Few things in the world of angling are more satisfying than stacking a pile of panfish onto a sled at the end of a long day of ice fishing. Catching fish like bluegill and crappie through the ice is an iconic practice that thousands of anglers across the country participate in from the time they’re big enough to drill their own holes. Yet the beloved panfish bonanza seems to almost have a time limit. An ebbing wave of frantic feeding activity that peaks at first ice, before slowly settling back to a calmy rolling sea of good days and bad. By mid-winter it seems like those crazy, bucket-filling panfish days just become fewer and farther between.
Many anglers believe that this slowdown in action is because panfish become warier after dozens of their fellows are pulled up through holes in the ice, becoming as leader shy and spooky as trout in a spring creek. Others believe that with so many panfish being caught and harvested, the dropping population means that there are simply fewer fish available to be caught. While both may be true in some waters, there are other reasons for the lull in mid-winter panfish activity. Changing up your technique ensures that you can fry up a mess of tasty panfish all winter long.
Mid-Winter Panfish Behavior
When the ice first freezes up, panfish are voracious. The drop in water temperature sends them into a frantic feeding frenzy as massive schools of crappie, bluegill, pumpkinseeds, and other panfish try to fill up on calories for the long winter. Generally, these fish are found in shallow waters around thick beds of weeds where small baitfish congregate, in similar places to their warmer water haunts. However, as the ice layers thicken and less and less light manages to penetrate the water, these thick, shallow water weed beds begin to die off.
When weed beds die, they begin to absorb more oxygen than they actually give off, depleting the breathable water around them for fish and forcing them to move off into deeper waters. Panfish are the first to sense this change. In lakes and rivers where deeper water is available away from the weeds, they will retreat into it. However, there are many lakes, ponds, and backwater estuaries where these fish have no retreat. When this happens, panfish feeding activity will drop off and the fish will become more lethargic. They’ll still feed but only during the warmest parts of the day or only targeting the easiest prey that they don’t have to put in a lot of effort to catch.
Both situations are generally the main cause for any hiatus in panfish piling on the ice for anglers, though it is true on waters with a lot of ice fishing activity, the fish will stop feeding as regularly sooner rather than later do to the added surface noise and fishing pressure. For most panfish lovers this means giving up on their panfish efforts in deep winter and turning their attention to other species like walleye. But this doesn’t have to be the case because neither panfish moving into deeper water or becoming lethargic means that you have to give up catching them. It simply means you have to change your technique.
Targeting Suspended Panfish
In most cases on deep water lakes, rivers, and reservoirs once the weeds die off the large schools of panfish you were hammering on at first ice are still around but have moved into deeper water. Though this can make fishing for them a bit of a challenge, it’s still entirely possible to keep dropping these fish into the bucket, you just have to go after them where they live.
Fishing for panfish in deep water can be done in a couple ways. First is to simply drill a few prospecting holes in likely-looking spots and jigging them until you strike paydirt. Generally, when panfish move off of dying weed beds in mid-winter, they’ll go to the closest deep water retreat they can find. Most often this is right along a sharp drop-off adjacent to their early winter feeding grounds where they will gather around the nearest underwater structure. This structure can range from deepwater rockpiles, sandbars off of the tips of islands, natural spikes of bottom coming off of a deep slope, and especially flat muddy basins. You can find these areas by studying a bathymetric map or even a simple depth chart of the body of water you’re fishing. However, your best bet for really keying in on these suspended fish is by using electronics.
“Electronics are a game changer when trying to key in on suspended baitfish,” Jay Siemens, host of The Canadian Angle fishing series said. “Instead of having to drill a bunch of holes and play a lot of guess and check, you can use something like Livescope which can scan the water 100 to 150 feet around the hole and help you find the fish. It’s completely changed the way that I fish for panfish.”
Siemens likes to hunt for these suspended panfish in deeper muddy bottomed basins adjacent to shallower water where he finds that panfish like crappie tend to gather during the deep winter.
“I love finding a basin of around 15 feet with a lot of fish sitting in it,” Siemens said. “Though they can be down a lot deeper than that, say 25 to 30 feet, you start seeing a lot of barotrauma (expansion of gases in the swim bladder) in panfish which can lead to a lot of them dying. That’s one of the great things about using electronics for these suspended fish. Finding them in shallower water where you aren’t having to take them all and can practice selective harvest.”
When it comes to tactics for fishing for suspended panfish, you don’t have to worry so much about finesse. Suspended panfish aren’t seeing a lot of pressure for the most part, and when they’re gathered up, they’re on the feed.
“I target suspended baitfish with the usual suspects,” says Siemens. “Jigs tipped with spikes or maggots or minnows and good-sized jigging spoons. Don’t go super finesse with these fish, they’re generally going to respond better to something bigger.”
Dead-Sticking for Panfish
If you don’t have any electronics to help find suspended panfish, or are fishing a relatively shallow lake where the max depth isn’t deeper than 15 feet, then dead-sticking can also be a great option for getting on top of mid-winter panfish. Dead-sticking is pretty much what it sounds like, consisting of setting up a baited jigging rod and letting it sit still without jigging until something comes along and takes the bait. However, it can be much more complex than that when using the technique to specifically target mid-winter panfish as this involves setting up several rods at once to get on top of the fish.
