How to Find Panfish on Big Lakes
February 14, 2018
If you ever doubt humans have herding tendencies, travel by air over Mille Lacs Lake, Minnesota, or Devil's Lake, North Dakota, on a clear January day you can spot clusters of ice shelters crowded into specific sections. Stretching for acres and miles between are white expanses of lonely ice. But if you look closer, you might spot a single shelter off in the distance, all by itself. Does that angler know something the crowds don't? Or is he a non-conformist sitting over an unknown school of bluegill beasts?
Psychological research has revealed that humans do indeed flock, similar to sheep and birds, and subconsciously follow a minority of individuals. Scientists at the University of Leeds (UK) determined that it takes a minority of just 5 percent to influence a crowd's direction — and that the other 95 percent follows without realizing why.
Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl has always been one of the 5-percenters. Problem is, he'd rather carry out his contrary ways discretely, leaving the other 95 percent in a trail of snowflakes and auger dust.
Two winters ago, while guiding a group of anglers on one of the larger lakes he fishes, Brosdahl unexpectedly found himself in the midst of a mass of newly arrived fishers — hundreds of trucks, shelters and snowmobiles piling onto the lake in unprecedented numbers. Whether word got out via online chat, a baitshop spilling the beans, or another guide revealing the lake for publicity, the source had already become irrelevant. For following just two weeks of intense catch-and-kill angling, it had already become clear that one of the best trophy panfish lakes he'd ever fished was destined to become a shadow of its former self.
When he called to let me know what was happening, it was already too late. "Better get up here fast," he said. "The army has landed."
I fished the big lake late that winter, and couldn't believe such a vast waterbody could succumb to harvest so quickly. It was evident early that day that the crowd had converged, vacuumed the lake's deep basins and select shallow zones of their large panfish, and then left the lake like a western ghost town. Beyond the piles of litter and bits of fish carnage on the ice, the only things missing were tumbleweeds.
Tumultuous times call for extreme measures. We still love small backwoods lakes and overlooked prairie ponds, isolated river backwaters, and potholes surrounded by stern signs and barbed-wire fences. All can harbor hulking sunfish under optimal conditions and little pressure. But in recent years, Brosdahl, me, and others have become intrigued by the prospect of secret pockets of panfish on big lakes and reservoirs. Some of the healthiest fish we've found have been on larger lakes best known for walleyes, big bass, or pike. Waters of about 1,000 acres and larger often produce palm-size sunfish, with the sheer size of the water body helping to hide and protect the fish from overharvest.
What you discover — both by fishing and talking with biologists — is that lakes with balanced sunfish populations don't contain endless swarms of sunfish. On lakes with a higher density of predators such as largemouth bass, natural mortality (predation) of panfish can be high, keeping numbers of smaller sunfish in check. What remains in some of these waters are colonies of large, mature sunfish that may limit their movements to one particular lake section for much of the year.
One of the big lakes I used to fish in winter fishes like a smaller waterbody. About 90 percent of the lake is composed of depths over 50 feet deep. The rest consists of a few flats and steep shoreline breaks from 5 to 20 feet of water. Much of the 10- to 20-foot depths contain hard bottom lacking vegetation. What remains is about 50 acres out of 1,000 that holds bluegills.
Like I said, I used to visit this lake. The winter that a friend and I caught and released two of the largest pumpkinseeds I'd ever seen, the crowd converged, purging the lake of its large sunfish by early April. The lake's big bluegills have yet to recover. So that winter Brosdahl guided me to greener pastures — a lightly pressured water where I caught 12-inch sunfish last March.
Bro has fished this lake for years. A sprawling maze of structure, the fishery attracts a run of trophy sunfish to a less obvious shallow flat around the middle of March. It's one of the only areas anglers catch sunfish with regularity. When the fish are there, it's one of the best big bluegill bites going.
The fish there are unpredictable enough that in five visits you might only hit fish once. What makes the spot appealing to sunfish? It's somewhat of a neck-down on a massive (several hundred acre) shallow flat. Ample vegetation of many species proliferates in most of the area. The sweet spot is largely plant-free with a soft, silt bottom. We suspect sunfish mill around the giant flat for much of the spring, summer, and winter, with small pods of sunfish making frequent visits to the deep edge and into the 30-foot basin.
