Ice Fishing Crappie And Bluegill
March 01, 2019
The ides of December can be different every year. Miles of black ice without snow one year, no ice the next. The following year, same date, miles of deep snow and slush. The world surrounding the lake can change drastically from year to year at first-ice, an occurrence that appears at varying calendar dates. That's the first clue.
When the lake finally freezes, where are the panfish? Same spot as last year? Depends. When the ice forms early, panfish seem to move earlier to deep basin sites. When winter arrives late, they cling to remaining green weeds on shallower flats well into the season—sometimes never leaving until spawn time. When the panfish don't show up where they're "supposed to be" under the ice, it's probably because a micro season or two were misdiagnosed, or because the forage base changed.
For years, we've talked about micro seasons under the ice, addressing the fact that seasons don't remain static just
because the lake is locked in ice for several months. Though water temperature changes little from ice-up to ice-out, theunderwater environment changes drastically and continuously between December and April. Many lakes contain more dissolved oxygen in December than in March, especially smaller eutrophic lakes. Some years, light penetration swings from high to low and back to high.
Last year, light penetration went from high to, well, pretty high, and back to high. The winter was mild, with less snowfall and more thaws, which means thinner ice and less snow on the ice, adding up to more light penetration. More sunlight means more plankton, which means more oxygen, all of which affects panfish location. Fish activity was high late in the season, even in shallow lakes where oxygen depletion usually becomes a problem.
More sunlight also allows for better weed health throughout winter, which means panfish won't necessarily leave the weeds for traditional basin areas if forage is present in the weeds. Last year, panfish stayed in the weeds in many lakes, while in other waters, the basin bites were hotter than ever. Where panfish stayed shallow (bluegills tend to do this more than crappies), they fooled a lot of dedicated ice fishermen who didn't see traditional basin bites develop at all.
Micro seasons, each anywhere from a week to a month long, depending on weather and other factors, go something like this: (1) First-ice characterized by relatively abundant green weeds most years, lots of plankton, lots of fish activity in all types of lakes. (2) Early midseason characterized by dying weeds and plankton concentrations forming midlake in smaller lakes where panfish productivity begins to taper off. Basin bites hit full stride in slightly larger late-stage mesotrophic lakes. (3) Midseason when the best bites occur in bigger, deeper mesotrophic lakes that maintain oxygen counts through deep snow and thick ice. (4) Late midseason when basin bites for bigger panfish begin to taper off. And finally, (5) Last-ice when receding ice cover and snow melt replenishes oxygen counts in the shallows, drawing panfish back to bays and canals. That is, if they ever left in the first place.
The past few ice seasons demonstrated that micro seasons are as variable as the weather and the lakes themselves. Changing conditions can alter the populations and location of primary forage sources. For a variety of reasons, weeds don't grow the same every year. On one lake, weedgrowth may be less dense than in previous years, while a lake just down the road a few miles experiences better weedgrowth than the year before. This makes keeping track of weedgrowth in open water before ice-up and monitoring weed health under the ice critical every year. Finding standing green weeds is much easier from a boat than through the ice. Mark the location carefully, using shoreline objects to triangulate.
Dave Genz, a legendary hard-water angler and long-time In-Fisherman contributor, enjoys ice fishing crappie and bluegill from New York to Montana and from Nebraska to northern Ontario. His method for discerning which stage panfish are in is the best we have to offer.