A Guide to Hardwater Panfish
By Amanda Buer
I’ll admit it… sometimes I screech with excitement when I talk about panfish through the ice. Finding a school of large bluegills or a cluster of crappies may just make you scream with excitement too – trust me on this one! Locating a school of nice fish can be a challenge, but it’s a challenge that is worth taking on. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced angler, the same tips and tricks apply. Let’s start with what to look for and build the tricks as we go.
I prefer to target smaller lakes that are off the beaten path. These lakes tend to receive less fishing pressure, which can often help to produce above-average panfish. Plus, who doesn’t like having the lake to themselves?!
I typically begin by looking for areas where a large weed flat meets a deep-water basin. These types of locations will have features that can keep fish in the area all winter long, or even all yearlong. Remember that spot you found large green weeds at this summer? Return there. Chances are these fish are holding onto those weeds, if they haven’t died off yet.
Bluegills and crappies love green vegetation as it produces more oxygen, a fish’s lifeline, while also holding baitfish for food. These weed flats may have depths ranging from 6 to 10 feet, breaking off into deep water. Panfish will slide up and down these throughout the day to feed.
We tend to see a trend of feeding fish on these flats an hour before dusk, or first light in the morning, breaking off toward deeper water during the midday period. With this said, weather can dramatically change this dynamic. Watch your local forecast as a different weather system or storm front moving in can trigger a feeding frenzy. The hours just before the weather system can be a small window you won’t want to miss!
On the Move
Mobility is key when chasing plus-sized panfish. Drill a series of holes over various depths, moving from hole to hole until you find fish. You may pluck a couple bluegills out of one hole, only to find it then suddenly shuts off. Move.
Next hole… same school of fish gliding between weeds. Play the game of hide-and-seek and the fish will play along. By the time you’ve had enough of the games, you should have nice stack of panfish topside.
Tried and True Lures
A tackle box with an arsenal of different lures to try is nice, but having a couple of your favorite go-to jigs seems to be best when hole hopping for panfish. Tied onto one ice rod, I always have a small jig, such as a Clam Half Ant Drop equipped with a Makiplastic. This is a great weapon for the shallow water bite and can turn picky panfish into biters.
Using artificial plastics allows me to hole hop without carrying live bait around. However, if you’d like live bait, wax worms are the most popular of ice fishing baits and can be carried and kept alive much easier than minnows.
My second rod tends to have something a little heavier on it, such as a 1/16 oz. Lindy Frostee Spoon. Actively feeding fish are often attracted to the aggressive jigging techniques of this spoon with its larger profile. Jigging spoons are also more efficient in deeper water as they allow you to get down more quickly to help you stay on top of an active school.
Find what combination works best for you and your area by testing out a handful of baits. The most important thing is having confidence in your presentation.
Picking the right ice rod for these ultralight baits will be just as important as your lure choice. A light action rod with a high sensitivity enables you to feel the fish before the fish feels you, allowing you to set the hook before they spit the bait. I personally use a St. Croix Avid Glass 26” Light ice rod for most situations. While being ultra sensitive, it still has all the backbone necessary to set the hook and can easily handle larger surprise catches.
Your New Best Friend
Although it is not required to ice fish, one piece of equipment that will help to complete the experience is a flasher. A flasher creates a flash on the screen for the depth of the water and the depth in which fish are, letting you bounce your bait off the bottom to attract fish when you don’t see any on the screen, or when they are present, bringing your bait up or down to match the level, catching fish that you would have otherwise missed.
Using a flasher also allows you to see fish come in around your jig and watch how the fish react to different jigging techniques. Aggressive jigging of your bait may either trigger the fish to bite or scare the fish off. Being able to see this reaction take place on the screen of your flasher allows you to adjust your technique to the fish’s current mood.
When a fish is showing interest in your lure, slowly begin to rise above it as if you are playing a game of ‘keep away.’ An actively feeding fish will follow your bait up until they finally decide to gulp it. If they retreat back down to the bottom, drop back down and begin the process again.
The Vexilar FL-8SE is an entry-level flasher offering a great bang for your buck, retailing around $279.99. This unit allows you to discover bottom contours and types, vegetation, structure, fish and baitfish in a multiple color display that doesn’t break the bank. There are many brands and models out there, and when it comes down to it, they will all help you to catch more fish. Use what’s comfortable for you. Not everyone can afford a flasher or ice fish often enough to justify purchasing one. If that’s the case, simply study a structure map and hole hop until you find the perfect depth.
All the gear in the world means nothing if you don’t know your ice conditions and how to be safe. The condition of the ice is the single most important thing to consider before venturing out onto any lake. Know your body of water – the depth, the structure and the water movement. Rivers, inlets and naturally occurring springs are all things that need to be considered before walking on any lake. The current underneath the ice can create thin spots and even cause the water to remain open all year.
Most say safe ice for walking is between 2 and 4 inches; I personally won’t walk on a lake until there is at least 3 inches of good, solid clear ice. Even then, I don’t go anywhere without the proper safety gear. Ice picks (learn how to make your own on the next pages) are with me from November to April in case I ever get in a bind and find myself swimming.
Another thing to consider in early ice conditions is wearing a life jacket. Insert laughter here, but in all seriousness, wet winter apparel can sink you and if you are alone this may just save your life. Late ice also tends to be dangerous as temperatures begin to temporarily warm up and fluctuate causing the ice to melt, refreeze, shift and crack. Every year, there are long-time hardwater anglers that fall through the ice; it’s not just a beginner thing. If you’re nervous about the ice, don’t go.
Be safe and enjoy your time on the ice making memories. Every bite can give you a new surprise, whether it’s fighting a bonus walleye on your light panfish setup or wrestling with a beautiful 14-inch crappie that’s ‘resisting arrest.’ Those are the types of surprises that make chasing hardwater panfish an adventure you won’t forget. Tight lines from Minnesota!
Amanda Buer resides in the “Land of 10,000 Lakes,” and she just might fish all of them one day. As a multi-species angler, she’s always ready to chase the next hot bite, no matter how deep into the woods it takes her.