Panfish In the Weeds Under The Ice
November 06, 2012
The endless weeds bands around some lakes like the mythical Worm Ouroborous, a serpent that circles the world and eats its own tail. With no beginning and no end, it symbolizes the aquatic circle of life in summer, providing cover and forage for all but a few of the lake's species of fish. By October, some scales are missing here and there on the great worm. Gaps and open spaces appear as sunlight diminishes and the water rapidly cools.
Cabbage, milfoil, coontail, chara — every kind of weed dies back in fall. But on most weedlines, a few hardy green plants remain through first-ice. The milder the winter, the thinner the ice and snow, the more weeds remain, some lasting until spring. Every year, the last green weeds remaining on key weedlines become important to a variety of fish, including bass, walleyes, pike, muskies, and panfish. During warm, mild winters, such as during the past few years, green weeds can hold bass and panfish all winter.
Most panfishermen realize that bull bluegills eventually inhabit shallow basins in winter, areas that bottom out between 20 and 30 feet in most cases. But the past few seasons served as perfect reminders that bluegills don't necessarily inhabit those basins to the same degree every winter. In fact, if enough weeds remain green and lush in the 8- to 15-foot range, a majority of bluegills can find enough oxygen and forage to remain shallow all winter. And even during the harshest winters, green weeds are key to early-season and late-season panfish success through the ice.
Green, Green, Goin' Away
Weedlines rimming a shallow 10-foot bay might mean little to any species in late fall. Weedlines forming a hedge along a sharp drop right at the shoreline for a featureless mile or two might be equally uninviting, no matter how green it remains through ice-up. Location becomes the critical aspect of finding the right weedbeds. To find bull bluegills in weeds, follow the fish through every season to determine prime spots.
In spring, bluegills use certain bays and main-lake shorelines to spawn. Bulls spawn deeper than peanut panzies and tend to live deeper most of the summer, too. But the true bulls (14-ounce to 2-pound category) prefer diversity. They want many options. They might in summer move from slop patterns where a variety of aquatic weeds come together in the shallows, to deep weedline patterns near dense cabbage beds, to open-water patterns where they chase wind-blown plankton veils, to deep rock humps in 20 to 40 feet of water.
The closer shallow patterns are to deep patterns the better, and big gills might be using all those patterns at the same time by late summer. In winter, some bullish 'gills migrate to basins or depressions on main-lake flats in that 20- to 30-foot range we mentioned earlier. How many depends on seasonal weather patterns.
The best deep weededge patterns for bluegills in fall and winter tend to be somewhere between classic slop locales and the types of winter basin areas they prefer. Bluegills probably don't migrate miles and miles between seasonal habitats in many lakes. In fact, two miles would be extreme in most cases. Find good summer habitat and winter habitat should be fairly close.
Weed types can be crucial. Broadleaf cabbage, the tall green stuff, is a classic late-fall magnet for many species, including bluegills. Coontail, cabomba, and milfoil also hold bluegills, but if green cabbage is available, your search should start there. Milfoil and cabomba tend to lie down before the ice forms, even in mild years. Coontail, on the other hand, can remain standing, hardy, and attractive to big gills all winter. Broad, brown "tobacco" cabbage is practically worthless for bluegills. It usually grows shallower than broadleaf — too shallow for most winter bites.
The depth green cabbage and coontail can grow in depends on light penetration, which depends on water clarity. The deep edge of cabbage beds in clear lakes could be at 18 feet, sometimes deeper. Murky lakes may only have weeds down to 4 feet or so. The best time to find deep edges would be late fall, just before ice-up. As mentioned, many fish species use these deep edges, so tossing a crankbait along them would not only locate green weeds but also largemouths, pike, walleyes, and the occasional rogue muskie.
Mark the location of the thickest green weedbeds with GPS waypoints or triangulate with shoreline objects. Better to use GPS, however. Shoreline objects may seem accurate but can be deceiving at times. Even on its worst days, GPS saves more time for fishing.
