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Under the Ice: Drop-Shot Rigging for Pressured Panfish

When the going gets tough, use this tried-and-true open-water tactic for wary panfish.

Under the Ice: Drop-Shot Rigging for Pressured Panfish

When panfish are wary or targeting small forage, tiny flies or "fly jigs" are often just the ticket. (Shutterstock image)

For years, open-water anglers have used the drop-shot rig for various applications. The technique does a great job of presenting finesse baits, especially to lethargic fish suspended off the bottom, and because of this it's a go-to option for many bass fanatics. Far fewer, however, utilize the tactic for ice fishing. These folks are missing out.

Perch, sunfish and crappies hunt for bugs, minnows and invertebrate life all winter long beneath the ice, and drop-shotting is a perfect way to deliver these items—or their imitations—to these sometimes finicky fish.

Whether you're fishing pressured waters, angling for suspended fish or you just want to match a great bug hatch, it’s often hard to beat a drop-shot for panfish.

drop-shot rigs for ice fishing
Drop-shotting through the ice is a finesse presentation where anglers dangle dainty baits, flies or plastics right in a fish’s face. (Illustration by Peter Sucheski)

FINESSE FANFARE

While most ice-anglers aggressively fish baited jigs beneath flashers, a drop-shot's subtle presentation can trigger bites from wary panfish. Lindy pro-staffer Bob Bohland realized this roughly 15 years ago at a North American Ice Fishing Circuit event at Chisago Lakes in Minnesota. He and his fishing partner had noticed that many of the bigger bluegills and green sunfish were glued to shallow weeds and becoming really picky. Fish were quite spooky, too—the result of anglers running and gunning all over the place. They were also keying on small forage, refusing anything larger than a size-16 fly; however, these dainty offerings were taking too long to reach the proper depth.

It was then that Bohland began piecing together a solution. Could he simply tie up a few Palomar knots, add a drop-shot weight and a few small flies, drop the rig down and coax these fish out of the weeds? It took a little research on the legality of such a technique, but he eventually got clarity—Minnesota allows the use of up to three flies on a fly rig, including those fished through the ice. Bohland took it a step further and tipped the flies with plastics and live bait. His newfound technique produced phenomenal results.

"As we found out, we could sit in one hole and watch these fish, give subtle motions to our flies we were putting down there and make the fish commit," he says. "It really was eye-opening."

FOOD FOCUS

Discovering he could fish flies with live baits or plastics also freed Bohland up to experiment with colors and plastic body styles. And with today's many hand-poured and production plastics—including mayfly larvae, caddisflies and stoneflies—designed with precise details of segmentation and appendages, he had ample options. Today, he particularly likes offerings from small-batch makers, but he adds that users can buy molds and create their own plastics with custom color combos, core shots, stripes and mixes.

All this, of course, is done to get more bites from panfish. And it starts by understanding where fish are, what they're eating and how to mimic that forage.

Yellow perch, crappies and other sunfish love a good bug hatch beneath the ice, and several places stand out for this type of insect life. Bohland likes green weeds that he finds with sonar or an underwater camera and inside edges with minute differences. He also likes substrates such as muck, mud, silt and sand. Shallow flats are great locations to scout—long sandy stretches or mid-basin, mucky-bottom areas often teem with insect life. Bohland uses modern mapping tools to find these locations. But he also looks to shore to predict depth contour changes and to see if differences in shoreline vegetation hint at the substrate extending beneath the water.

For insight into the type of forage that fish might be feeding on, though, Bohland stresses observation. This begins by looking down in the water after you drill a hole through the ice. Many times, bugs will inevitably come up toward the surface, and he says anglers should identify what’s in the water, as well as what’s swimming or flashing farther below it.

Bohland offers one caveat: Just because you see an insect in the hole, or even an active insect hatch occurring, you don't necessarily have to match the hatch. While panfish can be drawn to emerging insects, they might just as easily be after the flashing darter minnows preying on these bugs. Here, a silver or flashy pink pattern—mimicking the flashes of a darter working over the lake bottom—may outperform a lifelike bug pattern. Typically, matching baits to predominant forage is a good call; just be prepared to switch things up if that’s not working.

RIG UP RIGHT

The drop-shot is not an overly complex rig, but there are some considerations when using it on hardwater. For starters, Bohland likes spooling up with a light hydrophobic copolymer line like 4-pound Silver Thread AN40 when drop-shotting beneath the ice. This helps prevent ice accumulation on his line. Also, while you can use your standard summer drop-shot weights, Bohland finds it easier to tie on a cheap 1/8- or 1/4-ounce jig head and simply clip the hook off. He usually likes a heavier weight that stirs up the bottom—especially on sand or mud—because it can create the appearance of many bugs hatching. He mates all this with a light-action rod that matches up well to the weight he's using.

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Bohland doesn't have hard-and-fast rules with nymph or hook sizing. He does, however, prefer a compact fly with a beadhead, and usually tries to match the size of what he's seen in the water. And, when fishing his three-fly drop-shot rigs, he'll often experiment with different sizes to see which one fish prefer on a given day. Having a beadhead on the hook, he says, seems to work best with his flasher setup. Beyond the beadhead, though, he'll try various plastics, chenille, feathers, foam or different types of hair.