Across the ice belt are hundreds of large, complex lakes like this one, such as West Okoboji, Iowa, Pelican Lake, Minnesota, and Lake Geneva, Wisconsin. Others have deep water, but host limited areas of obvious sunfish habitat, such as conspicuous shallow bays. Others, like Lake Metigoshe, North Dakota, and Delavan Lake, Wisconsin, are shallow, windswept, and house an almost endless labyrinth of vegetation. In the case of flowages and reservoirs, expansive clean flats are peppered by occasional areas of submerged brush and trees, plus creek channels and artificial fish cribs.
Drilling Versus Open-Water Scanning
Unless you're familiar with the lake, winter is the wrong time to conduct your initial search for big-water bluegills. Should you find yourself on ice on a large unknown waterbody, however, it's not a bad idea to adopt the philosophy of Brandon Newby, likely the most successful tournament angler in North American ice-fishing history. Each season, he finds himself on new water during the NAIFC tournament season.
"On new lakes, we start the search on community holes," Newby says. "We're not looking to fish there, but we like to poke around with an Aqua-Vu Micro underwater camera. We look at depth, structure, cover, bottom composition — things that make the spot appealing to panfish. We then search out similar locations."
Wielding portable Milwaukee power drills on 4- or 5-inch auger bits, Newby and tournament partner Ryan Wilson set off across the lake, cutting hundreds of holes in search of virgin territory and fresh fish. At the 2014 NAIFC event on Lake Maxinkuckee, Indiana, they discovered a tournament-winning spot in the main lake — a subtle transition from hard to soft bottom — that may have never been fished during winter, certainly not by local anglers.
Alternatively, if you don't care to drill for days, you might scout the lake by boat prior to ice-up. Fish-finding tools like side-imaging sonar and digital lake maps provide valuable information.
Jason Halfen, a university professor and fishing industry insider, integrates multiple technologies into his pre-ice search strategy. "In northern Wisconsin, many of our most productive large flowages have stained water and lack significant natural cover in water deeper than 10 to 12 feet," Halfen says. "Panfish in these lakes, both crappies and bluegills, move into old river channels as fall progresses into winter, where the water is 16 to 20 feet deep. Large schools gather as water temps fall through the 50s into the 40s. These schools are often found close to manmade cover, especially fish cribs that have been placed in or near river channels."
Halfen side-scans 100 feet or more on both sides of the boat using his Humminbird Helix 12, canvassing enormous swaths of water in short order. One-hundred feet is a good range setting, as the screen retains ample resolution to reveal individual sunfish in a school. As scan range increases, small details like individual pieces of cover or a small pod of panfish may be sacrificed in favor of expanded search area.
On large, clean flats near a river channel, his sonar clearly shows submerged timber or manmade cribs, plus pods of sunfish or other species close by. At the same time he's scanning flats, he employs a second Helix mapping unit to track his position relative to the river channel or a drop-off or to record where he's already searched.
"On clear lakes, I start hunting for ice-fishing spots in mid- to late fall," he says. "I don't focus on the deepest water, which can often be 50 feet deep or more. Rather, I look along the rims of deep basins, in depths from 25 to 35 feet. A productive tool on my LakeMaster charts is the depth highlight feature, which allows me to shade all of the contours within a selected depth range in green. This gives me a visual that helps me keep my boat in the right depth range along the rims of these basins. It's amazing how often large schools of panfish gather along these deep rims. The fish appear by mid-fall and stay in the same general areas until ice-out."
While side-imaging shows fish well when they're on clean flats, its shortcoming is identifying fish in dense vegetation. Instead of tracking the fish themselves, I've recently used a tool that reveals numerous potentially productive spots, rarely fished and unknown to most anglers. A LakeMaster Plus map chip not only shows depth contours to 1-foot increments, it also allows me to overlay aerial satellite imagery on the contours. Or I can view the aerial image itself. In both cases, the program lets me drop GPS waypoints on any potential spot. I use a Humminbird Helix 7 unit, which can be transferred between a boat and use on ice.