Check for bluegills along those weedlines during late open water. If 'gills are present at that point, no doubt they'll be there at first-ice. The biggest fish find the densest, greenest stands. If and when the weeds die back completely, most 'gills retreat to necks, basins, and depressions 18 to 35 feet deep. But, as long as green weeds remain, so will some portion of the bluegill population. How many depends on how long these holdout weedbeds remain healthy and how expansive they are.
The farther north the lake, the more likely its bluegill population will seek a deep refuge in winter. But on the southern edge of the ice-fishing world, big panfish can persist in lakes where "deep" water is 10 feet. In Nebraska, 2-pound bluegills hold in five to seven feet of water all winter in some lakes, usually relating to weeds. But there, too, the thickest, healthiest weedbeds hold the largest fish.
To Where The Grass Is Greener Still
Dave Genz, long-time In-Fisherman contributor and master panfisherman throughout the seasons, has a sense for finding green weeds at first-ice, a sense honed through many seasons of searching. "Weeds on inside turns are last to die," Genz says. "Look for broad slow-tapering flats, where contour lines widen between five and fifteen feet in most cases, depending on water clarity. Look deeper in clear water, shallower in murky water.
"Water clarity is probably the most important factor in determining where to fish for big bluegills on any lake. Water color not only indicates how deep weeds grow, but also whether fish use weeds at all. In dirty water, bluegills use weeds less in winter; in clear water, they use weeds more.
"Slow-tapering flats are better than sharp slopes in most cases," Genz continues. "Cabbage and coontail are the two weeds that hold the most bluegills. Sometimes the highest stalks stick out of the ice, making them easier to find at first-ice. Many times when you're fishing in weeds in clear water, you can look down the hole, see what the weeds look like, and sight fish for bigger fish. In some of these weedbeds, the biggest fish are right down in the weeds, right at the base, under smaller 'gills. Some days you have to find ways to get your bait down below those smaller 'gills to the fish below."
Fine-tuning to determine precise locations includes paying strict attention to weather patterns. "In stable weather, bulls roam out to areas without weeds," Genz says. Stable weather, especially with barometric pressure ranging from about 29.7 to 30.2 often sends bigger bluegills out of the weeds for a bit of a bruise cruise. "They roam 20, 30 feet or more away from the weeds, out across the adjacent flat or shelf, grazing on insects and invertebrates that burrow in the sand and muck. Sometimes they cruise along an edge where bottom fades from marl to sand or silt. Big fish have to work harder to forage in dense weeds, so they seem to locate away from the pack when they're active.
"Areas of softer bottom usually have the thickest weedgrowth. If bottom is too hard, like hard sand or gravel, roots aren't long enough, and winter weeds will be sparse. Depthfinders can reveal some things about how hard the bottom is (thick, bright bottom readings indicate hard bottom; thin, light readings mean soft bottom). Taking a lead weight (such as an old clip-on depthfinder) to learn the bottom is a good idea, too. Drop it down to bottom. If it doesn't stick, you'll catch perch. If it sticks a little, it seems to indicate better bluegill water.
"When a front comes through (usually associated with dropping barometric pressure, down to less than 29.5 inches of mercury) bluegills bury in the weeds. To find big bluegills in heavy weed masses, drill lots of holes right above the thickest clumps. Keep looking for pockets and alleys where you can get your line down to the bottom. In clear water, it's possible to see the pockets while inside a shelter or by putting your face in the hole and shading around your eyes."
Sometimes drilling holes around weeds actually gets the fish going, until the bugs settle back down again. When the bite slows, Genz often drills more holes within a small area to stir things up. "Work slower for post-frontal fish, but continue to move around, looking for spots that hold the heaviest concentrations," he adds. "After finding a hot hole, continue to check it as the day progresses, but give 'em a rest from time to time when things slow down."