He suggests anglers new to nymphing try finding bare beadhead hooks from size 10 to 20. Fly shops also have beadhead nymphs, and patterns like Zebra Midges, Copper Johns, Zug Bugs, Mercury Midges, Lightning Bugs or San Juan worms work well. If plastic isn't your style, bait beadhead hooks with spikes (Euro larvae or wigglers) or waxworms.

One special adaptation to consider when drop-shotting is a dropper rig. Bohland prefers stripping down a Lindy Rattl’N Flyer spoon and putting an ice fly half a foot below it on a dropper line. He says this looks like a minnow that is trying to attack an insect but has lost it. If you let the rig fall slowly, it often tempts really picky bluegills into committing.

PRESENTATIONS

As with bait choice, observation can help determine how to present flies beneath the ice. After drilling a hole and examining what's in the water, watch how it's swimming. Bohland thinks ice anglers should spend more time "scouting," or observing how forage species move and how fish interact with them.

An underwater camera often helps, but if you're in an area where sight-fishing is possible, watch the fish for a while before you start fishing. Can you see what they're eating, and how?

Bohland has even watched YouTube videos of various macroinvertebrates and how they swim to help better mimic the way these food sources move, and thus make his offerings more appealing. One of his most valuable lessons from this was to introduce some imperfection to his jigging program. He often adds a little "pop off" at the end of his jigging motion—something that sets that bait apart from others. Or, after raising a fly up, he'll let it slowly fall. Or, conversely, he'll do a slow raise of the rod tip. Anything, he says, to convey that's something's off and that his bait might be easy pickings.

Another consideration with drop-shot rigs is that although they perform very well on or near the bottom, they don't always have to be fished there. The drop shot is a great way to put baits in front of suspended fish without any distracting weight above your hook. Bohland says that "nine times out of ten," fish focus more on a sinker than the bait if it's placed above a jig. Crappies, perch and bluegills tend to look up to feed, and often key on the highest object.

Given this tendency, a drop-shot rig, which places the weight below your presentation, is an excellent work-around that gets fish focused on baited hooks rather than sinkers.

DO THE DROP

Throughout the ice season, panfish munch heavily on small insects and minnows that require equally tiny imitations, which sink very slowly without additional weight. A drop-shot rig placed where crappies, bluegills or perch are actively feeding on hatching bugs or small minnows is often the ideal presentation. Drop-shots are easy to rig and easy to jig, and give the angler every opportunity to play puppeteer above the ice. When fish are wary due to pressure and are keyed on small forage, give drop-shotting a try this winter.

FLASH FORWARD

The new Humminbird Ice Helix line blows old-school flashers out of the water.

Image of Humminbird Ice Helix 9
Humminbird's Ice Helix 9 MEGA Live

Electronics are incredibly helpful when pursuing panfish beneath the ice, and if you’re considering a new unit, take a look at Humminbird’s updated Ice Helix line. I field-tested these models on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake last winter, and they proved capable and versatile on the ice. With seven models ranging from $400 to $3,000, there’s also a unit to fit every angler’s needs and budget. All are great, including the more affordable Ice Helix 5 G3 options, but I’ll focus on the G4 and G4N models, which have some excellent new features.

At the top end, Mega Live Imaging ($3,099.99) and Mega 360 Imaging ($2,899.99) ice bundles pack powerful technologies into ice-friendly packages. With Mega Live, you can see fish, bait and structure in real time up to 150 feet away in three different viewing modes (Down, Forward and Landscape). Meanwhile, Mega 360 Imaging offers a constantly updating 360-degree view below the ice to quickly find structure and fish and to track roving schools. Both bundles include the appropriate transducer, shaft and an adapter kit.

The Ice Helix 7 units ($949.99–$1,049.99), I feel, are maybe the most versatile for the money. They offer a nice 7-inch HD display (now upgraded to 1024x600) and some great sonar and mapping capabilities at a solid price point.

All G4 and G4N models also include the new Premium Ice Shuttle, which I enjoyed using out on the ice. Its protected master power switch offers easy on/off activation without disconnecting the battery, and its large carry handle is perfect for gloved users. The shuttle’s modular design has multiple 1/4”-20 mounting points for additional customization. Dual rod holders, a transducer cup, a secured battery compartment and an included 15 Ah or 20 Ah lithium battery—depending on model—round things out.

All Ice Helix models have Dual Spectrum CHIRP sonar with 3/4-inch target separation, six CHIRP interference rejection settings, adjustable sonar zoom (up to 16X), a 1024 segment flasher view and split screen (flasher and 2D sonar) views. G4 and G4N models also have built-in GPS and mapping capabilities, including AutoChart Live Ice and slots for LakeMaster and Navionics “chips.” With a 7- or 9-inch HD screen, GPS, mapping tools and 2D sonar (and Mega Live or Mega 360 on Ice Helix 9 units) in a smartly designed ice shuttle, there’s much to like about these new electronics.—Drew Warden




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