Twenty years ago, ice fishing panfish veterans would have scoffed at the proliferation of dainty, gaudy, lil' panfish toys we have today. Back then, panfish always bit like little automatic anti-invertebrate satellites. An old timer would look at today's mile-long racks of jigs and spit, "Hook 'n a grub's all ya need, ya idgits."
Well, those satellites don't function like they did twenty years ago. I don't know where you live, but up here in Minnesota, panfish can be mighty tough at times. Marking panfish on sonar doesn't instantly translate into fish in the pan anymore. Good panfish lakes are being hit harder than ever, and pressure changes things dramatically. Panfish, like all other fish, adapt. Over time, traditional tactics take fewer fish.
Last year, while producing an ice fishing video on panfish, we found a couple big crappies while fishing with minnows. But before long, even though we continued to mark fish, no bites. Leaving a minnow right in the middle of the school, on a deadstick placed in a rod holder on a bucket, produced nothing for hours. But we continued to catch 1- to 1 1/2-pound crappies on finesse tactics all around that hole.
This wasn't an isolated incident. Bluegills and crappies were tougher than ever wherever I went. Thank goodness we have innovative people working on new doodles and gizmos for panzies these days. And along with the new doodles come new techniques for applying them.
For finding and taking active panfish, I tend to begin with horizontal jigs. A jig that hangs horizontally, such as the classic Jack's Jig or HT Enterprises Mamooshka, presents a more natural profile, setting off fewer alarms in those tiny heads. At least, in my opinion.
"What makes you choose a vertical jig over a horizontal jig?" I asked Genz. "Why the Fat Boy instead of the Pounder or vice-versa?"
Genz: "I'd rather drill another hole, or search for an entirely different area, than work negative fish." Genz also tinkers with jig designs, especially for active, biting fish. His past accomplishments include the Fat Boy and the Pounder, both instant classics.
Genz developed the Genz Worm several years ago. And last year he began tinkering with eye placement. The Genz Worm is like a small three-headed jig. It looks like a short string of beads, each one smaller than the previous, with the eye on the front bead.
"I noticed if I moved the eye to the middle bead," he explained, "a subtle kicking action was created, with the hook twitching up and down when the jig was snapped or popped slightly. Turns out, it's a great trigger. When tipping with maggots, the creatures kick up and settle back in a tantalizing fashion."
JB Lures also introduced a horizontal panfish jig, the Hot Head, with the eye centered. It also produces a kicking action, especially when tipped with two or three maggots or poppers, and it offers a realistic "buggy" look. Apex Tackle, HT Enterprises, and several other companies also offer center-balanced horizontal panfish jigs. To make these jigs kick, the rod tip is popped up an inch or two and stopped short, or the rod tip is dropped and quickly popped back to its original position. This presentation is effective for "lookers" that won't commit to traditional triggers.
Horizontal means just that. Check each jig for balance in the hole, making certain it doesn't tip forward or back. The knot (a Trilene knot is the best for promoting proper balance) should be right on top of the eye. If the jig slouches hook-down, move the knot back toward the hook. If it can't be balanced, throw it away.
Proper balance involves a variety of other things as well. The bait should be balanced with the weight of the jig and the hook size. Small, delicate baits like maggots and nymphs (wigglers) in most cases require small, thin hooks, in sizes ranging from #12 to #10 on jigs ranging from 1/250 ounce to 1/64 ounce.
Larger hooks tear maggots, but with the barb pinched down, three maggots can be slipped onto a #8 hook to balance with jigs up to 1/32 ounce. Poppers (larger maggots) balance well with slightly heavier heads and a variety of hook sizes. Waxworms work best on a #8 or even a short-shank #6 hook, and jigs should weigh at least 1/80 ounce, or the bait overbalances the jig.
Tiny horizontal jigs like the 1/500-ounce Turner Jones Original Scampi are rare, but they make fine alternatives for the finesse teardrop techniques covered in the next segment and, in fact, work even better for the fussiest fish in gin-clear water. For other ideas in horizontal presentations, check the segment on ice plastics in this article.
Vertical spoons and jigs, teardrops, and the like are versatile tools. Wide thin jigs wobble seductively, creating a bigger flash. Long, thin models modify the flash area for less of a spook factor. Thick ones drop quickly to the strike zone. Tiny ones flutter through a tantalizingly slow fall. "Ant" versions have rubber legs for the quiver effect, a prime trigger in some situations. Large, aggressive versions readily fool active fish, while tiny 1/250-ounce models are great for finessing finicky panzies.
Wide teardrops with silver or gold backs are good choices in dark or murky water. Panfish can't bite it if they can't find it, and wide teardrops produce a pronounced flash throughout the jigging process. Neutral panfish become curious about rubber-legged versions, such as the new Arnold Tackle Darb Spider.
Heavy tears, such as the Lindy-Little Joe Pounder and the Northland Glow Ant, get to the fish quicker during a hot bite. Sometimes, all that's necessary is to get a bait to the right depth. Then do the two-step technique: drop it down and reel 'em in. Heavy tears in bright fluorescent colors are a good choice in cloudy or muddy water. The added surface area draws attention quicker.