Bigger bluegills may start and end the day (low-light periods) out away from the weeds. By noon they could be well into the thickest clumps, sometimes three or four feet shallower than the deep edge in clear lakes. But the real bulls shouldn't be too far from the deep edge of the weeds. Genz limits his search on slow days to those depth contours that retain green weeds. In lakes with weedlines down to 12 feet, he might move as shallow as 8 feet. "Usually the shallower you search, the more dead weeds you find, because weeds die shallower sooner. Find where the weeds end, concentrate your effort there, and the result will be bigger fish.
"Bigger 'gills also locate away from the pack. Finding them is rarely a numbers game during stable weather, unless you move, move, move along the edge. It's a fish here and a fish there. "The patient folks who sit on one key spot have one big one and a bunch of little ones in the bucket," Genz observed. "Type-A folks find more bulls. The key is to keep drilling. If you find a bottom transition, keep following it, then go back and start over." In other words, if the bulls are moving, you should too.
"Sheer walls of coontail are attractive to 'gills in summer, but I seldom find weed walls in winter. Scattered clumps of sparse coontail is the rule. The thickest clumps are best, and searching is required to find them. Best time to find them is just before ice-up, from a boat. If the weeds are all slimy and brown, panfish won't be there. By midwinter on a normal year in northern latitudes, few bluegills remain on weeds by midwinter. They might be in those weeds at first-ice, but as the ice thickens and snow accumulates, weeds die, and most of the bulls relocate to deeper water.
"In that kind of year, weedbeds can become hot again during late ice, as more sunlight filters through and ice recedes from the shoreline. When new-growth cabbage and coontail appear, bluegills won't be far behind. The first weeds to appear at late-ice are shallower than the deep edge in most cases. If bluegills were concentrated on green weeds at 12 feet at first-ice, look for them from 4 to 8 feet during late-ice on the same flat."
But remember: when or where snow and ice are thin and weather is milder than usual, check for bluegills around green weeds all winter.
Four-pound or even a thin 6-pound line is more suitable than 1- or 2-pound in really thick weeds. If a bull has time and enough head to wrap the line around a cabbage stalk — game, set, match. Rods need enough leverage to lift a heavy 'gill quickly up to the open water just below the hole. A 24- to 28-inch fast-action rod rated for 4- to 6-pound line is optimum.
Genz always prefers a fast-action rod, because he wants the jig to dance precisely — to move exactly as far as he moves his rod tip — for attracting and triggering panfish. In this case, however, a faster blank is critical for moving quickly into the backbone for leverage. The new 28-inch Dave Genz Signature Lightning Rod from Berkley or a Thorne Brothers 28-inch Sweetheart Plus are examples of the action required for fishing dense weedbeds. Any rod with a fast tip and enough backbone to haul a platter-shaped pounder straight up while protecting 4-pound line is right. "Rods with a soft tip won't move the lure, or rip it through weeds," Genz added. "When trying to trigger a fish with a soft rod, the tip moves, but the lure doesn't."
The lightest possible line is required to fish the kind of lure that will interest a pressured, finnicky bull bluegill. "I like horizontal jigs, and with 4-pound line you need a little heavier jig, such as the #10 Lindy-Little Joe Fat Boy, which fishes small but falls fast," Genz says. "New line is important. It has to hang straight. Coils make reading strikes difficult. Don't use a stiff, coily old line in the weeds, or anywhere else. The lure should go straight down, the line hanging straight for better feel and visual cues."
Start high in the water column and jig down by increments. Sometimes bluegills hold right under the ice in tall weeds. An even drop, working a 1/80- to 1/32-ounce jig slowly from one level to the next, while watching for slack or the line going to the side of the hole, is the best way to work weeds. Working down slowly encourages light strikes that are easier to see than feel, hence the need for straight, limp line. That can be difficult out in the wind without a shelter of some kind, and portables are best. Mobility is key.
"After working it down to bottom, jig back up a few feet before trying another hole," Genz advises. "If most fish are biting halfway down, don't waste time at other levels. If a fish is moving in to take the bait, don't change the action. Whatever you were doing drew the fish in, and if you stop, many times they'll swim right by it.
