What value can be placed on a 1-pound bluegill or a 2-pound crappie? Not in dollars and cents, but in another sense. A 1-pound bluegill can’t be bought, and if it could, it would represent part of a meal and little else, with no residual value.
A giant panfish has to be hunted, found, intercepted, and finessed. Something must trigger it to strike, the culmination of finely balanced tackle dancing at the end of exquisitely thin line. It has to be brought to the hole before it can wrap around a cabbage stalk or pop the line on a dead pull. It has to slide onto the ice before it can enlarge the hole in its face and throw the hook. What’s that moment worth when it lies there, almost spent, resplendent in reflective hues of purple, pink, green and blue that can’t be found in one package anywhere else in nature?
Before we unlock the door to the general location of such priceless experiences, consider one heartfelt suggestion: Let the heavyweights, the true bulls and slabs, go back down the hole within a few minutes—just enough time to take a few photos. If it weighs a pound or better, it doesn’t belong in a bucket.
Panfish, so seemingly infinite in number in these world-class waters,tend to manifest gluttonous behavior in otherwise respectful folks, a fact that made acquiring information for this piece something akin to dentistry. Some of the common responses: “We can’t sick the hounds on that lake.” Or, “You know, I’d love to help you, but last year I saw the same people come here six weekends in a row and fill their buckets every day. It was wholesale slaughter.”
These are top ice-fishing destinations for bulls and slabs that can handle busloads of people. Many lakes are good, but these are the Crème de la crème. Panfish factories. Put some time in on the waters listed here and expect either a few 1-pound ‘gills or several crappies to 13⁄4 pounds, or numbers of both in the 3/4-pound range. Some lakes can take the kind of pressure we’re about to inflict on them, while others simply can’t.
These are the Wailing Walls of the ice-fisherman’s panfish kingdom, places to make a pilgrimage to now and then. A place to kneel by the hole and say thanks for the bounty, while releasing a trophy.
Top Ice Fishing Panfish Spots
Lake St. Clair, Michigan-Ontario—Lake St. Clair is world famous for daily double-digit catches of freshwater dragons (muskies). Its potential to produce a hundred or more bass in a day from 2 to 6 pounds places it high on our top-10 smallmouth list every year. But unknown to most ice fishermen, Detroit’s backyard “pond” has for many years quietly produced some of the hottest fishing for bluegills and crappies anywhere on earth.
Jim Fofrich Jr., a walleye guide from Lake Erie, makes an annual pilgrimage to this holiest of hole-drilling Meccas. “Mitchell’s Bay is a well-kept secret,” he says. “For people who have never experienced slab crappies and bull bluegills through the ice, this is the panfishing experience of a lifetime.”
Prime time is March, according to Fofrich. “Mitchell’s Bay has an average depth of five feet, a sand-gravel bottom, and excellent weedgrowth. In March, panfish migrate back into the shallows. Just walk out about a quarter mile and start drilling holes at 5- to 8-foot depths. It’s that easy.”
Contact: Dennis Shaw, Bass Haven, 519/354-4242.
Lake of the Woods, Ontario—“This year we were astonished by the harvest,” Pyzer says. “I’ve never seen this many people on the ice. I think over 100,000 pounds of crappies were harvested on Sabascong Bay, and most of those were over a pound, many just under 2 pounds.”
Ice roads ran everywhere on Sabascong Bay from January on. Drive your truck out on roads wider than a Trans Canada highway and pick a spot. “A variety of year classes are moving through the system, so fishing should be good for another year or two.”
Crappies suspend within six feet of bottom over 40-foot flats. Problem: “People harvest, and they cull up,” Pyzer says. “Fish are sorted and the ones thrown back don’t survive. Crappies lack the muscle to get back down. Keep the first 10 or 15 fish you catch and throw the rest back. Otherwise, you’re killing two or three times your limit by sorting through fish.”
Pyzer says this fishery has no peak time. “It’s always peak. Most amazing fishery on earth. But later in the season is when I like it best; so nice to ice fish at 60°F. It’s like going to the beach in March and April. But, crappies bite all winter. Numbers are there; it’s possible to get over 100 crappies a day on many days all winter long.”
Contact: Randy Hanson, Hanson’s Resort, (caters to the crappie crowd) 807/484-2556.
The Grasslands, South Dakota—Nestled in a large tract of government land between Pierre and I-90, hundreds of stock dams have created lakes and ponds, from a few acres to over 30, scattered across the landscape. Most have a little of everything, from big bass to big bluegills and numbers of crappies, but they’re not all good, so research is required.
In winter, start fishing the deepest water closest to the dam. Then move shallower from there and find the drop-off. Different ponds produce different size profiles of fish. Takes some hunting, but 10 or more of these ponds can be fished in a day. Bluegills in the 1-pound range dwell in lakes less pressured, with good numbers of crappies in some ponds, but not exceptionally big—some, however, are over a pound. It’s a wild, remote area.
“It takes GPS to find your way out of there,” according to Dennis Unkenholz, head of fisheries for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. “If you like small stock-dam fishing, these ponds are predictable. A lot of private dams in the area offer phenomenal panfishing, too, if you get to know the landowners.”
Contacts: Carl’s Bait Shop, 605/223-9453; Steamboat Bait Shop, 605/224-6572.
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Valentine Nebraska—If Dave Genz had to choose one trophy spot for truly giant bluegills, this is it. “I’ve weighed and photographed two ‘gills over 21⁄2 pounds at Valentine,” he says. “Don’t expect limits of lunkers, but folks who put some time in could pop the biggest bull of their lives.”
