Do you love big bluegill?
I have been asked a few times on this site what tactics I use to catch crappie and blue gill through the ice. So I thought the best way to answer would be to put a post together with some pictures and articulate my method. So lets dive right in! First thing is first, you need to find them. I look back at my ice fishing days with no flasher (fish finder) and just chuckle. Basically, I would pick a spot drill a couple holes and put a minnow 2' off the bottom and another half way between the ice and the bottom.... didn't catch any fish? Move and repeat. It was tedious and not productive. Oh how I look back at that time and think of all the learning I could have accomplished by just spending the $200 on any used flasher unit that was readily available on Craigslist. I know a lot of you are on a budget (I am too) but believe me when I say that whatever you can afford to buy to mark fish will be the best investment you will ever make towards becoming a better fisherman on the ice. I will never ice fish again without my flasher, period.
I believe the biggest key to my success in catching fish on the ice is that I keep moving until I mark fish. It sounds simple enough but in reality it requires a lot of work and patience as sometimes I will drill over 100 holes before I find fish, this takes time and energy. Don't know where to look? Here are 2 main principles I use to guide where to start in big and small bodies of water, 1-fish the "main hole" (small bodies of water) and 2- fish deeper water near known spring spawning areas (large bodies of water).
First, the small bodies of water- I will define these lakes by their shape and features vs their actual size, that is for the sake of definition a small lake to me would be a "bowl". One deep hole and no real humps or points in the lake. These lakes can tend to be the easiest bodies of water to find fish because they are limited in where they can be when the water is cold. Early season- ( I gauge early to late season by ice thickness 0-12" would be early and 12-36" of ice is late). Panfish will more than likely be in the weeds, look for defined weed edges or pockets that are still alive (green and not brown). This means they are still producing oxygen vs decaying and eating oxygen. You all know Panfish (gills especially) love the weeds and relate very well to them due to protection and food. Late season- Go to the deepest part of the lake and drill until you mark fish. I like to start on the side of the hole with the deepest drop off. Start drilling around the "edge" of the depth change and go from there. That steeper edge is usually a transition spot from hard bottom to soft and tends to concentrate fish. If they aren't there keep looking, they will be somewhere in that hole. There is an exception I have found to this locating method on small lakes. If you are fishing one that has a hole deeper then 50' then start your search on any given "side" of the hole around 40' (I like to start on the North side as the water can be 1-2 degrees warmer then the south side). Sometimes they hang out suspended over the really deep part of the hole and sometimes they are in 20' it probably depends on food and oxygen levels. Regardless, I have found that I can save a lot of hole drilling by starting in the depth they seem to prefer which is usually around 40' and go from there. Water clarity can change strategy in this area but in general I have found fish pretty consistently in these depths in many small bodies of water. If the lake has one deep hole 30' or less it just makes your search easier.
Large bodies of water- Lakes with multiple deep holes and lots of humps and points (structure). Early season would be the same strategy as the small lakes, target weed edges that either are known spawning areas or nearby. This will help you save time by narrowing in on certain spots vs randomly picking any old weed edge. During late season on larger lakes it helps to know that Crappies (and even Gills) tend to like depths from 20-40'. If you are fishing a big body of water that has 50'+ holes the fish most likely will not be there. I have found that panfish relate to some kind of structure in the 20-40' depths that are near known spawning areas. This can take some extra research and even trial and error but can be highly rewarding when you find that untapped school of Crappies that are 13+ inches and has 9-10” gills roaming with them. The key in these lakes, I believe, is the "known spawning areas". The structure they relate to from there can vary but is also fairly consistent. I have had success finding fish in either the first 20-40' hole in "fingers" of a large lake where I know they spawn in the shallows or in 20-40' of water in the main lake between any combination of humps and points. I'll confess, I have drilled more holes in search of fish in these waters then any small body of water as there is just more area to cover. A tip here is not to drill holes 10 yards apart but to drill them 20 to 30 yards apart. Once you find the fish then you can start concentrating your hole drilling over the school. On a big body of water you can eliminate a lot of "dead water" by keying in on certain areas with this criteria.
