December 19, 2022
Hard water and open water, panfish anglers often target similar areas, but there’s no dodging the realities of access and versatility. Fishing through narrow holes versus casting where/when you want; and then being able to move 20 feet or 200 feet—folks in boats enjoy much more flexibility than those with spikes on their boots.
No complaints, of course; ice fishing offers its own set of rewards and ambiance. That being said, consistency requires strategy and that starts with location. For Chris Granrud of Minnesota’s RainyDaze Guide Service, site selection is critical.
His advice: Understand the macro and the micro views and be ready to adjust with the day.
Granrud suggests first considering what forage exists in a particular body of water. For example, lakes with good populations of freshwater shrimp will abound with crappie, bluegill, and perch.
“A lot of times you’re going to find good panfish action in bodies of water with a good mud basin because you have so many bugs that come into that mud and hatch out of that mud, it’s just a lot of food,” Granrud said. “Also, I think it’s pretty key that they have some deeper water. I think that a lot of times, they winter over deeper water.
“Especially in Northern Minnesota, if a lake doesn’t have some deeper water, it just doesn’t seem to hold as many panfish. Maybe every once in a while they have winter die outs, but it does seem that’s (critical) because that’s often where we’ll end up finding them mid-winter when oxygen levels are really low.”
Another biggie is healthy weed growth pre-ice. A lot of the vegetation succumbs to the cold, but as he points out, dense plant life plays a critical role in sustaining the population throughout the year. Spot patches of lily pads or reeds frozen into the ice, and you can bet you have panfish close.
“The lakes that have the mud and all the weed growth end up being the more productive ones,” he said. “For example, with Rainy Lake, which is where I live, there are some areas that have the mud and weed growth within a certain area, and it seems like our biggest crappie are around those areas.”
Not that this premise would likely draw much debate, but for anecdotal evidence, he said he’s caught fish that brought the evidence with them.
“That mud still produces food all through the winter and the fish will dig grubs and larvae out of the bottom,” he said. “A lot of times, you’ll catch crappie and you can tell they’ve been digging—they have mud in their mouth and in their nose.”
Adjust With The Season
Noting that the panfish bite will move throughout the season, Granrud offers this guidance:
In the early goings, stay shallow, especially if there’s a good amount of green weeds.
“There’s quite a bit of oxygen within the green weeds and those weeds can stay green through half of the season,” he said. “But if you don’t have a ton of snow on your lake where you have pretty good light penetration in there, those weeds will stay green for a while and panfish will stay close.”
Once the weeds start to die off and/or if heavy snowfall blocks the sunlight and oxygen levels diminish in the dim water, he expects his panfish to make a deeper move.
“Early in the year, you can be around those green weeds, there can be a ton of oxygen and a ton of food and the fish will be in there,” he said. “Then they’ll progress into deep holes and at the very end of the season, they’ll start transitioning back to the mid-range depths and, pretty soon, they’ll be back in those weeds again.”
Know Your Windows
Within the course of a day, he implements a mobile game plan that leverages the panfish patterns.
“I’m going to start shallower, or really close to a break, a weed line, or a rock pile,” he said. “I would to the same thing in the evening.
“When it comes to midday, they might just be roaming out in the basin and not sitting on a particular piece of structure. I think that’s because they’re not really feeding, and you might actually intercept them out in no-man’s land.”
During this loosely defined period, he suggests spreading out your group to cover more of the basin. The fish are harder to locate than when they’re relating to specific structure, so cover water and when someone lands on a concentration, tighten your ranks and focus on the hot zone.
“If we find an isolated school, we’ll try to pin them down and drill that area out,” Granrud said. “Midday is the time when you want to be doing a lot of your searching and your hot bite windows is when you want to be sitting still.”