Why sit over panfish that won't cooperate? With today's sophisticated search tools—lake maps, depthfinders, underwater cameras, snowmobiles, augers—a case can be made for perpetual movement. "Some guys say, drill holes until you find biters," In-Fisherman Editor in Chief Doug Stange says. "To them, it's aggressive tactics all or most of the time. But talk to the boys down in Iowa, on their crystal clear lakes. By midseason, those fish have been beaten pretty badly, and have to be finessed to catch just a few."
Or perhaps you live in an urban area where all the panfish waters within a reasonable drive are hit hard. "Sometimes," Stange says, "move, move, move isn't an option."
So it goes in some parts of the world. Sometimes we need a plan for tackling down in the face of finicky bluegills, crappies, perch, and other panfish.
Bring this topic up to Mick Thill, and he races to clear up a misunderstanding about his approach to icing winter panfish. Best known for his contributions to bringing modern float fishing to America from Europe, Thill also is an avid ice fisherman. "I always fish with the heaviest baits I can get away with, using them as aggressively as the fish want them," he says. "It's easier and faster that way. But if I get no response, when I know fish are present, I switch to tiny tackle.
"In the Chicago area waters I fish, lakes are heavily pressured, and many days, I don't have any choice but to tackle down. All fish are either aggressive, neutral, or negative. And on heavily pressured lakes, the fish are neutral or negative most of the time. It takes the right approach to catch them. But the challenge can be a lot of fun."
Time-honored standbys like live maggots, waxworms, and small minnows always work. How you present them (plain hook, tiny jighead, aggressively or passively) becomes the big piece of the puzzle, once you find fish.
In Thill's experience, on those days when you determine panfish aren't responding to aggressive methods, start fishing in each new hole with a delicate, super-light approach. "I've spent quite a bit of time watching these fish on underwater cameras," Thill says. "If the fish are in a neutral or negative mood, aggressive methods will put them off, kill their curiosity. Even if you switch over to something micro light on those same fish, their curiosity has been dulled, and they won't react."
"When I know really big panfish are available," Thill says, "I first try using the heaviest line I can get away with, and rods and reels matched to the fish's size. I think the small tackle is appropriate for bluegills up to about a pound," Thill says, "and maybe crappies and perch up to about a pound and a half. I always fish as heavy as I can get away with, then go lighter if I have to."
Rods—Thill (847/982-9898) is offering the next generation of ultralight Scandinavian ice rods in three sizes. The two lightest models feature tips that double as ultrasensitive bite indicators that betray even lift bites, where the fish inhales your bait and moves upward. Crappies are known for doing this.
They also feature a screw that allows you to precisely lock in a certain depth. "If you hook a big fish," Thill says, "loosen the screw and fight the fish by pressuring the side of the reel with your thumb."
These rods are short; they look like toys upon first inspection. But the shortness is by design, Thill says, because it allows you to snug the whole works inside your hunched-over body. "Your legs act as a windbreak," he says. "I tell people that these toys have won three world ice fishing championships." Of course, fishing inside a portable shelter eliminates the need to block the wind with your body.
While these diminutive rods are equipped with reels, they're inteded as handline rods, where you hand-over-hand the line in as you fight a fish. "Handlining is efficient and practical when you're using thin, soft monofilament. You just have to fish so the wind blows the line in a loop out in front of you, so it doesn't tangle."
With these delicate tools, setting the hook is a different operation than with a more powerful rod. "Strike with the rod at a 45-degree angle," Thill says, "so the rod tip is always pointing down at the ice. The tips are so thin that they lack backbone to set the hook, so you have to strike with your elbow up."
A third rod in the series is a bit beefier, intended for small jigging spoons or other jigging lures. "But when you rig up a tiny Swedish Pimple inline with a tiny dropper hook," Thill says, "that's still ultralight fishing."
A fourth rod in Thill's stable is the "winder," developed in Finland. "With the hand winder," he says, "I can bring my bait up as fast as with a high-speed reel, and also drop back down faster. It never freezes up, and can be used with the thinnest line, even soft mono that would be damaged in a reel. I use one-pound spectra lines for deep-water fishing, because of the great feel."
The winder was developed by high-level competitors; when tucked in tight to their bodies, they can wind up fish without fellow competitors seeing what they're doing.
Line—Talk of line under a pound and Thill's eyes roll, even though it was common in previous years. "I've never needed to go below 11/2-pound line," he says. "I love the thin, soft mono (that he sells under his name), because fish feel it less on their lips. But it's not abrasion resistant. I don't even use it on reels, I only handline it. I have some extremely thin line that actually has over one pound breaking strength, but I mainly sell 21 4-, 3-, and 4-pound line."
