March 04, 2021
By Joel Nelson
- Editor's Note: This timely ice-fishing article is featured in the Midwest edition of the March issue of Game & Fish Magazine, currently on sale at newsstands across the country. Learn more about the March issue. Interested in a subscription ($8 annual)? Click here.
Late-ice panfishing sees far less participation than it should. Check out popular midwestern panfish spots during March and as late as April, and you'll often see only a handful of trailers with ATVs and trucks with ice-anglers at select accesses. These remaining panfish prowlers have made it through the doldrums of February and are ready to chase crappies and 'gills that are becoming more active again.
Although most of these secretive anglers won't share their intel, in the waning days and weeks of remaining ice, panfish usually aren't where you found them during the rest of the ice-season. Crappies aren't in their community wintering holes and bluegills have also migrated from their mid-winter deep edges. These fish have become all about the weed beds, and you'll need to change your game plan to experience some of the best panfish angling of the winter season.
Bluegills are among the first to break from their traditional wintering habitats to main-lake weed beds. However, that doesn't always make them easy to find or catch. In mid-winter, 'gills often hold in 18 to 25 feet of water in many northern natural lakes. They are found slightly shallower in most other water bodies throughout their ice range.
By the time late ice rolls around, these fish often sit at nearly half that depth. Exactly how much shallower they are depends on the primary weed species of the lake and its water clarity, which will define the deep weed line. This can be coontail or, preferably, still-standing cabbage that all species flock to once the sun angle gets higher and the melt gets going.
Bluegills can be choosy when it comes to settling into the right weeds. Quite often, small humps just off shoreline structure hold the best weed beds in the lake. Whether cabbage, coontail or another weed species, fish prefer vibrant standing beds of vegetation rather than the dying, laid-down remnants of the previous season.
This is where an underwater camera is worth its weight in gold. Use one to scope for the best, most dense weed beds on these small humps or even main-lake points. Look for life. The presence of aquatic insects and baitfish can indicate that good 'gills are nearby and using that weedy cover.
Seeing predator species can be a good thing for bluegill anglers, too, as they’re often present in numbers on healthy systems. Pike and bass alike key on bluegills during late-ice periods. In fact, it’s rare to be on a good late-ice ’gill bite without some predators in the mix. There's almost certainly a correlation between big bass—and probably even big pike—and the quality of a bluegill lake.
Both predator species and bluegills coexist around weed beds. However, this means that while 'gills are fixated on finding food, they're also cautious about not ending up on the menu themselves.
Because dense weed cover is both rich in food sources and popular with predators, bluegills learn to bury themselves in heavy cover. They pick off the rich invertebrate life within and just outside of these weed beds to minimize risk. This can make catching these fish a little tricky, but still doable.
Precision is the key to finding and catching fish, particularly as it pertains to drilling. A minimum of two anglers—one with an underwater camera, the other with an auger—perform this dance best by drilling, sighting and re-drilling until a mental map of sorts is developed.
Most weed beds are irregularly shaped, even if the hump is perfectly round. While predators cruise edges and points in search of perfect ambush spots, 'gills seek inside turns in the weeds to surround themselves with more cover. They especially like pockets within the weeds. I've had incredible days after finding trashcan-lid-sized openings in dense weed beds where 'gills can feed unmolested by bass and pike.
Start by defining the edges of the weed bed. This will take a good dozen or more holes depending on its size. Check for the presence of panfish hiding in the vegetation with your underwater camera, then drill an "X," with the center of it at the middle of the weed bed. Make sure each endpoint is just outside the weedline. Spacing between holes depends on the size of the weedbed, but generally you don't want to miss a hole in the weeds that's larger than a kitchen table or so. Rotate 90 degrees and drill another "X" on the same weed bed while your partner verifies or denies the presence of panfish-holding pockets.
In shallow water of less than 10 feet—especially in clear systems—you'll need to give a good 15 minutes of rest to each spot before actually fishing. All that poking and prodding will upset the fish, but only for a short while, so feel free to drill and search out a few nearby beds with the camera until you find the best ones to target.