On many lakes, you get a clear picture of the underwater topography, including expanses of vegetation. Even on lakes with stained water, the imagery can show things like clearings within masses of vegetation. On one large lake I fish, a clear channel cuts through a large vegetated flat. No idea how it formed or why it's there, but the plant-free lane shows up clearly on the satellite image, and in winter, portions of this clearing hold big bluegills.
On several other lakes, I've found depressions on expansive sandflats. One drops into 10 and 12 feet of water and stretches for about 200 yards on a large 5-foot sandflat. Its contours don't show up on the depth map, but show clearly on the satellite image. Closer surveillance with an Aqua-Vu and subsequent fishing has revealed that these isolated subtle depressions, which often house stands of healthy pondweed and coontail, also hold untouched pockets of bluegills, largemouth bass, and occasionally crappies. They're subtle spots, rarely fished and often full of 'gills, especially on large bodies of water where predator species abound.
Halfen also finds that predators affect bluegill location. "A sleeper strategy I use on lakes with significant numbers of pike or muskies is to move into shallow vegetation — 6 to 8 feet deep — and fish for bluegills during the day. I think sunfish have learned that apex predators hunt deep weedlines. So if you find a weed-free pocket in shallow cover, you can often sight-fish for big bluegills at midday, often all through winter."
Deeper basin areas or holes present an alternative location that's particularly important in lakes with darker water, as well as during mid-winter. Brosdahl identifies the best basins as those near living vegetation, such as coontail, which he calls a top bluegill-attracting species. He's found 'gills in basins as deep as 50 feet, but avoids bites deeper than about 25, due to concerns with barotrauma.
"Eighteen to 22 feet is a key range for bluegills in basins," he says. "While crappies can be anywhere in the basin, 'gills tend to relate to the rims, or at least relatively near the drop.
"I'm not big on punching dozens or hundreds of holes on my spots. That's like drawing a roadmap to the fish for other anglers. Instead, even when I'm searching, I randomly sample, drilling just enough holes to get an idea of fish presence, bottom content, and presence of bloodworms. My Aqua-Vu Micro camera shows all the clues I need.
"What you learn is that big bluegills travel in small pods, not in large schools, even in the best lakes for big bluegills," he says. "Once a lake is discovered and targeted by too many catch-and-kill anglers — even on a large body of water — the big ones can be wiped out in two or three weekends."
Brosdahl brings up another issue about basin bluegills. "I see too many guys sorting through fish caught from deep water, even to the point where they're releasing 9-inchers to kill 91â„2- or 10-inchers. Even though they're keeping a legal limit of 20, they're killing more, because many of those caught from water deeper than 22 feet die anyway. Take a look with a camera under the ice in a clear lake. In community holes, you might see dozens to hundreds of dead fish floating up under the ice.
"If you're fishing deep water, harvest up to your legal limit — never sort or cull — and then move on," he says. "If more anglers would selectively harvest bluegills like they do bass, muskies, or big walleyes, fishing for big 'gills would be so much better."
I haven't spent much time talking lures or presentations. That's because the "finding" part of the process is everything. Once found, big 'gills often are the easiest — and most aggressive — fish to catch in the population.
Beyond the traditional tackle — jigs, microplastics, and live larvae — bigger is often better on big water. Search-lures are overlooked, and can be highly effective for big bluegills. Try a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce spoon, such as a Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon or Swedish Pimple, adorned with a Pro Finesse or similar dropper chain clipped to the lower hook eye. It's the best of all worlds — attract with flash and vibration, show fish a bigger bite of food, and trigger them with the tiny hook hanging below.
Small swimming lures also work well. Akara's Midge, a diminutive swimmer, is a gem. Lunkerhunt's Straight Up Jig, Custom Jigs & Spins Rotating Power Minnow, Lucky John's Mebaru, and Rapala's #2 Jigging Rap are all great, overlooked sunfish baits. Larger jig-and-plastic pairings, such as Clam's XL series, also work to attract bigger bites.
Big water, bigger presentations, biggest 'gills — the ways of a 5-percenter.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is dedicated to seeking out big sunfish in a variety of habitats.