I will stop here for a minute to put out a disclaimer, I don't claim for these statements to be fact nor the end all for finding panfish. There are a lot of unique bodies of water out there with quirks that require us to create new thought processes to find fish. Also, there are always schools of fish that will be located in the "un-thought of" areas of a lake that we can stumble on by accident or even find intentionally that don't follow the above suggestions. I have just found the methods I am sharing to be some of the main reasons why I successfully catch fish on my outings and believe they will be a great spring board for you to get started on the right foot.
Ok, so you found fish, that's great, now lets catch them! I have found Dave Genz's insight and wisdom to be extremely helpful. I heard him say once that "finding fish is the hard part, catching them is easy." I thought he was crazy when I heard that for the first time but my own experience has shown that insight to be true. If you have a basic understanding as to what the fish targeted is eating then you can catch them. I think fisherman tend to over think this and as a result put more odd lures in front of fish that look nothing like what they are eating. I believe through my experience that there are fish always hungry and biting somewhere, Panfish are no exception, and we know that they
are the kings of eating bugs, crustaceans and larva. So give them what they want! I have the most success jigging for panfish with plastics that replicate those foods. Live bait can be good for jigging as well and are helpful when they bite light, my go to's for live bait are spikes (also called Euro Larva) and wax worms. With this said, believe it or not, your lure is not the most important tool at this point, your flasher is. Up to this point you have only been using it to find fish but now you are going to use it to catch those fish, so get a lure down there and catch one! :) When I start looking in holes with my flasher I always have my jigging rod with me rigged up and ready to go. I like to start with ateardrop tungsten jig and plastic bug body with a pointed tale (panfish can't resist a good pointed tail:). This way if I mark a fish I can get down to it quick and see how active they are. Flashers excel here because you are able to see your jig in relation to the fish so you can put your lure in the right place to try and entice them to bite. Active fish will start moving up to your lure on the drop while it's still quite a ways away. Inactive fish won't move until you are 1' or so above them and they will be slow to move to your offering. Both fish are very catch-able but the latter you may need to work for by changing up jig styles or colors, but eventually you will get some of those fish in that school to bite. Don't be afraid to experiment with different jigs or colors for active fish as well, you may find something that will catch you every mark on that fish finder which can translate into some of the most magical fishing you will ever experience. This is yet another benefit to the flasher, it will allow you to see how the fish relate to your offering and allow you to “practice” and get better at enticing a bite. Believe it or not you will actually get to the point when you will see a mark and know if it is a Crappie, Bluegill, walleye, perch or pike. At this point in the game there is no right or wrong way to fish. In other words if you are catching fish then you're not doing it wrong, no matter the lure or equipment used. I have been out with friends having the same success with a completely different lure then I. With this said, take note of what other fisherman use and have success doing as it will help you become a better fisherman..... but again don't over think it, keeping it simple is almost always the best way to go.
So you found a pod of fish that are biting, what now? Drill more holes and get set up! I like to try and find the hole that seems to consistently mark the most fish and set up my portable fish house there. It makes for a good home base to warm up and allows me to put a minnow down under a bobber. During the day this will rarely be what catches the most fish but in the least it acts as a good fish attractor and can bring in the curious fish who will then hit your jig offering (but it can catch fish, it never hurts you either way). Once my Ice house is set up and I have warmed my
limbs I'll go out and drill another 10-20 holes all 10' apart depending on the situation. This is where you put your flasher and jigging rod to work and start "hole hopping". You will use your flasher to "look" in every hole, if you see a mark you drop your jig and try to catch the fish. Keep in mind that Crappie and even Bluegills in deeper water (20+feet or more) are notorious "suspenders". I have found them in 50' of water suspending at 20' (again this is where your flasher is extremely helpful since it tells you where in the water column the fish are). If you do not see a mark then you move on to the next hole. I actually have found hole hopping to be the best way to catch more fish. In fact, If I am on a good pod of fish I will drill 30+ holes. My philosophy for drilling is that every hole is a cast and the more holes I drill the more fish I have a chance at catching. If you use this method please be considerate to other fisherman and don't plant yourself right next to an existing party and drill 30 holes all around them, not many fisherman will appreciate this. But if you find yourself exploring lightly fished water, have plenty of space on the body of water you're on or you are out during a weekday and have a popular lake all to yourself then drill on, find those fish!
