Power-Searching Big Panfish: Fall to First Ice
November 26, 2019
That period from late fall into early winter represents, in most regions, the quietest and least-fished phase of the year. Depending on the day, you might get sun and 60- or 70-degree weather. Or freezing fog. Or rain, sleet, snow, and sun, all on the same day. On those disorienting days when your instincts can’t put a finger on what month it is, fish can do crazy things, including panfish. On clear, cold November nights, I’ve caught crappies in 8 inches of water up near the bank, watched assemblies of big bluegills pluck flying ants off the surface, and stung big perch on spinnerbaits in bulrush beds in 2 feet of water.
On most of the rest of those late fall, almost-winter days, lakes are lonely places for anglers, particularly for those pursuing panfish. Boat rides in October and November tend to get a little chilly, and so the thinking often is that if you’re going to brave air temps in the 40s or low 50s, you might as well hunt something with shoulders, something like a whopper bass, walleye, or muskie. I get it.
But the thinking among many of the most astute panfishers in my area also flows thusly: Once lakes turn and water temps descend into the 50s, big panfish assemble and hide in tight groups amid vast structural landscapes. They’re not necessarily easy to find, but once you land on the gathering, opportunities for mega slabs abound. In the North, the other reason for fall scouting is to gain a leg up on the throngs of anglers looking to score big pans at early ice.
It’s also about the fact that crappies, in particular, don’t often make major moves in late fall to early ice. Bluegills may not venture far, either, but often move deep in fall before reassembling on middepth vegetated flats once ice and snow forms above. Finding fish or the best cover in a boat before first ice guarantees you’ll be light years ahead of the crowds once they’re walking on hard water.
The pre-ice scouting strategy has been successfully employed by top teams on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC). Prior to winning past NAIFC tournaments on Mille Lacs and Big Stone lakes in Minnesota and Delavan Lake, Wisconsin, elite anglers such as Shawn Bjonfald, Kevin Fassbind, and Brandon Newby have hopped in a boat and mapped plans of attack before the first snowflakes fell.
On Mille Lacs, for example, Bjonfald powers up his side-imaging sonar and motors slowly across expansive 10- to 15-foot flats in a parallel grid pattern, simultaneously inspecting 50 to 75 feet of real estate on both sides of his boat. His Humminbird unit clearly reveals the tallest pondweed stalks interspersed with little openings—perfect habitat for monster crappies.
At the 2012 NAIFC Championship, the strategy paid off for the teams, producing 1st-, 2nd-, and 4th-place finishes as well as a tournament-best 2-pound crappie for Bjonfald. “Not only did the Humminbird reveal the best cabbage beds, Side imaging also let us zoom in and drop GPS waypoints on tiny pieces of turf—areas we returned to during the tournament to catch big crappies,” he says. ”He and his comrades noted that the coordinates were often so precise that just one hole was needed to position them directly over a sweet spot.
Another instance of the power and potential of such a strategy played out on a 10,000-acre lake about a dozen years ago. Big lakes, by the way, especially those noted for walleyes, muskies, or bass, represent one of the last bastions of lightly fished, trophy panfish.
On one of this lake’s largest shallow expanses, while trolling for walleyes, we’d occasionally catch a supersized bluegill or crappie, hidden somewhere in a maze of submersed vegetation. This isn’t just any old main-lake vegetated flat. It’s the first major expanse of shallow water directly adjacent to a primary spawning bay.
Like Bjonfald’s program, my strategy involves canvassing the entire flat from one end to the other with electronics, always in October or November, dropping GPS icons on points of interest. What makes waypoint transfer possible, boat to ice, is a Humminbird Helix unit. April to ice-up, the unit rides on my boat’s console, where it collects valuable waypoints all along. When the lakes freeze, the unit comes off the console where it’s re-attached to a portable ice mount and powered by its 12-volt battery. My friend Jim Edlund calls it the “bug-out bag.” Grab the unit off your boat and bring it ice fishing, calling up the same LakeMaster maps and GPS icons you collected in your boat. It’s also instructive to reference your past boat movements, noting areas of activity based on dense clusters of plotlines.
Even given the value of seamless data transfer, openwater to ice, fish and the best veg-beds can shift from year to year. This means it’s helpful to re-scout the flat each fall, if I intend to fish it at first ice.
