Drill more holes," comes the Dave Genz battle cry. Tattered banners whipping in a blizzard, the Genzer signals us forth. Drill more holes, indeed. With more holes we find them; with light line we bind them. Onward into the panfish maelstrom.
Theodore Sturgeon once told me, "Ask the next question. And the next." He meant, those who stop asking stop learning. Dave Genz tells me, "Drill another hole. And the next, and another after that." For, those who stop drilling stop catching, amen.
So we drilled a gazillion holes. And thefish came to our holes. Then we drilled more holes. And fish came to those holes, too. Suddenly, strangers who appeared from nowhere were using our original holes; bucket-filling jackals snarling over the leftovers. Genz looked at me and smiled. "I know, I know. Drill more holes."
Does it ever stop? Genz peppers the ice with openings to find difficult little spots. He drills new holes to make nearby fishermen believe he's not catching fish, after hiding in his Fish Trap and releasing slabs hand over fist. He drills holes to herd bulls from the surrounding area to the holes he wants to fish. He drills enough holes to fish every cabbage stalk in a weedbed, enough to raise concerns about the integrity of the ice underfoot. The man is a hole-drilling fanatic. But here's the rub: There are far worse kinds of fanatics.
Genz loves nothing more than the sight of a pound-plus pug-nosed saucer scribing concentric circles beneath his feet, tethered to a taught stretch of 2-pound mono. Crappies are fillers that serve when the bulls aren't home. Walleyes? Sure. Salmon? Sometimes. Bass, eelpout, pike, rainbows, turtles — anything that can be dragged through a hole in the ice is fair game, but only if the bulls aren't biting hot and heavy somewhere.
When Genz finally drops the auger (hallelujah!) and gets down to business, he drops a horizontal jig down the hole, usually a Lindy Fat Boy or Genz Worm. "A jig has to drop like a rock but fish small," Genz explains. "It needs a small, sharp, fine-wire hook that can hold a couple-three maggots without making them disintegrate. A horizontal profile shows up better on sonar by providing more surface area for the signal to catch, but it has to look small to the fish."
These baits have #8 or #10 hooks. Genz is partial to his own creations to a fault, scoffing at the little Custom Jigs-N-Spins Rat Finkies, Ratsos, and Maynard's Rock N' Roll Jigs I pull out of my little fly-box.
Finnicky biters send Genz to the next hole (and the next, and the next after that). "I'd rather keep moving to find aggressive biters than waste time trying to convert inactive fish." Genz believes that, somewhere in every lake, a pod of kamikaze panzies awaits. All too often these days, his beliefs run up against the hard, cold reality of cautious, pressured fish that refuse to bite anything visible to the naked eye.
When that happens, Genz switches to a small vertical jig, usually a Coped or a Pounder, both he designed with enough surface area on top to catch sonar signals. These baits have #10, #12, or even #14 hooks. In these scenarios, I often use even smaller jigs than Genz, such as the tiniest of the Thunderhawk Talon Tears.
"Cautious and wary panfish almost have to be able to inhale the package," he says. "Some days, if they open their mouths to inhale and the jig doesn't move, they won't bother swimming over to bite."
Genz delivers all of these baits with the same basic equipment. Moderately long for panfish, he couples his fast-action rods (24 to 28 inches) with small reels spooled with flexible, thin 2-pound monofilament.
"A soft, wimpy, buggy-whip rod won't make the jig move the way I want it to," he says. "It has to be fast, so the jig moves almost the same distance as the rod tip during a jigging motion. That way I know exactly what's going on down there. But at the same time, the rod has to protect 2-pound line, so it has to give to a big fish."
Genz depends on Thorne Brothers custom ice rods, but he occasionally finds some worthwhile sticks elsewhere. "I designed a new line of rods for Berkley that fish nicely," he says.
For Genz, finding fish begins at home or behind the wheel of the truck. He makes as many phone calls as he drills holes. He calls from behind his desk or from a cell phone until his network of buddies cough up a hot hole. Then he tries to determine the depths fish are using, how high they're positioned off bottom, what they're biting on, and the best place to buy coffee along the way.
To find fish on his own, Genz relies on his microseason analysis (see "Top Bites On Ice" in this issue) and his flasher (a Vexilar FL-8). "Most ice fishermen realize today that a flasher is critical," Genz says. "Drill lots of holes in a likely area and start moving around, looking for fish. If the fish don't show up on screen somewhere in the area, or quickly reveal themselves by rising off bottom or out of the weeds to chase a jig, move on." Time, alas, to drill more holes somewhere else. Depending on the size of the area, Genz can size up a spot in 15 to 30 minutes.