Drop small tungsten flies—both the vertical (teardrop shaped) and horizontal hanging versions—to fish in the pockets and edges you find. If fishing edges, be prepared for bass and pike, as they'll readily hit 1/64- to 1/16-ounce offerings, too. Often, flurries of bass will come through as they prowl the edges. Panfish will scram until the coast is clear. Then, they will become active once more until predators push them around again.
Plastics are great on a warm March day. On colder days, sometimes tipping your offering with euro larvae or waxworms is a must. Cameras can be used to catch fish, but sonar is usually a better tool here, as hooked bass, pike and sunfish alike will readily tangle in your camera cable.
It's not common to find crappies in the same locations as bluegills, but in some lakes—especially those with limited depth—they're mixed together. When both species are relating to the same beautiful beds of vegetation, it makes for a wonderful bite. However, one of the best big-crappie bites of the year comes at the very end of late ice, even later than the 'gills start going. It usually happens when daytime temps reach 50 degrees or above, but nighttime lows settle near or just below freezing. Melting snow and ice along lake edges wash nutrients and even some terrestrials into the system. Flow-through systems with current start breathing life into a waterbody previously capped for months.
By this time, ice along the shoreline is often retreating from land. This creates a watery moat between dry land and stable ice. To access the ice, many anglers bridge the gap with boards. There’s often still feet of solid ice to travel on once you hit the lake, but during this time safety becomes a primary consideration in any outing.
Although the weather is warm, a floating suit is a must now, as is a good spud bar. Late-ice veterans read bad ice and describe it as "honeycombed," or like snow cone shavings atop the ice. Eventually, that ice turns "black" as it becomes more porous and accepts water from below, then sinks and breaks up simultaneously.
I've seen this happen in as little as a few hours. You might walk onto mostly frozen, hard ice in the morning, then, in the afternoon sun, you're dodging shady ice while breaking through near shore. No fish is worth that, so a last precaution is to come prepared with a throw rope. And, for safety's sake, always go fishing with multiple friends.
With a safety plan in place, it's time to look at a lake map and strategize. In many systems, both winter community holes and spring spawning locations are well defined or locally known—the presence of anglers usually makes these spots clear. Consult bait shops, or simply hit a lake you're familiar with and have fished successfully for crappies. Then, draw a migration line from spring to winter spots and back again.
This will give you a picture of where to look for crappies throughout the winter and spring. Cold fronts will see fish slide back toward necked-down transitions to the basin while warming water temps will have fish pushing back toward the shallows. Focus your efforts on the "in-between." Quite often, these are mid-level flats in the 7- to 15-foot range where the biggest crappies in the lake will cruise in search of easy meals.
This time of year, crappies look up for most of their grub. Fish typically hang low in the shadows and head up to the light to feed. Their meals consist mostly of items trapped in the ice and baitfish that can suspend just below the ice. In clearer systems, this sets up incredible sight-fishing scenarios.
Drill holes a good distance apart to cover the entire flat. Then, utilize a portable hub- or flip-over-style shelter the same way a darkhouse spearer would use a spear-shack. By killing the light, you can see much farther underwater.
The goal is to use a short rod to precisely manipulate small jigs from bottom to top. I prefer to start my jigging sequence low until I see where fish are moving in the water column.
If I see fish just below the ice, I'll dance the jig down, but once I find their zone of travel I'll always stay above it. The same small tungsten heads you used for 'gills, upgraded by a single size, are usually the ticket. At times, small spoons tipped with minnow heads—like you'd use for walleyes or perch—can work, too. The right size is usually 1/16 ounce, but try all the way up to 1/8 ounce for trophy waters.
In very clear systems, even small movements spook fish. So, position your body in the shelter away from the hole, leaning over with a sight-bite rod pistol-gripped near your ear. You're looking for a bright-colored jig to disappear. Then, flick your wrist to set the hook and play the fish.
Sometimes, it's more similar to deer hunting than fishing. You're waiting for approaching packs of fish to roam these flats in search of food while keeping still in your "stand" for the perfect shot.
Whether crappies or bluegills, weed flats or dense beds, vegetation draws late-ice fish like a magnet. This season, save some dates and effort for the last push, and you'll be rewarded with better weather and great panfishing to boot.