Ice Fishing: Late-Season Panfish Tactics
January 12, 2018
These ice fishing tips will make your winter panfishing more predictable and your success more reliable.
Last-ice panfish can be fickle. A lot depends on where you're at in the last-ice cycle. If you're still in the throes of winter, perch fishing can be hot in the lake's middle basin. If runoff has begun, fish will be on the move and bluegills, sunfish and crappie will be more active and relating to weed edges.
The million-dollar question is, "Where are we in the cycle?" If the lake you're targeting has yellow perch, late winter can produce one of the most consistent bites of the hardwater season.
"You can count on perch relating to the deepest part of the main basin of the lake," shared ice-fishing guru Brian Brosdahl (brosguideservice.com). "Deep is a relative term. In some lakes it might mean 20 feet; in others it might mean 50 feet. Or, it might only be the difference between 18 and 18 1/2 feet, but you can count on late winter perch relating to the deepest water in the basin."
The reason perch school there is food.
"Bottom composition is key," said Brosdahl. "A muddy bottom is what you're looking for. If it's not, you need to move until you find mud. Mud harbors creatures like bloodworms, wigglers and crayfish in it. That's why the perch are there.
"People think crayfish are only in the shallows. That's not true. I've seen crayfish in excess of 40 feet of water in the winter. You're going to find young-of-the-year perch and panfish and shiners and other minnows there, too."
Roaming schools of perch scavenge the bottom to root out whatever they can find. Because of that, your bait needs to be near the bottom too.
"A lot of times I'll put on a big spoon and just pound the bottom to stir things up and attract a school of perch and then I'll switch to a smaller spoon when I get serious about catching them," joked Bro.
Spoons, like Northland's (northlandtackle.com) Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon, and new Glo-Shot Spoon, and Bay De Noc Lure's (baydenoclures.com) Swedish Pimple and PK Lure's (pklures.com) PK Spoon, excel at attracting and catching perch in deep water. The key is to lift and allow the spoon to flutter down, occasionally making contact with the bottom.
Keep a close eye on your electronics for signs of perch. Resort to shorter pops, jiggles and quivers then until you find out what the perch prefer.
The action of a jigging spoon combined with a slip-bobber rig can send perch into a frenzy. Use a 1/2- to 3/4-ounce bell sinker on the bottom and add two snelled size 10 trebles (where legal) on short, 4- or 5-inch stiff leaders using Bear Paw Connectors (bearpawtackle.com) 6 inches and a foot to 18 inches above the sinker. Add a bobber stop and an Ice Buster Bobber (toadystackle.com) and you're in business.
Bounce the sinker up and down every few minutes to stir up the bottom and attract perch and stimulate a feeding frenzy. The key is keeping something down there to keep the school around and interested. If the bite is hot, you can get away with scent-enhanced plastics like Northland's Impulse, which saves re-baiting; otherwise a minnow head, wigglers or wax worms will keep the perch snappin'.
At some point in late winter/early spring the perch abandon the main basin and head shallow. The late winter thaw, when water starts coming up through the holes and the ice is melting along the shorelines, signals it's time for perch to move. It's not an overnight rush and may take course over a few days or a week, but perch en masse are headed for the shallows where there's a hard bottom.
"Shallow" could be 10 or 12 feet — or a foot. It depends on the body of water. The perch are looking to spawn in these areas in early spring, but they're also feeding along the way following shiners and other minnows that are heading the same direction, attracted by the warming shallows and increasing sunlight.
The whole scenario can be reset by a sudden cold spell. It's not uncommon for panfish to move shallow and then back out several times depending on when last ice actually occurs.
Light, flutter-type spoons, like Northland's Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon, Custom Jigs and Spin's (customjigs.com) Slender Spoon, and PK Lure's Predator Spoon, crush jumbo yellowbellies in the skinny water. Many times the perch are so shallow you can look down the hole and watch the perch attack your spoon.
Where you find late-season bluegills, sunfish and crappies depends on vegetation.
"Bluegills and sunfish, and to some degree crappies, are creatures of edges," offered Brosdahl. "Panfish are used to being on the edge of weedbeds, but when the weeds begin to die they will move deeper to the edges of the basin. Crappies will suspend; bluegills generally don't, but not always.
"Panfish will move in from where they've spent the winter to the edge of the weeds. It doesn't matter if it's cane or rushes. If this edge is in deeper water, it's better. The average will be 4 to 6 feet. Panfish on last ice will just stack up there."
Zooplankton is the main forage of bluegills, sunfish and, to some degree, crappies during the winter. These species have fine gillrakers that allow them to sift the microorganisms.
Crappies have a sweet tooth for minnows, too. Oftentimes, minnows will feed on these same microorganisms and specks will suspend below them to take advantage.
Panfish would prefer to stay in the vegetation during the winter, but dying weeds make the vegetation inhospitable. Falling oxygen levels from decaying vegetation forces panfish and baitfish to deeper water, but there are exceptions.
For some reason, possibly underground springs, flowing water or clear ice, some weeds do stay healthy all winter. Find them and chances are good you'll find panfish all winter long.
"I wouldn't think of going on the ice without an underwater camera," advised Brosdahl. "A camera is extremely important for finding green weeds, edges and identifying how big and what kind of fish you're seeing on your electronics." Aqua View's (aquavu.com) new Micro 5 Revolution underwater camera is hand-sized with an outstanding, clear, bright image and you can store the camera in your pocket!
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Crappies love minnows, and big bull bluegills are not above gulping a hapless shiner. "A small spoon, like a small 1/32-ounce Forage Minnow, is death on crappies and even big bluegills sometimes," shared Bro. "But if the panfish you're targeting are more modest-sized you're better off using lures like the Gill-Getter and Bro Bug jigs. Last season, I had tremendous success tipping them with the Impulse Skeleton Minnow. Surprisingly, my best color was the bloodworm red, but green and purple were good, too."
Other teardrop-style lures will work. Although tungsten baits are preferred when fishing deep water, they may not be the best choice when targeting the shallows. A lighter lead jig produces a subtle-action swimming motion that last-ice panfish can't resist.
You don't want your bait to go zooming past fish that might be positioned just under the ice. It's good policy to start just under the ice and work your way down. Another decision is to choose a vertical or horizontal jig.
Although last ice is fleeting, it offers the perfect chance to end winter with a bang.
LATE ICE FISHING SAFETY
Safety is paramount on the ice all year long, but especially on last ice. Deteriorating ice conditions require additional caution. While falling through is a real hazard, falling on the ice is more threatening and more likely. Once the ice begins to melt and gets a thin layer of water on it, the surface becomes super-slick. If overnight temperatures dip below freezing it can create a surface that is like glass. Be sure to wear ice cleats or creepers, like Yaktrax (yaktrax.com) Diamond Grip creepers, before even thinking about venturing out.
Take a spud or chisel and use it to check ice conditions as you go, even if you fished the area recently. Ice conditions deteriorate rapidly and can change from day to day.
Wear a PFD or inflatable. Carry life-saving devices like ice picks. Let someone know where you plan on fishing and when you plan on returning. It's always best to err on the side of caution.