Chasing panfish on the hardwater is a favorite pastime in the northern states. Chances are if you are a fisherman from up this way, you’ve pulled at least a few crappies or bluegills through a hole in the ice. I’ve been a dedicated ice fisherman my whole life, and here are a few tips to put more panfish on the ice.
If you choose to only consider one tip a thought from this entire article, this is the one. I can’t stress enough how important it is to stay mobile and stay on top of the fish. It’s impossible to catch them if they aren’t there. This is true whether you do your ice fishing with a FishSens camera, a flasher, or the old-school way with just a fishing rod. I’ll often drill many holes in an area before I wet a line so I can quickly find and move with the fish. This is especially important with suspended pelagic fish. There are days you literally have to chase them, but if you can stay on them they will be biting.
Going along with staying mobile is using the element of surprise in your favor. Many times a hole will kick out two or three fish and then shut down. It’s time to pack up and hit the next hole at that point, hopefully catching several there as well and continually repeating that process. This may mean leaving the ice shanty at home and braving the elements, but it’s usually worth it.
Be efficient out there, when they are fired up and feeding you absolutely need to have a bait down there. Using tungsten jigs is the answer here, especially in deep water. Tungsten is much denser than lead so you can have a heavy weight in a small package. It may take some experimenting but make sure the profile of your jig is right. I usually find that on a specific body of water a certain size jig will outshine the rest.
There are a couple modifications you can do to the jig itself to bring more fish to the topside of the ice. Most important is to bend the hook outward and to the side a little bit. That way when a fish swallows the whole jig, there is something to catch their mouth on the way out. Otherwise the hook is right in line with the jig and it will often follow the jig right on out of the fish’s mouth. I also feel it’s important to tie a loop knot. This allows for your jig to have some extra wiggle room and gives it a little more movement that is irresistible to panfish, especially when they are being finicky.
Since panfish are often feeding on invertebrates, you want to make that jig look like a bug. Instead of jigging up and down by a foot or so, you want to shake the bait down there. When you are doing this, keep it above their heads and if they get picky make them think it is getting away. It’s always interesting to see how worked up they get when shaking it and moving it away from them.
I’ll typically tip my jig with live bait. Spikes or mouses are preferred because they seem to stay on the hook the best. One thing I always do is keep my hook covered when I’m using live bait. It isn’t important all the time, but often when I am struggling to get bit, I find that my hook is showing. The one problem live bait does have is that it appeals to fish of all sizes. Tipping your jig with a plastic instead creates a bigger profile and will attract bigger fish. This can be useful if that’s what you are targeting or small panfish are outcompeting the big ones for your jig.
Lastly, know your body of water. For reasons unknown to me, certain lakes seem to have certain times that the bite is best. In fact, one of my favorite places to fish is very time specific. They bite at daylight for a couple hours and then again a couple hours before dark. You’ll catch them as fast as you can get your line in the water at these times if you are on the school. But show up at noon and try the same thing and you are likely to believe it’s a terrible fishing lake. I’ve fished other lakes where it is exactly the opposite, so it pays to experiment with times until you learn a particular fishery.
Put these tips in your back pocket next time you hit the ice. It may be something as simple as a jig profile change that may turn your next good outing into a great one. Always keep an open mind, stay mobile and remember you can’t catch them if they aren’t there.