What hasn’t changed—despite an overall decline in the lake’s water quality and clarity—is that the most valuable vegetation (mostly pondweed) roots in 8 to 14 feet of water, with this portion of the flat stretching at least 40 acres total; it’s a huge area within which fish can roam. The process of motoring across this whole flat at about 5 mph, sonar-scanning in parallel paths, can burn in excess of two hours. The most intelligent detective work is done with a combination of electronics: side-imaging and GPS mapping windows on the Humminbird Helix and high-definition 2-D sonar on a Raymarine Axiom. When potential fish appear on screen, an Aqua-Vu HD camera often goes overboard to identify fish or plant species.
Major beds of pondweed or combinations of pondweed, coontail, and northern milfoil are always worthy of a waypoint, because the biggest, thickest, tallest beds are prime real estate, whether fish use them today or tomorrow. Mixtures of species are also key because they offer ample edges, nooks, and ambush and hideout areas.
Particularly appealing are winter-hardy plant species such as large-leaf, fern, and clasping-leaf pondweeds, which often remain vibrant and continue producing oxygen through early winter. Coontail is less winter hardy, but can linger in bushy patches adjacent to stalks of pondweed, providing attractive panfish cover. Elodea, or waterweed, is winter-hardy, too, and while it doesn’t grow in tall enough patches to provide a canopy, the plant is a top oxygen producer; its presence amid other plant species can draw baitfish, invertebrates, and larger predators, especially into mid- and late winter.
One of the most overlooked aspects of consistently locating fall and winter panfish revolves around the plants themselves and your ability to properly identify different species. Learn to recognize both native and invasive species and you’ll be amazed at the patterns that suddenly emerge.
Beyond dropping digits on the tallest, thickest veg-beds on otherwise uninteresting flats, small depressions or 1- or 2-foot holes within this or any other flat draw loads of fish, particularly bluegills. Clear spots, or holes surrounded by stalks of vegetation, often serve as panfish refuges from predators. These spots show especially well on side-imaging sonar. As Bjonfald suggests, some of the best ones aren’t any larger than a coat closet.
Of course, what you’re after are actual pods of fish. Bluegills and crappies within veg-beds can be tricky to spot on side imaging. Bright white splotches indicate fish, but can also be confused for large plant leaves. Electronics wiz Dr. Jason Halfen showed me how to look for not just strong white signals on side imaging, but for the dark corresponding shadow that confirms it as a fish, versus something else.
In heavy vegetation, spotting the side-imaging shadow can be tricky, so other than dropping an underwater camera, I suggest one failsafe way to verify the presence of big bluegills in submerged vegetation. Keep one rod rigged and ready with an 8-inch, Texas-rigged curlytail plastic worm. Toss the worm into the potential zone and swim it back slowly, just sliding across the plant tips. Big ‘gills can’t help but attack the worm’s tail, which you’ll detect as one to three strong thumps, as opposed to a rapid succession of more faint taps suggestive of smaller fish. Often, one test cast is all it takes to confirm the presence of large bluegills.
If you’re someone who’s on the water as often as Minnesota guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, instinct is all you need. Sometimes, based on past experiences, you look at the sonar screen and “just know.
Brosdahl’s one of the best anglers ever at zoning in on bluegill and crappie pods with side-imaging—his favorite tool for sleuthing big panfish, shallow or deep. He and I have talked a lot in recent years about all the unknown cover residing not just in southern impoundments, but in natural lakes in states like Minnesota, where planting brushpiles or Christmas trees is against the law.
“On almost every lake I’ve searched, I’ve uncovered at least one of these underwater jewels,” Brosdahl says. “I found a big tractor tire on Leech Lake in Minnesota and it held a bunch of crappies. On lakes along the Mississippi River, I’ve come across virgin white pine logs, sunk during the lumberjack era over a century ago. Where two or more are lying on top of each other, the logs become a magnet for crappies, rock bass, and perch. Even walleyes use them.”
While he is against illegally adding artificial cover, he’s not opposed to fishing the objects if they’re already in place. This even applies to the lake he lives on and a few tree piles he found long ago with an Aqua-Vu. Tell you a little secret: When someone like me asks him for a photo-quality fish, he often sneaks out to his little tree piles and pops a two-pounder. Summer, fall, or winter—it doesn’t matter. The fish are almost always there.
Of course, you might say there’s a fine line between cover and plain old garbage, and you’d be right. To this, Brosdahl says: “There’s way too much trash left on the ice by anglers each winter. Stuff ends up in the lake ... not good. There’s crud on the bottom you wouldn’t believe. I’m no philosopher, though, so I won’t attempt to explain the difference between garbage and fish habitat. Either way, if I find it, and it holds life, I’m going to drop waypoints and fish it.”
