Ice Fishing Panfish
A surprisingly warm winter sun tempers the north wind’s sting as Dave Genz and crew auger a string of holes along the edge of a bustling mid-lake shanty town. The boys are on a quest for slab crappies, and after drilling out most of the unfished areas on this shallow, relatively featureless central Minnesota lake, they’re raising the white flag half-mast and poking the tip of the spear into the perimeter of maybe 100 permanent and portable shelters hunkered over a horde of super-sized pans.
“I avoid crowds at all costs, but there’s something here—perhaps a bit of current, the right bottom content for bug hatches—something—that’s concentrating the fish,” Genz explains as we drop the hammer on the newly drilled holes.
Before I can choose a rod, he’s pounding a horizontal jig in classic Genz fashion—a jiggle, jiggle, jiggle that quivers the leadhead in place, like a struggling invertebrate begging to be eaten. By the time I’m fishing, he has two crappies on the ice. Nice ones, too. But I’m confident my alternative plan of action will quickly narrow the gap. After crushing crappies the day before with spoons on a deep-water lake a few miles away, I bet my success on the flash and flutter of a vertical approach. And how hard can it be? We’re in 5 feet of water; the fish have maybe 30 inches of freeboard between ice and bottom. I can’t wait to show the father of modern ice fishing a thing or two.
A long, fishless hour later and I throw in the towel. None of the spoons or tippings I’ve tried has mustered as much as a tap, while Genz and posse continue to sample the system’s slab bounty. I tie on a Lindy Fat Boy tipped with a quivery nail-tailed softbait and boom, the drought ends. It’s a lesson in keeping an open mind and switching tactics until you dial in the bite. But it also begs the question: Why, in this scenario, did horizontals rock and spoons suck? Thus begins a session in the Genz think-tank on the intricacies of horizontal panfish presentation.
Horizontal-hanging ice jigs aren’t new. In-Fisherman has covered a parade of products and applications for decades—often with Genz supplying a fair share of the how-to data. But many of the nuances have yet to be fully fleshed out, including details on how to know when to forgo spoons and teardrops and tie on a horizontal hanger like a Fat Boy, HT Marmooska, Northland Hexi Fly, or Custom Jigs Rat Finkee.
Obviously, forage is a key concern. “Some creatures of the underwater environment swim up and fall down,” Genz notes. “These are best matched by the ups and downs of vertical presentations, while horizontal baits mimic forage that swims parallel to the bottom or quivers in place. But there are many exceptions to these rules, because aggressive fish often aren’t that discriminating.”
Which is a key point. “At prime feeding times early and late in the day, the fish often hit anything,” he says. “If you’re not getting bit then, you might as well pack up and leave. It’s during midday, when fish are less aggressive and more discriminating, that matching forage profile and swimming motion becomes most critical.”
Emulating preferred forage is a matter of mixing past angling experience, experimenting with bait styles until a pattern emerges, and, if you like, performing a simple stomach lavage to check the diets of fish caught. The latter can be accomplished easily enough in a heated shelter, or outdoors in above-freezing weather, with a syringe and section of tubing. Gently flushing the fish’s stomach two or three times is normally all it takes for a good look at what the panfish are eating. Again, this can provide great clues for daytime success with the over-sized, finicky panzers that are toughest to fool.
Water clarity falls in line as a factor as well. “In clear conditions, panfish often use vision to target prey at surprising depths, especially with clear ice, sparse snow cover and full sun,” he says. “When visibility is reduced, and light conditions are lower, they tend to zero in on vibrations. There’s definitely a difference in the kind of presentations that work best, depending on whether the fish is looking at your bait or feeling it. When they’re seeing it, a horizontal or angled presentation—which looks like it’s swimming, or vibrating with a horizontal attitude—becomes more important.”
Water depth, too, plays a role in presentation. “As a rule, horizontal baits tend to be more effective than vertical tactics in shallow water,” Genz says. I learned this the hard way on the trip described earlier, when his jiggle-in-place presentation crushed my dancing spoons hands down.
When pressed as to why spoons were such a hit on a nearby lake, where mind-blowing schools of crappies were ganged 20 to 28 feet down over 34 feet of water, and not on the shallow basin, Genz explained: “In a few feet of water the fish don’t have a fraction of the time to see the bait fluttering and flashing on the way down as they do in 25 feet. So even though both presentation styles work in deeper water—often with spoons getting the most ‘rush and crush’ strikes from aggressive fish rising to strike them on the fall—horizontals are best in the shallows. The same is true during the late-winter period, when panfish suspend just under the ice. Here, too, the kicking motion of a horizontal approach tends to outfish vertical presentations.”
Beyond a vertical bait’s visibility, Genz also credits its action on the fall for attracting curious pans. “A Fat Boy, Genz Worm, or other horizontal bait typically free-falls without much fanfare until the line tightens and you start to work it,” he says. “But a vertical bait has built-in action on the fall.”
Keep in mind that even in the depths, though, there are times horizontals shine. Given the time to scrutinize a lure, tight-lipped ’gills and crappies may shun the long, vertical profile of a well-tipped teardrop or spoon—again, typically in clear or well-lit conditions when sight is the main mode of hunting.
One step to success begins before Genz drops a jig down the hole. “Always check to be sure it hangs horizontal,” he says. “With some lures, knot position is key; I use a Palomar knot when this is the case, and reposition the knot after every fish. With other lures that hang perfect on their own, I use a loop knot.”
