For many anglers, ice fishing for panfish has become not just a pastime for most but a passion. Anglers worldwide are becoming better educated and better equipped while fish stocks are dwindling due to excessive fishing pressure. Lakes that used to be panfish hotspots are becoming public knowledge and becoming over-fished. With that being said, astute anglers realize that branching out and scouting fresh spots within a large body of water, or better yet, getting off the beaten path and finding new bodies of water to fish. The use of snowmobiles, ATV's or even snowshoes is indispensable when trying to reach those frozen jackpots of lakes that remain unscathed by summer fisherman.
Scouting the Lake
A good place to start is with a general map of the area that you live in. The landscape is riddled with tiny lakes that you probably have never payed any attention to. They are untapped sources of wintertime slabs.
Once you find a few probable targets it is worth checking through the DNR's website. These websites have detailed information reports that list fish populations, size, lake characteristics, and access. With this info anglers can go so far as to make sensible assumptions on a lake's potential for holding good numbers of big panfish. As well as, possible patterns for catching these fish. If the lake or pond you are thinking of approaching is not listed then an experimental trip might be needed. This will help to find what this body of water really holds. Hopefully, if the water turns out to be deep enough, you will find a few dozen undisturbed slabs.
Some key characteristic of lakes that are good producers of beautiful bluegills and crappies are shorelines that are riddled with bulrushes, cattails and other natural vegetation. The ideal lakes are often quite small being around 150 to 200 acres in size. These small fertile bodies of water should have shallow mucky flats that deepen out to approximately 20-30 feet deep to avert winterkills.
Fertile lakes house lots of the food items that panfish need to grow big quickly. Mayfly larvae, midge, damselfly, dragonfly nymphs, and countless invertebrates and aquatic insects are just a small portion of these predatory fishes' diet and all these critters are scattered along the muddy shallow shorelines.
Remote locations combined with untouched shorelines can be hot beds for big dinner plate panfish. Sometimes the only way you will ever find out if those inaccessible lakes are going to pay off is by just getting out there and experimenting. Take a day and try one, you never quite know what you will pull from the bottom of the ice.
Locating Hungry Fish and Ice Fishing Tackle
|Because panfish are not big in size, the use of very light fishing line by anglers has several advantages.
When the ice finally covers our favorite lakes and reservoirs, anglers have to be prepared to fish deeper waters for panfish as compared to spring and summer. As the water temperature cools in the fall, panfish accordingly move to deeper depths. Winter panfish are normally found anywhere between 10-50 feet deep. Of the panfish grouping, bluegills are usually found in the shallowest conditions. They typically are caught in waters 10-25 feet deep.
Crappies and perch on the other hand will generally be found in the 20 to 50 foot range. One exception to this rule is that crappies have a tendency to come up within a few feet under the ice at night.
One key to finding panfish is to be able to fish new wood or sunken structure. Almost all species that swim will relate to wood or structure at some time or another. New wood is fertile and gives shelter and feed to many critters that panfish call food making this wood an ideal location for hungry fish to hangout.
The equipment used for catching panfish is pretty straight forward. A small jigging rod and reel capable of holding a maximum of 100 feet of 4 pound test line, small bobbers, an assortment of ice flies, small painted lead jigs and bait are all you need. Because panfish are not big in size, the use of very light line by anglers has several advantages. Light line stays limber in cold weather conditions and will allow tiny ice jigs to sink down to the bottom faster than with heavier line. Another important advantage to using light line when ice fishing is that when jigging baits on the pause, your ice jigs will flutter and dip producing more action. This fluttering action will result in strikes from fish. In addition to this using light line with tiny jigs will allow you to use small bobbers on the line to detect those light, finicky bites from the fish.
As for baiting your jigs or ice flies: wax worms, meal worms or a piece of night crawler all seem to work very well. Commercially available artificial baits also work very well with fish that are aggressively feeding. Small spoons or minnow imitations that are meant to be jigged up and down seem to have a particular affinity for coning big lackadaisical gills into biting down hard.
In most cases locating large schools of panfish is a challenge, but once you find the fish the bite is usually hard and fast. In this instance jigging seems almost useless because the instant your bait nears aggressive panfish they bite and clobber it. Unfortunately fish are not always in this type of feeding mood and anglers have to work through a variety of jigging presentations, and lures to find something that consistently triggers strikes.
To start off: drill a few holes and check with your electronics to see what's below the ice. If you start marking fish, rapidly drop your lure to a point just above the grouping of panfish. With your electronics you should be able to see the reaction of the fish. Slowly keep lowering the bait towards the fish while maintaining a taunt line. If you do not receive an immediate bite, then lift the bait over the group of fish and proceed to lower it again. Aggressive fish should be the first to come up and test out what you have to offer. Although these aggressive fish provide steady action they usually are not the plump slabs you are searching for and need to be worked out. This initial lift and fall, technique is a good way to motivate our finned friends, but it will not always get the true slabs excited.
The use of electronics and being successful in ice fishing goes hand in hand. Although you can still catching fish without electronics, a quality flasher can tell you info about depth, structure, bottom content and how fish are reacting to their lure. A good ice fishing sonar has three general requirements:
First and foremost, the sonar you choose has to be easy to use. If you cannot work or understand your sonar then it is no good to you, out in the ice.
Secondly, your electronics need to relay information in real time. Screen's images displayed by your sonar should show your actual lure and the fish without delay or lapse in time.
Finally, your sonar needs to be portable. Being able to pick up and move in ice fishing is very important so having a sonar that facilitates this process will give you more time with your lure in the water.
To try and excite lackadaisical fish a good idea is to turn your presentation into a jigging sequence. When jigging be careful not to over-exaggerate jigging motions in hopes of provoking a strike. Most fish associate quick, sharp, vertical movements with some sort of danger, subsequently provoking a fleeing response from fish. Vertically lift jigs about one foot and pause allowing the fly to drop slowly. When doing this lift try to change up your presentation to make your bait lift, pulse, and pump through the water column in short bursts. Natural prey for panfish is small and slow moving, so keeping your movements leisurely will ensure you the best chance at catching lots of quality fish.
Don't sit at home this winter season dreaming of an early spring so that you can get out and enjoy a great days fishing. Our favorite lakes and ponds will soon be covered with ice so get out a pair of snow pants and your extra warm coat and see what is lurking below the ice.