We all benefited when Dave Genz got so hyped about ice fishing over 30 years ago that he gave up anything resembling a real job and poured time and energy into his primary passion. Forever trying to learn, year after year, he tinkers relentlessly, restlessly with equipment, digging into the science of winter lakes and the fish in them. And while most of us should keep our day jobs, on your days off here are some of his hottest and all-time-best panfish tips to consider.
"The sonar sees a wider area than the camera — it's your early warning system," Genz explains. "But I hold my rod tip up in front of the sonar display. Sometimes, when fish come in hot, you don't even have time to shift your gaze to the camera. In those cases, it's nice to see the rod tip jump.
"Most times, fish slowly glide in and you have plenty of time to bring your eyes downward so you're looking directly at the camera monitor. Now is when your eyes should shift from the flasher to the camera screen. Sure enough, here come the head and pectoral fins of the fish. The camera is looking straight down, so you see it from directly above, just as you do when sight-fishing."
Watch the fish bite or not. See if the fish sucks in the jig but does not get the hook, and wait to set — fewer missed fish. At times, spin the line (with the hand not holding the rod handle) so the hook is facing the fish's mouth right before it bites.
Finally, when a fish is hooked, the line can wind around the camera cable. "You can still fight the fish up," says Genz. "Most of the time, the fish's head comes up the hole and you grab him like you always do. Unhook the fish and the jig comes unwound off the cord if you pull with light tension. On rare occasions when a fish gets well wrapped, I grab the fish and lift the camera cable and the fish out of the water together. And I rarely miss a fish."
"In the event you don't know what the fall weather conditions were like before the lake froze where you're fishing, a close inspection can help you figure things out. Look shallow right away. Drill some holes and inspect the condition of the weeds. Even when the weeds are brown and in the shallows, look along inside turns on the drop-off. The last of the standing weeds are on the inside turns. That's always my rule." — Dave Genz
Buy Both, Use Both
People always ask Genz, 'What should I buy, a sonar or an underwater camera? '
He has the same answer for everyone: 'Unless you can afford to buy only one, buy both. Even the most mobile of anglers can quickly set up and take down the combination flasher-camera setup. Downviewing with the camera in conjunction with your sonar is the best option, which is done by lowering the underwater camera down the same hole you fish from, with the camera aimed straight downward. Then put your sonar transducer in the same hole, too.
'The key is to set up your gear so that your eye can easily see everything it needs to see. I use a bracket I invented that lets you temporarily mount the camera on the framework of your seat in a Fish Trap between your legs. That puts the camera monitor between my eyes and the hole. The flasher is placed on the ice, at the backside of the hole. Hang the camera cable around one of the gimbal mount brackets on the flasher case. This forces the cable to the back of the hole. If you fish out of a 10-inch hole, and if your flasher case is on the small side and the ice is slippery, be careful or the camera cable might pull the entire works into the hole. '
'More than we realize, our ice-fishing fortunes are influenced by what the weather was like during the fall, ' says Genz. 'If the winds are calm and we have lots of sunshine in late fall right before freeze-up, weeds can start growing in the shallow water again. The weeds might die and lie down when the first cold fall weather comes, then suddenly a winter warming pattern rolls in and they start growing again. Bug hatches can occur in the shallows if the weather is warm, too. Sunfish and crappies can be mighty shallow as long as food, cover, and oxygen hold out. '
'On the other hand, on the same lake next winter, ' he cautions, 'there can be no fish in the shallow water if the weather is nasty right before ice-up and all the weeds are down. When late fall is consumed with cloudy, windy, nasty days, you can suspect most panfish to hold in deeper water.
'Depending on how long ice covers the lake, and how much snow covers the ice, you can have shallow panfish populations through the ice season when weeds remain healthy. Again, It all depends on how the fall goes. You have to recognize these things. What happens in the fall can completely change the lake for the whole winter. '
Finesse versus Aggression
Sometimes, it's not the fish's response to our bait but our response to the fish that determines whether the fish bites or not. Sometimes the best option is to keep doing what brought it to the bait in the first place as it closes in.
When we can see a fish with our own two eyes, whether we're sight-fishing or looking at an underwater camera monitor, instinct causes us to slow. 'When people actually see the fish come in, they slow down. Both slow and fast can work, ' says Genz, 'but we need to mix it up or keep doing what we were doing before we spotted the fish. Even when you're sight-fishing, the speed might trigger the fish instead of slowing it down. You can watch the fish and see what excites it. If you try the slowdown and the fish drifts away, try to bring it back with a more aggressive presentation. '
Follow that Flag!
Genz: 'Finally, a thought about joining the predator crowd. You'll find panfish — especially bluegills — in the same places other people are finding northern pike. If you see a group of tip-up fishermen, follow the flags and flirt around the edges, and you should catch what you came for. It's the classic predator-prey thing, which In€‘Fisherman has been preaching about for decades. '
Get a Reel Grip
It has become known as the pencil grip. Grab the rod from over the top, cradling the reel in your hand. You can hold it in an overhand position or turn the hand so palm and wrist are facing upward. By experimenting, find what works best for you and learn to vary it to achieve different presentations.
'The big reason to do it this way, ' says Genz, 'is that it takes your shoulder out of the hook-set. It's all wrist, now. You can set the hook into that fish's mouth before he can spit it out. '
Beyond the hook-set, there are presentation advantages. Especially when replicating the famous Genz pounding action, a rapidly vibrating kicking motion that makes the jig look alive, the pencil grip works better than the traditional grip. You can also achieve other looks, including a rhythmic swimming motion, or deadstick it by resting the back of your hand against your leg.
The 'First 50 '
In almost all ice-fishing presentations, twisted line — which causes your jig to spin when you stop or pause — is a problem. 'Regularly take off 50 feet of line, put on new stuff, and pre-stretch it. I take an arm's length at a time, ' says Genz, 'and pull on it until the kinks come out, so my jig hangs straighter. You have to get the coils out of the line. We're not talking twist — we're talking memory coils. '
To the Jungle, Boys
As recently as a few years ago, Genz was telling us to drill millions of holes and concentrate on fishing the ones without too many weeds in them — always seeking pockets, edges, and lanes. Now, especially during the day, when panfish use thick cover to avoid predators, he's telling us to seek the thickest weeds we can find.
What changed his mind? Probing below the thick upper canopy with his underwater camera. 'In the years before the camera, ' says Genz, 'we tended to avoid those places. But now I fish right in that stuff all the time. There are thousands of fish in there. Even when the weeds are ugly and brown, sometimes the fish are in them. Now, we can look and see for sure what we're doing when we try to fish in there. This is particularly true when you can find weeds that are thick at the canopy level and relatively more open at the stalk level. '
*Mark Strand from Woodbury, Minnesota, has been a freelance outdoor writer for 30 years.