In shallow water, Thill likes mono, while for deeper water, he favors the enhanced sensitivity of no-stretch spectra fiber lines, such as SpiderWire and Power Pro (which he says is rounder). "I get such a great transmission of bites," he says. "Also, it's so thin that it drops down quicker. And with any cross-current or other flow under the ice, there's less bend and bow in the line.
"The only drawback I can see is the lack of stretch, so with bigger fish that really shake their heads, it can be tough." With no-stretch line, Thill recommends a somewhat forgiving fiberglass rod, for a bit of shock absorption.
Thill also sees great promise for fluorocarbon, especially with finicky bluegills in ultraclear water. "It's stiff, and thicker than I would normally fish with, but the fish don't seem to be able to see it," Thill says. "Actually, the stiffness can be an advantage in some situations, where the fish don't want the bait spinning. A lack of spinning can be a big thing, especially with bluegills."
Fluorocarbon is tough, showing little wear from pinching split-shot on and taking it off. But it breaks without much warning, so you have to train yourself to fight fish with it.
Elastic—Described sometimes as a "shock tippet," a short band of stretchy elastic can be tied into your line, for help in fighting big fish on super-light line without breaking off. Even with lines testing one pound, Thill rarely uses elastic, relying instead on an educated sense of when the line is about to break. Still, it has promise, especially for anglers with a less developed sense of when the line is about to give out.
And while the material was traditionally available only in white, Thill now sells it in a variety of high-vis fluorescent colors, introducing the possibility that a short section of colored elastic might double as an attractor. "Tie it in a couple feet above your lure," Thill says. "Tie a single overhand knot in the elastic and pull it tight. Then tie a nail knot or a half blood knot in your main line. Pull the knot tight against the overhand knot, and it won't slip off."
Hooks and Ice Jigs—In this department, Thill has developed a specialty line of chemically sharpened high-carbon hooks with micro eyelets. They feature a tiny ringed eyelet rather than a standard eye or spade end.
With his tiny ring-eye hooks, Thill has created a line of panfish micro jigs in a variety of colors, including lightweight models down to 1/250 ounce. The lightest are intended to be fished below split shot.
These ring-eye hooks work well for droppers--a plain hook fished below a jig, tipped with a single maggot, wiggler, waxworm, or other livebait, but Thill insists that spade-end hooks are still better for that purpose due to their slimmer profile. Thill sells a hook-tying machine, a small hand-held tool ($8) that makes snelling hooks a quick and easy process. A snell knot with eyed hooks offers a more direct connection to your hook, which translates into better power.
Floats—Super light for panfish also means floats, the product Thill is best known for. "I've designed a line of floats perfect for this kind of fishing," Thill says. "In many situations, panfish want a bait at an exact depth that doesn't move. And for suspended fish, with floats you can get your bait to the same depth every time, more precisely than you can any other way. Or even if you like to jig with one rod, in places where you can use more than one line, a float is the ideal way to present a second bait.
"Floats do so many good things that it's impossible to ignore them," Thill says. "I say this all the time, but floats make fishing so visual. No matter how delicate the bite, or if you get a lift bite, it's there for you to see."
Thill also has developed a line of pure lead shot for balancing floats, and float stops, he promises, won't freeze up.
"Fishing is simple," Thill says. "You change tactics, move, or both. You try new things because they might work if nothing else is working. The whole point of fishing is to catch fish. Persevering to fish tough-bite panfish is something you do when you don't find aggressive fish."
Shiver Those Slivers
An elderly gentleman named Herman, a winter fixture on the Madison, Wisconsin chain of lakes, developed a plastic panfish killer known locally as the "Purple Herman." So named because the most popular color is purple, the Hermans are little slithery slivers of plastic, originally shaved from plastic worms.
Thill has worked with a plastics maker to develop a line of commercially produced slivers, ranging from about 3/4 inch to just over an inch long. They're rigged on a tiny jighead. Impale the head end on the hook, and keep the body and tail sticking out horizontally. "The plastic has to be the right density, taper, and thickness," Thill says, "or it won't stay 90 degrees to the line, which is critical.
"They should impart just a minuscule movement. Move it up and down as little as possible. Just tremble and vibrate. The whole skill is getting the tail to vibrate. It's absolutely deadly on tough-bite panfish, sometimes catching fish when even livebait doesn't work.
"I like to brace myself on the ice so I'm stationary, and lift the rod up and down slowly while I just tap the rod with my index finger, controlling the vibration. I like to fish it on a plain hook," he says. "I put a split shot one to three inches above the hook. It's a totally different action compared to a jighead. It drops slower in the water, and if the fish takes it while it's just floating slowly, they don't feel anything."
*Mark Strand, Woodbury, Minnesota, is one of the country's top winter panfish anglers and an author of many past In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guide articles.
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.