The difference between a true fish attractor and a pile of debris lies in its structural complexity and whether it offers overhead cover, he says. “The best brushpiles have a mess of branches and limbs jutting in every direction. Bluegills and crappies flock to these piles. Cribs full of sticks are likewise much better than those made from old pallets that lack additional limbs. I love old cedar trees. Oaks, too. They seem to last longer, while other species of wood often disintegrate after a few years. The key attractors almost always offer a canopy; some form of overhead protection.
“Especially in mid- and late winter, when vegetation dies off, featureless basins and artificial attractors can load up with crappies and big bluegills,” he says. “During cold fronts, too, fish often move off flats and collect on brushpiles in deeper featureless water.”
Crappies in Quicksand
Unlike obvious physical cover, deep, soft-bottom lake basins can gather almost entire populations of panfish, post-turnover through winter. Crappies, in particular, may migrate into these 25- to 45-foot flats in any lake. You even find monster bluegills in certain lake basins, down to 25 feet or so.
The basin phenomenon proves especially common in stained to dirty-water lakes where a lack of light penetration shortens the lifespan of shallow submersed plants. Some lakes are too dark to allow for plant growth much deeper than 5 feet. When plants wither in late fall, a mass deep-basin migration of crappies, and occasionally bluegills, occurs.
When fish suspend in pods, they’re easy targets for side-imaging or 2-D sonar, as well as almost any right-size lure dropped to a foot or two above the school. Oppositely, when fish drop into the bottom, they can virtually vanish from your underwater radar.
“I’ve caught crappies with silt sticking to their bellies,” Brosdahl says. “At times, crappies burrow halfway into the gooey, organic substrate. Could be for thermoregulation or because that’s where the bugs are. But I believe the real key relates to atmospheric pressure. I call them crappies in quicksand. They can be challenging to spot with electronics if you don’t know what to look for.
“First thing I do every morning is examine the barometer. If it’s low or falling, I usually find crappies in the quicksand. A rising barometer or high sustained pressure tends to make fish suspend. Low pressure allows a crappie’s air bladder to expand, while high pressure causes it to contract and shrink. When their bladder expands, it causes discomfort, which crappies can relieve by swimming deeper. It almost sounds too simple, but the pressure dynamic is by far the most reliable way to locate crappies in lakes where they use those sprawling 20- to 50-foot basins.
“You can have the same localized school of fish in the same basin for weeks and months at a time, but most anglers might only detect and catch them when they rise high. But you can still find quicksand crappies with sonar if you pay attention to those contrasting-colored circular signals that look like they’re buried in the bottom. With 2-D sonar, I look for a series of bumps. On down-imaging, you can often discern a cluster of 2 to 5 little light-colored circles, which again look like buried objects. Which is also why anglers overlook them. Drop a heavy, compact tungsten jig or small Puppet Minnow or Jigging Rap down there and see if the signals move up or react. If they do, you’re in business.”
Of deep-basin bites, Brosdahl says, “Everyone in the boat is getting bit, but not everyone realizes it. When crappies down in the mud are gumming our jigs and avoiding detection, I go ice fishing. During October and November, I keep a stash of 32- to 36-inch ice rods in the boat. People laugh. But then they clutch one and immediately start feeling bites. The tips on the best of these rods are soft and moderately slow, but also precise; they fold with the slightest resistance—that’s what you want.”
Crappies hunkered tight in low pressure won’t move far to bite, he says, so you simply drop the lure until it disappears into the goo-zone, lift it a foot or less, and mostly hold it steady. Brosdahl’s a big fan of Northland’s little 1/8-ounce Puppet Minnow because it often selects for bigger crappies, plus jumbo perch or ‘gills, if they’re present. If you’re just looking for bites and for fish that eat and hold, a 5- or 6-mm glow tungsten jig and a tiny minnow or a chandelier of live larvae are big winners.
Whether scouting vegetation on sprawling flats or scanning clean contours for a diamond-in-the-rough brushpile, he always leans on a trifecta of technology. “GPS, side-imaging, and underwater cameras are the ultimate treasure-hunting tools. Side-imaging paints targets like bogeys on radar. GPS saves and stores them, boat to ice. The camera completes the puzzle, shows me exactly what’s there. I look at late-fall on-water reconnaissance like an ice-fishing insurance policy. I’m out there collecting a cache of offshore spots other anglers won’t have time to find once lakes freeze.
“At first ice, or even when other spots turn sour in January, February or March, it’s nice to have a few of these little hideouts in your hip pocket.”
*Cory Schmidt is a longtime In‑Fisherman Field Editor and contributes to all In-Fisherman publications.