Ice Out Panfish Blues


Learned something today. Should learn something every time out, but sometimes the lesson is less apparent than others. This time it came through loud and clear.

Generally, anytime after ice out we can find panfish shallow. If they aren't in the usual spots, we follow the wind, looking for the warmest water. And if we can't find them shallow, we look deep — where wintering habitat comes closest to those spring-time haunts where we find them year after year.


But ice out came way early this year and guess what? Ice out panfish were nowhere to be found. We couldn't find them with our Aqua-Vu Micro, we couldn't find any activity using our eyes, and we couldn't see panfish with sonar.  We did the unthinkable. We blanked for bluegills.


Honestly, it's hard to get blanked around here. I think I've been blanked less than 10 times since moving to this area over 2 decades ago — and that's for all species. Water temperature wasn't the issue. It was 44.2°F to 45°F everywhere we went, and we've caught lots of crappies and bluegills in water colder than that at ice out. The problem was day length. Sometimes, panfish move shallow under the ice in March and we continue catching them there right through spring. But the ice left early and, even with the roof melted away, the panfish in this lake were not yet interested in moving shallow.

At least the bass were biting, so we weren't completely blanked. And bass are in the same family of fish as bluegills and sunnies, behaving accordingly. Just like their smaller cousins, largemouths react best to small jigs baited with waxworms or leeches until the water reaches about 54°F every spring. It's a phenomenon we count on for bonus activity on light gear.

But the bluegill thing makes me want to stay on the water until I can figure it out. After 20 years of finding them shallow at ice out in this lake, they threw me a monster breaking ball. Which serves to illustrate that living things — even the ones with "pea-sized brains" — are not automatons. No matter how long you play this game, fish will continue to surprise you, making it all the more enormously fun.

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