"Turn down the sensitivity on your depthfinder to eliminate as many of the weeds as you can, to make seeing lures and fish easier, and to find gaps in the weeds. The lure might disappear at times. Reducing sensitivity in the weeds reduces clutter on the screen. The Vexilar S-Cable reduces sensitivity; it was designed for fishing extreme shallows and weeds. It works like an adapter on the back of the unit. Plug it into the unit and plug the transducer cable into it."
In the evening, as the sun nestles into the barren trees, turn the sensitivity back up and move out, past the edge where the weeds end. Move from hole to hole, searching with the depthfinder for a few more blips just above bottom. Sit on the bench of a portable shelter and watch the day whisper into an orange and purple finale. Somewhere adjacent to the great sleeping worm, where broad, saucer-shaped muscles graze the endless flats. Best part of the hunt, and a small, personal piece of the circle.
10 Tips for Winter Bulls
1. The shallower basin of this late mesotrophic lake probably holds the most bluegills in this case. Bluegills prefer basins in the 18- to 30-foot category in winter, as opposed to flats that drop into even deeper basins.
2. Most years, the neck of this lake should attract winter bluegills from first-ice through midwinter, mostly near the deepest water.
3. The deeper basin holds fewer bluegills all year, with certain exceptions:
4. Such as deep depressions on main-lake flats. Bluegills may use weeds anywhere around the rim of these depressions, making them harder to find until the weeds die back, which concentrates them in the depression itself.
5. During late fall and early winter, points are less important for big bluegills than inside turns or cups adjacent to points because weeds tend to die back quicker. Check points, however.
6 & 7. Before ice-up, inside turns, surrounded by warmer, shallower flats tend to have better weeds than points. These spots are on a slow-tapering flat that gradually recedes to deeper water, another key to finding green weeds late. The weedline is 12 to 14 feet deep, which means fairly clear water — another positive for finding weed bulls through the ice. Areas 6 & 7 should be your focal point for bluegills on this lake at first-ice most years, and through midwinter, even until late-ice during mild years.
8. When weeds die back completely, shallow flats quickly lose oxygen. Bluegills evacuate for deeper water, preferably a basin — an area that bottoms out between 18 and 30 feet in most cases. Bluegills may not always be in the deepest water in a basin during the ice-fishing season.
9. Necks between basins draw bluegills from adjacent weedlines and may hold them all winter.
10. Ironically, one of the first keys to look for is last on the list: Prime shallow habitat bulls prefer in summer. Huge flats hold more life than small ones, attracting more panfish. Areas where numerous types of shallow vegetation come together (cane, coontail, pads and reeds, for instance) draw big bluegills during the warmer months.
Nit Picky Bluegill Location in Weeds
Bluegills using weeds under the ice find the densest concentrations of green, healthy growth. They position in weeds according to light penetration, weather, and time of day. Bluegills are most likely found outside the deep edge of the weeds during stable mild weather and during low-light periods (dawn and dusk). As the sun climbs the sky on bright, cloudless days, bluegills might move deeper (and shallower) into cover. During and after the passing of a cold front, bluegills also bury deep in the cover. Those positioned outside the weeds tend to be on soft-bottom areas or on transitions between soft and semisoft areas, such as a change from silt to sand. Rock and gravel areas rarely hold true bulls (12 ounces to over a pound) this time of year.
Living weeds produce oxygen, but dead weeds produce carbon dioxide and other gases that bluegills find noxious. Even before all the green weeds die during a harsh or normal winter (depending upon how far north), most bluegills may evacuate the weedlines within a few weeks of ice-up. But during mild winters up north and normal winters farther south, bluegills use deep weededge areas all winter.
Picture the same area with a deep weedline at five feet, on a lake with much lower visibility. Big bluegills seldom use weeds in cloudy water during ice-up. The clearer the lake, the more pronounced the weed bite becomes at first-ice.