Genz always lets the jig spin above the hole before dropping it down. "Panfish don't like the jig turning or spinning down there," he explains. "Quickly retrieving jigs or playing tug-o-war with a bull can put a twist in the line. Let it untwist before dropping it back down."
If fish don't appear on screen, Genz begins by dropping his lure quickly to a height above bottom he knows fish should be using (typically within five feet of bottom for crappies, one to three feet for 'gills, or wherever his information or experience with the lake indicates). Once in the fish zone, Genz makes several aggressive jigging motions, raising the jig two or three feet and letting it fall, followed by a twitching action and a pause. If, within a few minutes, this doesn't draw in something he can see on his flasher, he's off to the next hole.
If fish appear on screen when Genz pulls up to a hole, he likes to rest the rod on the web of his right hand, between thumb and forefinger, holding it just ahead of the reel. This allows him to put those coffee trembles to work to make the jig dance with delicate little moves.
In this case, he drops the jig down quickly to a point somewhere above the fish (how far above them depends on how spooky the fish are), and slowly lowers the jig, occasionally pausing and tapping the rod blank with his finger to see if the fish will rise to the jig. Holding the rod in this seemingly awkward manner (overhand with the reel by his ear) allows him to make precise, delicate triggering motions with the jig.
"If a fish rises to the jig, I just keep doing whatever made it respond that way," he explains. "Many people stop and wait. Sometimes a pause, even a long pause, becomes a critical trigger. But most days, the fish come to the jig because it's doing something they like. So why stop doing it?"
The Vexilar has long been his window on the panfish world, telling him how fast to drop the jig and how aggressively to work it. "If panfish come to a jig, inspect and leave, it's time to do something different. The flasher is a gauge of fish activity levels. Without it, it's hard to say how far fish will move to smack a jig, which jigging motions work, and which don't — even which size or color to use."
Breakfast With Genzer
When traveling with Genz, I anticipate Al Lindner kinds of days, where an hour without fish sends us packing off across the landscape in search of another lake. "Hey, if they aren't bitin', they aren't bitin'," he says while piling his Fish Trap on his special rack atop his snowmobile.
The Fish Trap, we must add, is a critical part of the Genz attack plan for panzies. On windy days, 2-pound mono can be a nightmare to fish with out in the open, but not in the confines of our little "bass boats on ice," as Genz puts it. And bass boats they are, carrying boxes of jigs, extra rods, buckets, augers, bait, scoops, cleats, and everything else a fisherman needs out there. Genz even outfits his Trap with rod holders, heaters, and rod-storage clips.
"How about breakfast?" I might ask, hopefully.
"Have some Wheaties. Al tells me it's good carp bait. Nothing's healthier than a carp."
Genzer was referring to Al Lindner, who was doubtless driving hooks into lakers somewhere up on the Canadian Shield at that moment.
"Breakfast," I remind Genz needlessly, "is the most important meal of the day."
"Here," he says, extending a Hershey bar my way. "Drill more holes."
Genzer, of course, had already drilled enough for everyone in St. Peter, Minnesota, with a few left over for tourists. When he stops making holes (hallelujah!), he travels light, walking from hole to hole with his Vexilar, a rod, and a pack of maggots in his pocket.
"Nothing beats maggots for panfish," he claims. He's probably right. In fact, I would have to admit that on the lakes I fish, maggots outfish minnows for crappies about four days in five.
When Genz finds the mother lode of 'gills and crappies, he goes back for his Trap and settles down to business. And business is good until the fish stop biting.
"I know, I know. Moreholes."
This much I know: The Genzer is one hole drillin' mothuh. Me too. Amen. Drilling lots of holes for panfish
6 Arc of Slabs, Northeast Mississippi
Like the Bordeaux region grows world-class wine grapes, the Arc of Slabs is famous for producing giant crappies. Grenada, Sardis, Enid, and Arkabutla — it's a tossup which of these reservoirs might be best for giant white crappies during March and April. Jigging in brush and spider-rigging are the best bets. Wading, too, at times. Contact: Guide John Woods, 731/334-9669; Guide John Harrison, 662/983-5999.