When you dead-stick for mid-winter panfish, you’re searching for them, which means using several jigging rods at once places in strategic areas outside of the fish’s early winter weed lines. Most of the time, when the weeds die in mid-winter panfish living in shallower waterbodies aren’t going to travel too far from their early winter sanctuaries. They’ll push into deeper water but will likely be concentrated within a short distance of the shallows. Start your dead-sticking exploits by drilling 4 to 5 holes in a straight line starting from the deepest point of the water back to within a few yards of a known weed line. This will allow you to cover a variety of depths back to the shallowest point where panfish are likely gathering.
A lot of anglers set up dead-stick rigs by simply laying a jigging rod directly on the ice or in a chair or bucket, but I’ve found it best to use ice fishing rod holders or when setting up rods a good distance apart, an ice rigger which comes with a signaling flag similar to a tip-up which raises in the air to let you know a panfish has taken the bait. This same set-up can be done with traditional tip-ups, but I’ve found that in extremely cold water with sluggish relatively small fish, much of the time panfish won’t actually set the tip-up off even when the drag of the spool is set extremely loosely. Dead-sticking ice riggers have a bit more sensitivity and can be triggered with less provocation. Furthermore, some designs can actually set the hook for you, ensuring that smaller panfish won’t swallow the bait should you want to release them.
Rigging and baiting a dead-stick rig for panfish is a fairly simple process. Just string the rod with 6lb to 8lb test monofilament or braided line and then tie a small barrel swivel to the end of the line. Then add a short 2- to 3-foot section of fluorocarbon leader to the other end of the swivel. Clip a small number 5 or 7 split shot to the leader about halfway along its length and then add a small size 8 or 10 baithook. Bait the hook with a small live pinhead minnow hooked through the lips and you’re all set to go.
Set the dead-stick rig up by dropping the weight and bait down the hole to the bottom and then reeling it up a few inches so that the rig hovers just above the bottom when you set the rod in the holder. Ideally, the minnow will then swim in a small concentric circle around the suspended weight until it’s discovered and inhaled by a passing panfish. Once a rod starts producing fish consistently, you can concentrate your efforts by moving the other rods closer to the hot hole until you’re completely dialed in on where the panfish are schooling.
Micro Jigging for Panfish
When fishing shallower waters where there isn’t any deeper water for panfish to retreat to in mid-winter and a large amount of weed die-off makes the fish extremely sluggish, one of the best strategies is to go small. Panfish stuck in shallower water for winter are going to slowly become less and less aggressive as the long cold of the season goes on, so continuing to fish for them with large spoons and heavy jigs will eventually become almost fruitless. In fact, once oxygen levels get low enough and panfish become lethargic enough, bouncing these large baits over and over in an area will eventually start to actually spook them out of the area. This is where micro-jigging comes into play.
For the most part panfish jigs and spoons come are small, usually coming in hook sizes 8, 10, and 12, resembling the size of small baitfish and aquatic insects that they generally feed on. However, during the deep winter, fish dwelling in shallow water are looking for the easiest meal possible, and many change their focus from minnows and the like to tiny microorganisms called zooplankton. On brighter sunny mid-winter days and in the last hours before sunset, the activity of these tiny microbes can trigger even the most lethargic shallow water panfish into feeding, but to catch them you’ll have to “match the hatch” so to speak by using micro jigs.
Micro jigs look just like common ice fishing jigs except they’re smaller coming in hook sizes as tiny as 14, 18, and even size 20 and weighing as little as 1/100th of an ounce. Though these tiny jigs are still larger than the zooplankton, their tiny size is similar and discrete enough to pique the fish’s interest. Made of dense metals such as tungsten, micro jigs will still sink quickly, but they’re designed to be fished subtly, with precise but barely perceptible movements. This requires anglers to fish them using micro-light rods, strung with the lightest 1lb to 2lb test fluorocarbon lines.
You can bait these tiny jigs with a small piece of cut worm or maggots, but often they’ll work just as well on their own. Start your jigging by allowing the jig to sink to just above the bottom and then giving it some light barely perceptible twitching jigs with the rod tip. Slowly raise the rod as you jig so that eventually the jig is just below the bottom of the ice before letting it back down to the bottom and starting over again. Again it’s important to use the lightest most sensitive rods as possible, these strikes are often little more than a gentle tap that you must set the hook on extremely quickly.
Though it can be a slow process, when you really key in on where the fish are hiding and what they’re feeding on, the action can become relatively fast and furious. So, it’s important to drill a lot of holes in different locations and to keep changing spots until you start to pull wriggling panfish onto the ice at fairly regular intervals.
Keeping the Bucket Filled
Though there are many more desirable ice fishing targets, panfish still hold a very special place in the winter angling world. On the cold slower days of the season, staying on top of panfish can provide you with at least a bit of action all day long.
Additionally, while they’re some of the best-eating fish in freshwater, there is a lot more reason for pursuing panfish than just their edibility. These small flat slabs of aquatic joy have been giving anglers a tug on their line since most of us were children. Catching them through the ice as an adult recalls warm feelings of remembered success, a welcome sentiment that can get us through even the longest and coldest days of the winter.