it’s about continually offering them different looks until you find what they prefer to trigger the bite. Plastics are the easiest, cheapest and most effective way to reliably turn lookers into biters.