Lakes in this refuge are big and shallow, averaging about 5 feet deep throughout, with lots of reeds sticking up through the ice. Drill lots of holes in clumps of reeds out in the open. Find green cabbage in the same areas. At first-ice, the spots with cabbage and reeds are good. As cabbage dies back (midseason), look for remaining green weeds around the reeds.
Pike, bass, and perch are bonus species, and all are decent-size fish. Pike over 30 inches have to be released, “which is great for bluegills,” Genz adds. “We need those bigger pike to keep the ‘gill populations down. So many big bluegill lakes are ruined by anglers removing all the big predators and the big bulls at the same time, leaving a lake full of stunted fish that won’t recover.”
Given the shallow nature of these lakes and the milder climate of Nebraska, first-ice can be as early as Thanksgiving or as late as New Years. Key lakes in the refuge are Pelican and Hackberry, but don’t overlook smaller bodies of water.
Contact: Little Outlaw Marine, Valentine, 402/376-1867.
Detroit Lakes, Minnesota—About three hours northwest of the Twin Cities resides the “Sunfish Capital of the World”—the town slogan for Detroit Lakes. With 412 lakes in a 25-mile radius, all of them brimming with bluegills, who’s to argue? Some lakes are full of stunted ‘gills, but many still contain mammoth panfish. And some lakes (luckily) bounce back periodically. Bulls over a pound are taken from the area every winter, but 8- to 9-inchers is the common size on most of these lakes. Many of the same lakes also harbor crappies in the 11⁄4- to 11⁄2-pound range. The season peaks at first-ice and last-ice. March into early April is one key time.
Contact: Dick Beardsley, 218/846-9230.
Okoboji Lakes, Iowa—Iowa anglers have been giving these lakes a going over forever, but they can’t be fished out. In West Okoboji, a big, deep, classic mesotrophic lake, panfish hold in green standing weeds all winter. “If snow is early, the weeds fall down,” Genz says, “but most years, the weeds are good all winter.”
Clear water and spooky characteristics have preserved the size of these fish by making them hard to catch. “They ogle everything real good,” Genz says. “The big ones would be long gone if they weren’t so hard to catch. Scale down to lighter line, be careful about how you bait up, and bluegills around a pound can be caught from these lakes.”
Okoboji has been the site of Genz’s Trap Attack ice tournament for the past seven seasons. Every year it attracts 100 or so top-notch ice fishermen who manage to beat the tough conditions and pull in some giants. Great place to learn the trade.
Contact: Schuck’s Bait Shop, 712/338-2087
Rainy Lake, Minnesota-Ontario—“As awesome as Sabascong Bay is, a lot of Kenora locals drive right by it on their way to Rainy,” says Darryl MacLeod, biologist for the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources. “When it’s hot, it’s really hot. It went through one of those huge year classes, then went through a dip recently, but even during a dip, it’s still awesome. Pretty tough to get skunked on Rainy.”
According to Barry Woods of Woody’s Fairly Reliable Guide Service, catching 2 to 21⁄4-pound crappies isn’t uncommon. “Most will be 12 inches or better,” Woody says. “The Northwest arm is the key area. Expect a similar size profile to Lake of Woods, with lots of 13- to 14-inch fish. When they’re really going good, bring a scale. Might pop a 2-pounder. Peak time? From December on, fishing really never slows down.”
Try Ash Bay, too. Take snowmobiles through a portage to a smaller, more protected area inaccessible during the open-water season. Winter is the only time it can be targeted, and it’s a big-time numbers factory.
Contact: Woody’s Fairly Reliable Guide Service, 218/286-5001; LaBelle’s Birch Point Camp, 807/486-3345.
Lake Simcoe, Ontario—Most people have heard about the big perch and smallmouths here, but Gordon Pyzer says potential for huge crappies is awesome. “When Bob Izumi filmed a show here,” Pyzer said, “he sent scuba divers down for some underwater footage. Should send you the video. I’ve never seen so many giant crappies swimming in a bay.”
Crappies are a new arrival here, apparently migrants through canals from Georgian Bay. “In the past decade, crappies have became the top fish in Simcoe in terms of numbers in the population-test nets of the Ministry of Natural Resources. But few people know how to catch them through the ice yet. The population is concentrated on the south end in Cook’s Bay, a fertile, weedy, eutrophic basin. Crappies come out of the main lake and go up the Holland River in spring and fall. Where do they go in winter? It’s the fishery of a lifetime for whoever figures it out.”
Contact: Wil Wegman, Ministry of Natural Resources, 905/713-7343; Guide Leon Maloney, 705/835-2059.
Mississippi River backwaters, Minnesota-Wisconsin—Just off I-90 near Lacrosse, backwaters of the Mississippi form lakes that continue to produce giant crappies and decent bluegills despite savage pressure. “These lakes have been hit hard,” Genz says, “but folks from Chicago continue to go there to catch slab crappies and lots of bluegills. Sometimes it’s possible to find pods of 2-pound crappies. Definitely a bluegill Mecca.”
Myriad sloughs, ponds, and generous Lake Onalaska provide plenty of room for ice fishermen to spread out. The key time to visit is first-ice, which usually occurs by late November. Fish shallow for bull ‘gills up to a pound—in 3 to 5 feet of water. Crappies and perch usually locate 8 to 10 feet deep. Try the stump fields around the Goose Island area. Be safe. Currents can play tricks with ice thickness.
Contact: Schafers Boat Livery, 608/781-3100.