Let me take a moment to give you a few pointers should you decide to use a jig with a tale similar to what I pictured above. I like tungsten because it is more dense allowing you to use a smaller jig profile and hook with the benefit of being "heavy". This allows me to get down to the fish quick and keep my 3-4lb line tight so I can detect a bite. In 40' of water this is a big deal. Also, I have found that a pointed tail seems to out perform paddle tails or squid tails. I understand this could just be the area I fish but for some reason it's true. A single or double pointed tail seem to entice bites better than anything else I've tried, with that said they excel even more when the tail itself is pointed up at about a 45 deg angle from vertical. Most jigs are designed to be vertical while in "free weight", in other words they naturally want to hang vertically. This allows me to use a"quick snap" instead of tying directly and always having to adjust the not on the eye of the jig to bring it back to vertical. This also allows me to quickly change my lures with out having to re-tie. Quick snaps are available in the fly rod section btw, it is the best thing since sliced bread for a pan-fisherman like me who uses little jigs year round (if you look closely at the picture of the jig you will see it). If you decide to put a minnow down under a bobber I like to use a jig that will allow the minnow to swim "naturally" when hooked below the dorsal fin (refer to the picture). This method does not kill the minnow and makes it actually work for you as it will swim around and attract fish. I use a foam slip bobber for this application because it allows me to cut down the bobber based on the size jig I am using so I can "tune" the buoyancy of the bobber to my minnow/jig combo which limits the resistance any fish might feel when they bite.
Lets wrap this up by taking inventory on the tools I use when I go out crappie/blue gill fishing.
1- Flasher/fish finder- I use a Marcum Lx3 and a Marcum V1-Pro but I am not partial to brand. If it marks fish and you
2- Lake contour map with GPS- In the age of smart phones this is easier and cheaper then you think. We no longer need to buy a $300 GPS unit and then spend another $120 on the lake contour software. For you smart phone users out there go get the Navionics boating app, it is only $15 and is worth every cent. Again, I am not partial to company here, if you find something that allows you to mark fishing spots with GPS coordinates on a lake contour map then it will be perfect for our application.
3- Power auger- No need to get caught up in name brands here either get whatever power auger you can afford. This will allow you to drill baby drill!
4-Portable ice house with a heater- find whatever you can on craigslist if you need to. This will allow you to fish comfortably which is really nice when you can't drive out to your location. It also gives you the added bonus of being able to take your family or friends out and not have to cut the outing short due to being cold. Go fish in the Ice house and warm up! :)
5-Rods- Don't get to caught up on the right rod if you are just starting. Use whatever you have with a light line, preferably 3 or 4 lb test. When you get the itch to get a rod just for Panfish then go to the store and “feel” what rod would be best for you. There is no right or wrong here just what you are most comfortable with. If you would like a base line opinion then consider a rod that has a “soft” tip but stronger back bone so you can see light bites but be able to set the hook (they are normally called “noodle rods”) for my bobber rig I like to use a fast action “light” rod
I get asked often what I think should be the most important advise given to someone wanting to catch fish and I have the same answer for all of them, “You won't catch fish if your line isn't in the water!” Sometimes we get so caught up in the how's and why's that we forget to actually fish. You can't catch them sitting on the couch watching your favorite fishing show....:) All of the information shared here I believe are simple methods to get you up and running for panfish under the ice, where ever it goes from there is up to you but no matter where it leads please be sure to share it with someone. Our sport will not stay alive if we keep it to ourselves. Pick someone up off the road on the way to the lake if you have to, what good is any of this if it isn't shared, lol.... When equipped with the right tools and information you can become a pretty dangerous fisherman, are you ready? Set? GO!!