Naturally, success in horizontal mode hinges on more than just tying on the right lure, the right way. Much of the credit goes to a practiced sleight-of-hand. “You don’t really jig these baits, you quiver them,” he says. “I see guys pop their rod tips up and down six inches or more at a time, then wonder why they aren’t catching anything. It’s because horizontal baits work best with two subtle forms of presentation: pounding and swimming.”
Genz has preached the pound approach for years, but it bears repeating. “Shake the rod tip about a quarter-inch, so the lure bounces in place and the back of the bait kicks,” he says. “This makes it seem like poorly swimming, easy prey—a food item that’s struggling to maintain its position in the water column and will be easy to catch.”
When swimming a bait, as the tactic’s name implies, the goal is to quiver the lure around the hole so it appears to be anemically swimming in circles. “Although I don’t use one, this is easiest to accomplish with a spring bobber,” he adds. “When you swim a bait, skim the ice out of the hole. Of course slush is a non-factor in pounding, because the lure stays in one place.”
Swimming or pounding, many anglers have the tendency to freeze up when a big blip appears next to their bait on sonar. “This causes the lure to spin in circles,” Genz says. “And this is a bad thing. The best bet is to keep doing what you’re doing. If a fish comes in but doesn’t bite, I slowly raise the rodtip while continuing the jiggle.”
Bites are typically met with a quick set. “But, if I’m pounding and I miss a couple of fish in a row, the next time I sense a fish on the line I drop the rodtip and count—it’s like letting a fish take the bobber under,” he says.
Interestingly enough, back in the early days of the ice revolution Genz first honed his horizontal jiggling skills with a bobber clipped to his line. “I’d hold my bobber above the surface and watch it move as I jiggled the rod tip,” he laughs. “When the bobber reacted differently, I knew I had a fish.”
After ditching the bobber as a bite indicator, Genz struggled to modify his jig strokes. “It took me awhile to get it right, because you tend to over-jig when you first remove something from between you and the lure,” he says, noting that much the same is true when taking a sinker off the line. “Actually it’s best not to have anything else on the line, like a sinker, because you end up fishing that object and not your lure.”
Sinkers and bobbers many be out, but there are key items Genz favors when it comes to gearing up. “Small jigs that fish heavy are all the rage right now,” he says. “And I’ve been preaching that for years.” Indeed, the Fat Boys and Genz Worms he designed—sold by Lindy today—fish heavy for their size, as do a variety of other jigs, including featherweights made of tungsten.
One plus is the jigs get to the strike zone fast. “But another benefit is they take the kinks out of the line,” he adds. “Kinks and coils in your line kill your ability to quiver the lure or sense a strike.”
Light line goes hand in hand with this theory. Genz likes tests in the 1- to 3-pound range, matched to the weight of the jig. “If you drop a #10 Fat Boy down 27 feet on 10-pound test, you’ll never get it to work right.” Conversely, he sees no benefit in tying a heavy jig to ultra-light line.
The right rod is also important. “Choose a rod built for light line—light but not sloppy in the tip, with a good, even curve that blends into a stiff base where it enters the rod handle,” he advises. “You can find these for as little as $30, but rods priced for less generally don’t perform as well.”
In many situations, Genz chooses jigs that hang on a perfect plane. But not always. “Years ago on Iowa’s Lake Okoboji, I ran across anglers using custom-made jigs designed to hang at an angle,” he recalls. Rather than hunt for garage baits, Genz designed his own angled jig—now known to the world as the Lindy Genz Bug. “Lures that hang at a 45-degree angle make it easier to produce a kicking motion with less movement of the rodtip,” he says. “And your hooking percentages tend to be better because the hook is more exposed.”
A fresh horizontal style on Genz’s radar this winter is Lindy’s Slick Jig. Introduced a year ago in walleye and jumbo perch sizes, it’s now available in weights downsized into the 1/16-ounce class. “The weight-forward design allows the jig to swim away from the hole and cover a wider area than normal ice jigs,” he says. Other horizontal swimmers, including Northland’s Puppet Minnow and Rapala Jigging Rap, also offer promise for portly pans.
Finally, everyone has opinions and preferences on tipping, and Genz is no exception. While he often uses waxies and spikes, he acknowledges that “plastics and other softbaits are the wave of the future. The key is to make sure whatever you tip with undulates like a blade of grass in the wind,” he says. “This makes the baits look more alive while quivered in place. With some plastics, this requires turning the softbait sideways so its thinnest and most flexible profile is parallel with the bottom.”
Perhaps as important as the tipping itself is its balance with the jig. In-Fisherman has long argued for matching your bait to the weight of the jig and its hook size. Tiny morsels like maggots and nymphs typically require small, thin hooks, in sizes ranging from #12 to #10 on jigs ranging from 1/250 ounce to 1/64 ounce. Larger hooks tear maggots, but with the barb pinched down, three maggots can be slipped onto a #8 hook to balance with jigs up to 1/32 ounce. Waxworms work wonders on a #8 or even a short-shank #6 hook; jigs should weigh at least 1/80 ounce, or the bait overbalances the jig.
Although horizontal baits aren’t the right choice in every situation, they remain solid options in many instances. Further, when deployed in the right conditions with a practiced quiver, such jigs can mean the difference between a banner day and a zero.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and coordinator of the Cabela’s Masters Walleye Circuit.