2 Lake Erie, Ohio
The best opportunities are between Port Clinton and Vermilion, says Ohio fishery biologist Travis Hartman. Many marinas and backwaters have excellent crappie fishing in the spring, peaking in late April to early May, and occasionally in the fall. Good open-water spots are East and West harbors and Sandusky Bay. Check connected rivers, too. Lots of fish to 12 inches, with 14-inchers not uncommon, Hartman says. Craig Lewis of Erie Outfitters says Lake Erie is a surprisingly overlooked crappie fishery, considering the numbers of fish caught, up to 18 inches, as big as any in the state. Contact: Erie Outfitters, 440/949-8934; Ohio DNR, dnr.state.oh.us
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Guide Billy Blakley says the crappie forecast for the 'Earthquake Lake ' is excellent for 2013, with average fish running 1 to 11„4 pounds and catches up to 23„4 pounds. The lake contains both black and white crappies. From March through May, spider-rig and jig around underwater wood, and jig around exposed cypress stumps. The bite picks up again in the fall. Top-notch lodging and food at Blue Bank Resort. Contact: Guide Billy Blakley at Blue Bank Resort 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
7 Weiss Lake, Alabama
The crappie outlook is very good for 2013, reports Alabama district fisheries supervisor Dan Catchings. Samples indicate one, and possibly two, strong year-classes of crappies in 2010 and 2011. Expect good numbers of harvestable-size fish from the 2010 spawn this spring, with the 2011 year-class contributing to the fishing in mid- to late 2013. Fishing picks up in February as crappies move shallow. March through early May is best, with April being the peak. Contact: Guide Richard Green, 859/983-0673, or book through Little River Marina and Lodge (256/779-6461); Guide Mark Collins, markcollinsguideservice.com
8 Kentucky Lake, Kentucky / Tennessee
Anglers look forward to the 'Crappie Capital ' living up to its name in 2013, says guide Steve McCadams. Expect numbers of quality fish with a shot at slabs over 2 pounds. While action during the spawn in late March into April is outstanding, don't overlook May and June, when stable lake levels and weather patterns find crappies concentrating around fish attractors at midrange depths, he says. Contact: Guide Steve McCadams, stevemccadams.com
9 Kerr (Buggs Island) Reservoir, Virginia/North Carolina
Numbers of crappies from 1 to 13„4 pounds with a chance for 2- to 3-pounders. Once the spider-rigging bite wanes in shallower creek channels by April, action turns to jigging deeper brushpiles. Contact: Guide Bud Haynes, 434/374-0308; Guide Keith Wray, 434/635-0207; Bobcats Bait and Tackle, 434/374-8381.
3 Lake Eufaula, Oklahoma
This shallow reservoir boasts numbers of crappies in the 2- to 3-pound range, with 37-fish limits common. In spring, the action is shallow, doodlesocking flooded buckbrush in high water, or working rocky banks and brush cover in low water, says guide Todd Huckabee. Crappies move to deeper brush later in spring. Contact: Guide Todd Huckabee, toddhuckabee.net
; Guide Barry Morrow, barrymro.com
; Blue Heron Bait and Tackle, 918/334-5528.
5 Lake Fork, Texas
Numbers of slabs from 11„4 to 21„2 pounds tend to get overlooked in this lake famous for lunker bass. Mid-May through June is guide Terri Moon's favorite time for crappies, when the fish head to brushpiles and bridge abutments in 20 to 24 feet of water. Pitching Fork Tackle's Live Baby Shads on 1/16-ounce jigs is a top option. Ivan Martin and Rick Loomis also guide clients to Fork's crappies in November and December, when fish are on points and in deeper brush. Contact: Guide Terri Moon, 903/383-7773; Guide Ivan Martin, 918/260-7743; Guide Rick Loomis, rickloomis.com
; Lake Fork Marina for lodging, food, and tackle, lakeforkmarina.com
1 Lake of the Woods, Ontario
The Woods is top-notch for black crappies to 16 inches, says In-Fisherman contributor Jeff Gustafson. Many crappies on this massive water have never seen lures, so once you find them, the numbers and quality are second to none, he says. Action starts in mid-May, with fish moving to shallow areas with cover. After spawning in early June, target them on weedflats in 6 to 10 feet of water. Float-and-jig combinations excel. Also try small suspending jerkbaits and swimming marabou jigs. Contact: Guide Dave Bennett, davebennettoutdoors.com
, 807/466-2140; Guide Jamie Bruce, brucescanadianangling.com
10 St. Johns River, Florida
The stretch of the St. Johns River south of Lake George offers outstanding fishing. Crappies from 2 to 3 pounds are caught regularly, with average catches well over a pound. This was the scene of an In-Fisherman television episode that airs this spring. Weedflats hold fish that can't resist tubes fished under a float. Or troll channel edges using jigs or minnows. Contact: Lodging at Castaways on the River, 352/759-4522, castawaysontheriver.com
; Guide Steve Niemoeller, 386/846-2861, cflfishing.com