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.
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.