During the winter of 2014-2015, record cold set in along the Mason-Dixon area, the southern edge of the ice belt for eastern waters. In late March, the ice had finally melted off lakes and ponds in the Mid-Atlantic. I was excited to head to several local private and public venues for bluegill fun and fillets. Many panfishers in my region ignore the potential for outstanding ice-out panfish options, thinking that weeks of warm days are needed to trigger a bite. It just isn't so.
Over five decades of bluegill fishing throughout the Mid-Atlantic states, I realized long ago that numbers of quality fish could be caught in open water at ice-out, and in open water in mid-winter during milder winters. Many years see no ice cover, or just skim ice. During a mild winter, open-water panfishing can be spectacular during warm conditions or fair, stable weather. On numerous trips we've found bull bluegills high in the water column, taking tiny bait-tipped jigs just 3 or 4 feet below sensitive floats in 40°F water, sometimes colder. Throughout much of the nation, the coldwater bluegill bite is ignored and unknown to all but a few savvy panfishers.
When you read about panfish lures, jigs often come to print. Jig size matters, especially early in the year, long before the Spawn Period. Many anglers consider 1/16- and 1/8-ounce jigs small — sizes that catch crappies 12 inches and longer, or bigger white and yellow perch in tidal flows. But panfish in small lakes and ponds binge on tiny aquatic morsels like scuds, grass shrimp, mosquito larvae, or other insect emergers long before the waters reach 50°F.
Expert panfish angler, Greg Zeigler, of York, Pennsylvania, makes custom panfish jigs and has developed the skills to make micro-sized jigs effective, particularly in early spring. He starts with a 1/64-ounce jig and if it doesn't produce he downsizes. I like his thinking because panfish often feed on tiny aquatic organisms that are best duplicated by minute jigs. For many years, the bulk of my spring panfish success has been the result of going small.
For about a decade, I've been using my own custom tied micro jigs from 1/80- to 1/200-ounce. You could flycast them with a five-weight setup, but I use ultralight spinning gear with 2- and 3-pound-test monofilament. I suspend jigs 4 to 8 feet below a sensitive, near-neutrally buoyant float and allow the wind to gently push it along. With warming weather and rising water temperatures, fish take baits more aggressively. But we've caught fish within one or two days after ice-out, in 36°F to 39°F water, with these delicate setups. Floats gently go under and fish usually have the tiny jigs well into their mouths for a successful hookup.
With the popularity of tungsten jigs for ice fishing, you'd expect these heavy, micro options would serve well at ice-out. I've found, however, that they don't draw as many strikes as leadhead jigs. Ice anglers want a jig to get down quickly to the fish, but I believe bluegills in open water prefer a slower, more tantalizing fall permitted of a lead jig. This may not be the case in deeper reservoirs. But in shallow, dishpan lakes and ponds, where depths often are no more than 10 feet, ice-out bluegills and crappies almost immediately suspend well off the lake bottom as soon as the ice comes off.
Jighead design also plays a role in triggering strikes. Standard ballhead jigs down to 1/100 ounce are good options for most ice-out situations. At times, even these lighter lead jigs sink too fast. To achieve an even slower descent, we favor shad-dart style micro jigs, a popular East Coast design that's creeled tidal catches of stripers, perch, and shad for decades.
The angular, flat-cut, bottom surface of the dart results in a slower fall through the water column. Most strikes occur on the last few feet of the jig's descent. When retrieved slowly or popped with the rod tip, the dart moves erratically, unlike ballheads. Some days, darts outfish all other jig styles. The Trout Magnet line of Mini Magnets run 1/100 and 1/200 ounce with #14 hooks and are perfect for presenting natural baits or imitations.
Two patterns have worked well for micro-jigging panfish at ice-out. One is suspending a jig just above a remnant bed of sparse, emerging vegetation, where bluegills, crappies, and bass lurk in a somewhat lethargic state, yet feed on emerging aquatics as they drift within sight. Keep in mind this can be considered an extension of the ice-fishing season and strikes are soft, tentative, and almost imperceptible, especially if waves are present. A "strong" strike causes a float to slowly disappear, and an "up bite" causes an elongated float to lay on its side, indicating a bite from beneath. Set hooks quickly and keep all strike indicators within view. The Frog Hair Strike Indicator by Black Knight Industries (800/437-2971) is mostly for fly-fishing, but it works well for suspending micro jigs in cold conditions.
Another tactic is to set the jig depth to allow it to drag along bottom, imitating grass shrimp or scuds that are lethargic and easy pickings for deeper panfish species like redear sunfish and big pumpkinseeds. These species tend to feed on bottom-dwelling invertebrates, so a gently dragging jig imitates these foods.