Most vertical jigs function as attractors, but some travel the realism route. The K & E Lunatic is basically a Kahle- or wide-gap-style hook wrapped with wire, creating a fair caddis larvae imitation. Three-tone paint jobs and sparkle add attraction to this interesting new vertical jig. As might be expected, it tends to perform well for neutral fish, especially in off-clear to cloudy water.
But in clear water, the fussy panfish I've fished for lately run from such things like scalded apes. A flasher showing tiers of panfish suddenly goes blank before a Fat Boy can get within five feet. Tiny tear drops like the Thunderhawk Tackle Talon Tear or Micro Flash and the Shearwater Tackle Punkin Jig provide the answer for these fish. Even on 1-pound-test line, these tiny 1/250- to 1/100-ouncers require a small "dust"-sized split shot or two a foot up the line to get any depth within a bluegill's lifetime. And spring bobbers are a must.
Panfish won't spook from these jigs, which go a step beyond an ultralight classification. To get the jig down takes some time, but the slow drop is part of the key. Fine-tune the depthfinder so you can see both specks, one for the split shot and one for the jig, to make certain the rig is fishing, not providing mere curiosity for the fish. These rigs can tangle from time to time, but not so badly that it's not worth doing. Genz would argue that point, but he's been known to finesse panfish, too. He just ties an 8- to 10-inch dropper to the hook shank of his Fat Boy for dangling a tiny Coped or other vertical jig down below. "I hate using split shot," he says. "My way, I can fish for active and neutral fish at the same time."
But with a spring bobber, it's easier to discern the "up bite," because even the tension of a dust-speck shot and a 1/250-ounce Talon Tear will slightly bend down the spring. With pressured panfish, being inside a shelter is essential, unless the wind is absolutely dead. If the spring bends up or down the width of a frog hair, set the hook.
I prefer thin, gray lines for panfishing through ice, and Gudebrod and Silver Thread AN 40 have been kind to me. But this winter, I intend to try P-Line Premium 2-pound test for finessing with tiny jigs. P-Line, according to the literature, has a smaller diameter than most other 2-pound lines, and it's fluorocarbon coated. Fluorocarbon leader material from Seaguar, Sufix, and Stren may be worth the asking price, too. Any advantage is worth the price where pressured panfish are concerned.
The new ice plastics can be phenomenal when panfish have seen everything within two days after ice-up. Plastics work fine where panfish receive little pressure, too. In fact, this new breed of quivering tail was one of last year's most pleasant surprises. Why bother with bait if plastic works better?
HT Enterprises Softies and PinTails and BobTails from Pinpoint Plastix work well on pressured fish. These long, thin tails taper to a needle-thin tip that quivers for minutes after the rod is placed in a holder or laid across the top of a bucket. Something about a jig sitting motionless while the tail blurs just drives panfish nuts.
Of course, a jig is needed to get the plastics down. Or maybe not. Pinpoint provides tiny jig hooks with no lead, or wrapped with wire for an ultraslow fall to choosy panfish. HT Enterprises sells a small horizontal head with their package. Both work as packaged, or the tails can be combined with other heads. Jim Kalkofen, executive director of the In-Fisherman Professional Walleye Trail, likes to use Pinpoint plastics with tear drops. He pushes the hook through the side of the plastic near the thick end and runs it around to the jig head, then slides a maggot or two down to the bend in the hook. He then pokes the hook through the plastic again, so the plastic hangs horizontally with the bait dangling vertically.
Custom Jigs & Spins entered the ice-plastics game with the Ratso, a horizontal jig, and the Shrimpo, a vertical jig. Unfortunately, these appeared last summer, and we haven't had a chance to use either. The Ratso has a natural profile, the plastic is quite soft, and it performed admirably under a float last summer. The Shrimpo comes with an interesting turn, so the tail protrudes in a taunting forward attitude. The shape is reminiscent of caddis larvae and other invertebrates. The ultrathin tail on these baits ends closer to the hook point, making it better for short biters. (Softies, Bobtails, and Pintails can be shortened, too.)
The best ice-plastic tactic for active panfish is the horizontal package. For active fish, use heads up to 1/64 ounce on 2-pound line. For neutral fish scale down to 1/80 ounce. Get the jig down to the fish and shake the rod tip, pause, lift the jig two feet, let it fall, and repeat.
For less active fish, let the tail do most of the talking. Use a wire-wrapped, horizontal jig hook or a light jig, and let it slowly parachute down. Try holding the rod still, tapping the blank occasionally to get the tail beating, or set the rod in a holder. Spring bobbers shine here, too. Again, tap the rod from time to time to get the spring bobbing slightly. That's all it takes. Gauge the reaction of the fish with your flasher, and compare it to the bait bite to determine the best course of action for the day.
This only scratches the surface. Once upon a time, you grabbed some bait, put a hook-and-sinker combo down the hole, and hauled in fish. And the same process was repeated all winter long. Today? Let the old-timers spit all they want. Versatility rules.
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.