Minnesota guide, Brian “Bro” Brosdahl (brosguideservice.com) spends most of the winter finding and catching big bluegill, crappie, and other panfish through the ice. Bro’s recipe for ice fishing success is simple. First, locate productive areas using a sonar and an underwater camera. Next, determine the “spot-on the-spot” where the biggest panfish live, then refine jigging baits and tactics until fish of jaw-dropping proportions start biting. What follows is a closer look at this tried-and-true approach for catching portly panfish on ice.
For Amazing Panfish Habitat, Scout the Vegetation
|Aqua-Vu 715c Underwater Camera|
When looking for bluegills on large bodies of water, you need to find the biggest weed beds,” Brosdahl said. “Ask yourself, ‘where do the bluegills spend their summer?’”
Bluegills aren’t going to leave good vegetation just because there is ice over their heads. If the aquatic flora was up to snuff for panfish in the summer, it has high potential to cut the mustard in winter.
A visual man, Brosdahl likes surveying panfish habitat using an Aqua-Vu underwater camera after drilling out an area. Spinning the cord for a 360-view as well as dunking it into the plant stalks, he looks for panfish, forage, assesses the health of the vegetation, and makes note of the water clarity.
“Always look in the weeds and at the weeds,” Brosdahl said. “Even if the weeds are dead, bluegills will still use them. They are a creature pursued by predators all their life. They want concealment.”
Extra Tip: Water temperature can vary a few degrees beneath the ice and Brosdahl aims to find 39-degree water using his Aqua-Vu’s temp display. A weed bed can look amazing, but it’s unlikely to hold quality fish if holding the coldest water in the lake.
Soft Bottom Flats are Attractive to All Kinds of Panfish
Muddy flats are another of Brosdahl’s favorite panfish locations. Why? Flats typically have a soft bottom and are settling areas for organic matter. This makes the area attractive to bloodworms and other invertebrates bluegill, crappie, and yellow perch eat.
The tricky part about flats is overcoming their size. Knowing where to start can intimidate some anglers. Not so for Bro, of course, who suggests first focusing on contact point locations.
“If you have a shallow flat that hour-glasses anywhere, those fish have to cross that spot at some point,” Brosdahl said. “Or, if there are two big flats connected by one little depression, that’s another area where fish travel or stack-up. Instead of panfish being onesie, twosie, they’re in pods and the pods come through in groups.”
|Humminbird ICE HELIX 7 CHIRP GPS 2 Fishfinder|
Another feature Brosdahl looks for are depressions. These dimples tend to collect extra organic matter and can be a bloodworm buffet for pannies.
Panfish also relate to rock piles found on flats in natural shield lakes. Brosdahl likes baseball and softball sized rocks.
“Rocks are only second to wood to hold bluegills and crappies,” he said. “If you’re on a lake with a lot of granite this will be a great place to hold them.”
Extra Tip: Brosdahl saves time and auger gas during early-ice by bringing a vacuum bottle filled with warm water. Instead of drilling holes and then checking depth using a sonar, he pours some water on clear ice (If snow covered, he first clears a spot using his boot or a chisel). Then, his Humminbird Ice Helix fishfinder transducer is lowered on the puddle. The unit’s powerful beam shoots through the water and ice, providing an instant depth reading. Just remember to wipe the transducer to prevent ice build-up.
Find Winter Panfish in Drop-Offs Leading Into Basins
|Fishing guide Brian Brosdahl with a crappie caught pounding a soft-bottom flat.|
Drop-offs leading into deep basins are another zone to find big winter panfish. In particular, the base of the break is especially productive. Silt, mud, and organic matter slide down the drop-off and settle at its base. This creates another soft-bottom area likely to hold forage and attract big bluegill, crappie, and perch.
Extra Tip: Whenever Brosdahl finds brag-worthy panfish, he religiously enters waypoints into his Humminbird Ice Helix for future visits. The ice fishing ace also uses his Aqua-Vu to record video of the area. Later, he’ll study the footage on his personal computer to better understand why the area was so productive for panfish. How’s that for taking things to the next level, folks?
Using Both Aggressive and Subtle Fishing Baits
|Northland Pro Impulse Ice Kit|
Brosdahl recommends anglers carry a couple fishing rod combos rigged with different baits when pursuing panfish. At the very least, have one large bait, like a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, and one subtle jig and plastic, such as the Northland Impulse Bro’s Bloodworm, Skeleton Minnow, or another finesse plastic available in the Northland Pro Impulse Ice Kit.
The larger, aggressive bait can be used to attract fish. When jigging sand patches in weeds, flats, or at the base of drop-offs, Brosdahl bangs bottom. This stirs up sediment and dislodges invertebrates, both of which ring the dinner bell for panfish.
On a good day, aggressive fish will eagerly hit the larger bait. But, when this doesn’t happen, Brosdahl reels in the attractor, then drops the subtle plastic to tease fish to biting.
Extra Tip: Watch this video to see Brosdahl use both aggressive and subtle baits to catch crappie through the ice:
Anglers Pay Attention to Your Jigging Cadence
|Brosdahl likes natural colors, like this red Northland Impulse Bro’s Bloodworm, which are deadly for panfish in clear water.|
“Jigging cadence will make or break an angler,” Brosdahl said. To learn the ins and outs of each bait, Brosdahl will jig it in the hole to understand how different rod movements impact bait action. This is an important step because different plastic profiles create different actions. And, tipping a jig with live-bait can also influence how it moves underwater.
Taking this to the next level is studying how big panfish react to the presentation using an underwater camera and experiment with different jigging cadences to learn which ones work best. It’s something Brosdahl has spent countless hours doing.
“If a bluegill or a crappie swims forward, then they swim backwards, they’re looking at it [the bait] close, and then looking at it far away. They’re staring it down, trying to decide if real or fake.”
Extra Tip: Brosdahl cautions anglers not to dive-bomb a bait down to panfish, but instead “fish your way down”. Panfish are very in-tune with what’s overhead and a fast falling bait can turn off fish. It might not spook them enough to physically move, but it can make triggering them to bite an uphill battle.
Water Clarity Does Affect Lure Color
|Northland UV Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon|
Brosdahl considers water color and stain when choosing lure color. He offers this advice.
“If the water is dark and I can’t see far with the Aqua-Vu, I’ll go with UV or glow colours, or bright red, orange, or gold,” Brosdahl said.
Clear water is another story. While he concedes glow is good, natural colors, like red, black, purple, and green, are equally potent. But, he won’t rule out certain hot colors and says chartreuse can be deadly sometimes in clear conditions.
Anglers can also increase their odds by using different colored jig heads and plastics. This creates contrast. Good combos include orange-red, blue-glow, or pink-white.
“A purple head with a red or black tail is good, but experiment because being stuck in same pathway won’t bring success,” Brosdahl said.
Extra Tip: “I often get asked if an Aqua-Vu works in murky water. Well, if you can see the faces looking at your hook it gives you a lot of clues… and every clue you get helps put more fish on the ice,” Brosdahl said.
Be sure to try Brosdahl’s system for finding and fooling winter panfish when stepping on the ice this season. These tactics will work on your first trip and continue to produce well into mid-winter.