Dragging requires little or no bottom debris or sparse vegetation to reach fish and to allow them to see your offering. Often the float shows little movement but trails off as the fish swims with the lure, sometimes opposite the wind direction. Floats may lift or trail off and not submerge. It can be tough to read the indicator, so be familiar with its action and response to movement and how it translates to the float. The best option is to treat any differing movement as a strike, and set hooks quickly. Weighted 1.5-inch cigar floats made by Comal Tackle Company of Buda, Texas, barely suspend a 1/64-ounce jig, making them perfect for suspending smaller micros.
This time of year, I like to tip jigs with a single maggot. The maggot typically lasts through 15 fish before it needs to be replaced. The jigs I use are tied to replicate tiny minnows or scuds and come in natural hues of black, brown, or olive. For tiny minnow imitations, I like 1/80-ounce jigs with a #12 long-shank jig hook. I widen the hook gap slightly to allow better hook-sets on large crappies and other large panfish. Last year, I scaled down to 1/200-ounce Trout Mini-Magnets and was delighted with fast-paced panfish action all season by tipping the plain gold or black jighead with a piece of worm. A bare jighead with bait also works at times.
During February and March in my region, open-water panfish can make shallow movements where warmer surface water stacks up in the backs of coves, canals, spillways, or along riprap shorelines. Watch the weather for south or southwest winds that bring warming trends and increase surface temperatures. Warmer surface water piles along windward shores and, along with exposed sunlight and longer days, these areas can be up to 6°F warmer than other areas of the lake, drawing slab 'gills and crappies. Fishing with the wind blowing directly into your face often is part of success this time of year. Take water temperatures often and locate the warmest available water.
Remnant weedbeds often hold fish. Beds can be deep or shallow, depending on the lake. As long as they're still green, they should hold fish nearby. In many lakes, bluegills and crappies relate to weedcover in March in as little as 4 feet of water, often no deeper than 6 feet. We've suspended micros as shallow as 3 feet over emerging vegetation in 6-foot depths and pounded bull 'gills. As the day wore on, fish became more aggressive and strikes more robust.
Many millponds on Delaware and Maryland's Eastern Shore have maximum depths of 6 to 7 feet. In winter or after a thaw event, crappies, bluegills, and yellow perch congregate in the deepest water, usually near the breast of the dam, and can be vulnerable to micro presentations. Some of the largest panfish of the year in this region are caught by savvy panfishers who specialize in mid-winter tactics. If this is occurring in Delmarva, it must be happening elsewhere throughout the nation where ice doesn't form.
Many lifelike ice-fishing jigs cross over to ice-out fishing. But duplicating organisms with the accuracy of an entomologist might be excessive. Copepod and zooplankton mimics designed for ice fishing surely catch fish in open water, but there's a good chance that these expensive tungsten offerings could be snatched by a bass or pickerel where I fish. Because of light line and occasional predators, I tie my micros to generically duplicate insects, grass shrimp, tiny crustaceans, or the smallest minnows, and with lighter lead options. Hybrid jig-fly patterns often outfish jigs designed for plastic additions. Colors tend to be more subdued as well with shades of brown, olive, orange, or black dominating the selection. In many waters, gawdy colors during the spring thaw seem to be a turn-off. Lethargic panfish show greater interest in natural hues.
Several patterns have emerged as game changers in early season. One is a hybrid jig I call the Dixie Cricket. Tied on a 1/100-ounce head, it has flexible rubber legs combined with soft hackle for a slow fall. Although tied on a ballhead rather than a dart-style head, the tiny morsel tumbles slowly in enticing fashion on 2-pound mono. Impale a single maggot on the #14 hook and it becomes a serious weapon in my early spring arsenal. Light and dark brown patterns produce best and I increase the size of the Dixie Cricket as the spawn approaches, favoring a 1/64-ounce head as prespawn bluegills become more aggressive.
Another style is a thread-bodied pattern I call the Nothin' Jig. It's merely a tapered jig that's wrapped with thread that tapers wide to the thickness of the jighead. I designed it to be primarily a bait-tipping jig for maggots, waxworms, or other small baits. It gives panfish a good visual even after the bait's consumed by pesky bait stealers. Often, bull 'gills take this jig as is or with a tiny softbait added. Again, colors are natural and subdued. Many other options exist as most jig tiers have their favorites.
Even 4-pound line is too heavy for micro-managing panfish. I opt for Leland Lures SOS 2-pound-test in green or Northland Fishing Tackle's Panfish Mono in 3-pound-test clear. Rods and reels are your choice. But remember, the longer the cast, the harder it is to discern a bite on the sensitive floats and the tougher it is to set a hook with light line and limber rods.
As the weather warms, these delicate tactics aren't necessary as prespawn and spawning fish bite with more gusto. But for now, less is more for springtime panfishing. You'll be surprised with a good bass now and again as well. Keep your drag set light and hang on. –
Jim Gronaw, Westminster, Maryland, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. He's a panfish aficionado who plies a variety of waters in the eastern U.S.