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How to Catch Panfish Under Ice

How to Catch Panfish Under Ice

Panfish can’t evolve fast enough. Because methods for catching them are evolving faster than ever. Nowhere is that more true than out on the ice.

Ice fishermen can now see fish up to 200 feet away. As a result, we drill fewer holes. We have lighter, more efficient augers. We have devices that create maps of areas while we fish.

Cameras reveal which species are hovering down below, over what type of bottom. More importantly, we see precisely which big or little move with the rod tip is triggering the most strikes. To make those moves we have better rods, better reels, better lines, and better lures than ever before.

None of that matters, of course, unless we know how, when, and where to use all that stuff and more. Some of us are on top of that and the rest, well—not so much. Maybe some of us are educating panfish faster than the herd can adapt. So we have to keep up—keep reading, watching, learning. Presentation is evolving, too. The best anglers out there are doing little things to make a big difference.

Fly Fishing On Ice

Minnesota guide Tony Roach said ice fishing in the Dakotas last year came with a lesson. “A soft fall was important,” he said. “Tungsten gives you more options, but it’s not the go-to material for everything. Sometimes, even stopping a fast-falling jig way above a bunch of panfish spooks them. Fly baits were better than fishing with tungsten when perch were keying on shrimp. Several companies have ice flies now, with light heads and hackle that slow the fall.”

Back in the 1970s, I was introduced to ice flies by fishermen from Indiana, who used old-style ice rods with line wrapped on pegs. The pegs coiled the stiff monofilaments of the day, and the light flies used by those anglers barely sank—the coils slowly revolving into the hole. When the coils straightened, they set hooks. Yes, it’s aggravating to wait several minutes for a jig to reach a point a foot or two above marks on sonar. Far more aggravating, however, is watching marks gradually thin out and disappear while a heavier jig is plummeting down to them. The answer? Fly fishing on ice. An aggravatingly slow drop turns frowns upside down in a hurry. Hackles and light bodies on flies like the VMC Tungsten Ice Fly, Northland Tackle Larva Fly, and HT Enterprises Marmooska Ice Fly slow the drop.

Another popular Minnesota panfish guide, Garett Svir, also loves flies. “The Northland Larva Fly comes in a 1/100-ounce version that drops painstakingly slow,” he said. “It’s doing the opposite of what everyone else is trying to do. Last year we picked off monsters in cabbage beds with flies. The fall rate is slower than anything I’ve fished. That tediously slow drop is something fish haven’t seen in a lot of lakes. Even on 2-pound line, it takes forever to drop. You can’t fish it deeper than about 10 feet, but the first time you see a few big bluegills suck it in you’re hooked. Purple was the best color. They loved that thing. It worked better in cabbage than coontail, probably because bluegills are looking for the tiny shrimp and epiphytes that swim or drop off those leaves. Where panfish get pressured, a fly is the answer. I don’t tip them. We tried but it seemed to make no difference. Panfish see something fall off the leaves of the cabbage and they’re opportunistic about it. I use a 24-inch St. Croix ice rod—something short, because often it’s a sight-fishing thing.”

“Seems like they want it falling slower these days,” Roach said. “That’s why I sometimes use lead over tungsten. A lead jig with a flat bottom glides better than tungsten. Sometimes panfish want jigs falling slower with more movement.”

Eye Robot

“Another thing that was big for me last year was the Garmin Panoptix LiveScope Ice Fishing Bundle,” Svir said. “A lot of days we’re drilling over 100 holes. Those are tough days in deep snow and slush. My clients like to be mobile. But, as I get older, I’m looking for ways to cut back on drilling. With the Garmin Panoptix Ice, we can look up to 200 feet off to the sides and drill precisely where panfish are rather than drill to hunt. We can set up literally right on top of them and now we’re drilling more like 35 holes per day. And my back isn’t as sore.”

The new Garmin Panoptix Ice bundles GPS, an ECHOMAP Plus 93sv chartplotter, down- or forward-viewing from one periscope-style transducer, and optional flasher mode. It’s real-time scanning, showing images of fish swimming and moving toward or away from lures.

Guide Brian Brosdahl uses small glow sticks as attractors, drawing fish from a distance.

Guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl likes his Helix 7 G3 Humminbird for eyeballing off to the side—but he was mostly humming about the mapping feature. “You can make a map on the fly while fishing panfish on a lake that might not have a map,” he said. “It creates a map while you fish. Just leave it on and it keeps formulating a map. You start to see subtle depressions and humps that aren’t on any map—that never existed before. In the panfish world it’s huge. Panfish are usually working an edge. You can find subtle humps and depressions that used to be invisible, even with the best flashers. Usually a slight hump indicates a change in bottom type. People often wonder why panfish are in certain spots. When fishing flats there’s always more to the story, and it’s usually an edge of some kind, a slight change in bottom type. If you don’t have a chart to work with it’s important to be able to find subtle changes in bottom type or depth.”

Marcum LX-9

Roach uses a Marcum LX-9, the industry’s first sonar-camera system combo with an integrated digital video recorder to compare sonar signals with live underwater video side-by-side. “With new electronics you can now see how fish react in real time and you can see your presentation in better detail,” he said. “That’s been more important than any developments in presentation.”

The LX system dashboard displays digital depth, battery voltage, range, gain, interference rejection, and target adjust. Anglers can customize window views, including water-column vertical, vertical zoom, flasher-dial and traditional horizontal LCD graph displays. Sonar Footprint technology displays scan areas at any depth, with either 8-degree or 20-degree transducer cone angles.


Blades to Glo

Saginaw Bay Charter Captain Brandon Stanton found a technique that puts limits of both jumbo perch and walleyes on the ice for clients at the same time. “The key is having a pack of PK Lures Wyoming Blades and attaching one to the split ring at the top of any spoon,” he said. “We’ve found a mudflat in the middle of Saginaw Bay where clients can pull a limit of perch with a limit of walleyes. It’s some kind of bloodworm flat. Perch regurgitate them all over the ice. It’s a blackish silt from ships going right over that spot. Pull up the anchor and it stinks, whereas most of the Bay is gravel or sand.”

Spoons with an added blade make short work of a school of perch. “We’ve been catching jumbo perch on walleye tackle, like 1/4- to 3/8-ounce VMC Tinglers, PK Lures Flutter Fish, and PK Spoons,” Stanton said. “Add a blade to the top of the spoon and everything bites. The Tingler has flutter, and the added blade slows the fall, adds extra flash, and makes a little bit more noise that triggers both walleyes and perch. We regularly catch 11- to 16-inch perch on these larger spoons if we add the Wyoming Blade.”

Why such large spoons for perch? “Along Michigan’s Thumb, 90 percent of the time perch are in 30 to 40 feet of water,” Stanton said. “You need something that gets down quick. Perch arrive in schools and they come and go. Gotta catch as many as you can in 5 to 10 minutes. They’re roaming, looking for bloodworms. Sometimes it doesn’t take long to catch a limit—which is 25—but you have to work fast.”

Brosdahl likes to use the glow sticks from his Northland Glo-Shot Spoons as an attractor. “I put the light stick applicator on the line above a Northland Mini Mooska Jig,” he said. “Just slide it onto the line and hold it in place with a couple tiny split shot—one above it and one below. Light it up and it draws fish in from a distance. A lot of days, I’m the only one getting bites. Typically, the light stick is a little bigger than my lure, but it’s a great attractor and not just for crappies and perch. Bluegills are magnetized to it. Especially on cloudy days, under deep snow, in stained lakes, or when fish are deep. It can be a huge advantage. Sometimes they’ll bite the stick, but more often than not they figure out where the meal is. The jig won’t fall as fast, but it glows.

I put it right above the lure, anywhere from 1/8 inch to 2 inches. It works so well I’m hesitant to tell you about it,” he said. “But somebody always figures it out eventually anyway.”

Deadstick Walking

One of the unmistakable trends on ice today is the rising status and continuing evolution of deadstick techniques. 

“I use a rod holder attached to a bucket for deadsticking,” says veteran ice angler Walt Matan of Custom Jigs & Spins. “I’ve been doing it more and more. Most of the time you just have a gold hook on there or a clean Ratfinkee with a crappie minnow working against it, but tungsten jigs like the new Wolfinkee eliminate terminal tackle like split shot on the line. And it stays horizontal. You can have three rods where I fish and these days I almost always have a couple deadsticks or tip-downs set up. Usually it’s one or the other—an active jigging day or a deadstick day—but deadstick days are becoming more common.”

“Perch have a varied diet in winter,” Roach said. “When invertebrates are coming out of the mud I use a Rapala Rippin’ Rap or Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon to draw them in, but a backup plan scores the most strikes. One or two fish might be aggressive but the rest are docile and want a smaller presentation. For them I deliver a one-two punch—drawing them in with a rattlebait with a deadstick ready. The deadstick has a small tungsten bait with plastic and I place it right on bottom. I use a lot of different jigs, but the Northland Mooska Tungsten Jigs are versatile with ultra-sharp hooks. Tackle is getting a lot more technical. Eyelets are changing so you can fish them horizontal or at a 45-degree angle. I like these new micro jig designs. When perch come in I bring that tungsten jig up slowly then bounce it in the mud. Sometimes they want it ripped out of the mud then held steady a few inches off bottom, but the angle the jig hangs can make a difference. I experiment with that when I see refusals.

“Having that second stick ready can be key a lot of days, especially when hole-hopping,” Roach said. “That subtle presentation is difficult without the right rod because you tend to overcompensate with a noodle rod. A St. Croix Custom Croix Ice Tungsten Tamer rod delivers precise movement. Wind can ruin presentation with soft tips and strike indicators when panfish want it held still. I use underwater cameras a lot and it’s amazing how wind movement on the rod can move your bait. Being able to control that without the tip moving is important. Now you’re in control of the bait and not the wind. Open-water designs used to overshadow ice fishing for quality of tackle and quality of presentation, but that’s rapidly changing.

“With crappies or bluegills, I might use a small spoon to call them in with that tungsten jig resting on bottom nearby,” Roach said. “Having that subtle second option ready to go, already down there, makes things happen.”

Pro angler Mark Martin, through his Ice Fishing Vacation Schools, learned that deadsticking is the only way to catch panfish some days. “Over deeper waters in Muskegon Lake or Saginaw Bay, I love drawing perch in with a Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon with a single hook,” he said. “Not the tiniest Buck-Shot but the next size up. I either use a perch eye, a wiggler (mayfly nymph), or a waxworm to sweeten it. A perch eye lasts forever but you have to catch one first. If you’re not seeing perch, bang bottom. Bottom is your friend all the time. We never used to bang bottom as much as we do now. They sense something’s feeding and they want to get in on the action. The smallest Rapala Jigging Rap with a mayfly larva on the center treble is probably just as good. It’s a toss up as to which is better for perch. We’re not finessing them. Attraction with noise and bottom contact brings numbers under the hole.”

A deadstick rod used in conjunction with jigging is a key element to Mark Martin’s methods.

But to catch numbers, Martin says deadsticking is critical. “You’ve got to deadstick,” he said. “We’re allowed three rods in Michigan and when jigging you want to have at least one dead rod deployed. I like the #3 Jigging Rap with a wiggler for that—it catches current then sidles and sways around. That nymph tantalizes them. Or just drop a minnow on a plain hook, or a wiggler on each tine of a #14 treble, or a single crappie minnow hooked between the dorsal fin and the tail. Hook them by the lips and they stop swimming and just hang there. Tap the rod once in a while to send vibration down the line to liven the bait. Some days, with a dozen or more of us out there, the dead rod outfishes any active jigging technique.”

And don’t always suspend baits near bottom. “Watch the fish finder,” he says. “Even perch are not always down by the bottom. Perch can be 10 to 15 feet off bottom at times. Set the deadstick bait at the depth where fish are marked, or just above it. People seldom realize how often perch suspend way off bottom, especially in the Great Lakes and in these drowned river-mouth lakes of western Michigan.”

Panfish may not evolve fast enough to keep up, but they do adapt. Educated fish result in tougher bites. Happens everywhere. It’s the little things that turn those tough bites into hot ones.

*Longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in the heart of ice country in the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota.

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