February 08, 2022
Rumor was that a little lake way up north had brahma-bull bluegills. So we packed up one of the old In-Fisherman trucks, saddled up, and rode in that direction.
Snow cover was light on the little lake. I walked out and drilled some holes. Over two feet of ice—enough to drive the truck out there. About 120 holes later—no bluegills. We searched the deep weededges, the middepth flats, the lip and base of the breaks leading into the basins. All we found was little bait-stealing perch.
As Sherlock Holmes said, “Whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.” That would be dead center in the deep basin, so that’s where we went, with little expectation of success. Checking the first hole, my Vexilar revealed fish suspended about 17 feet down over 40 feet of water. Immediately dropping a baited jig down to about 10 feet then slowly lowering it to 15, I was amazed to see marks rising to it.
The spring bobber bent down, the rod went up, and I was fast into something tough. It came pinwheeling toward the hole, occasionally testing the drag on my little Shimano. We were shocked to see the big, black, bent nose of a bull ‘gill rise to the surface. Bluegills, suspended over the lake’s deepest basin? Holmes was right again.
Basin world. What did you expect? Panfish often roam there, from one forage base to the next, following transitions on bottom or suspended to feed on zooplankton, following no rules apparent to us. A lake can have one basin, sometimes two, sometimes many. A depression on a huge shallow flat that extends down to 15 feet or deeper is a type of basin. A basin can be any area with some depth separated from other basins by shallower waters.
For the most part, basins are mid- to late-winter haunts for perch, crappies, and bluegills. “You’re not fishing weeds, that’s for sure,” says Walt Matan of Custom Jigs & Spins. “When the weeds die, they move out deeper. Typically, bluegills drop down into those basins or shelves leveling off at 15 to 25 feet. Crappies use basins 25- to 40-feet deep a lot of times. If the water is clear enough, my Aqua-Vu lets me know what’s going on.”
“Especially in clear water, my Marcum camera is important for species identification in basins,” says famous Minnesota guide Tony Roach. “It’s cool to find unusual situations like perch suspending way off bottom. Lure and bait selection sometimes depends on identifying what’s showing on the flasher screen. For suspended fish, it’s important to have a digital display of the depth. It’s easy to misinterpret how deep you are. Without a digital readout, set the depthfinder right next to the camera and use down view. Slow the camera way down well above suspended marks. Panfish don’t like it when it rockets into their personal space. Perch and bluegills will come right up to the camera if you don’t drop it right into their face.”
An underwater camera is just one of the tools of the trade for basin hunters. But, before beginning the hunt—a cautionary tale.
“Hauling up fish from deep basins causes barotrauma,” Matan says. “You’re not playing catch and release for panfish deeper than 25 feet. Released fish die. You have to stop when you have the number you want, no matter what size they are, so I upsize in hopes of deterring 6-inch panfish from biting.”
“We need to be considerate,” Roach says. “Barotrauma, fish freezing outside while we take photos. I’m very conservative. Just because people want to catch a bunch of jumbos doesn’t mean they want to keep all of them. I’m not against taking fish home for a fish fry, but we encourage releasing trophy fish and getting a replica. You can’t do that if the fish was caught 40 feet down, so we try to fish shallow whenever we can so we’re not killing fish. We look for 15- to 20-foot basins. And we look for lakes with lots of suspended fish. And for those interested in harvesting fish, we look for lakes that have some massive year-classes moving through at the time.”
Do some lakes have more suspended fish than others? Studies have shown that lakes with extremely large zooplankters almost visible to the naked eye encourage more panfish to suspend more of the time—even perch.
“More often than not, you find perch close to the bottom, but a lot of times perch do suspend,” Roach says. “We fish one lake in central Minnesota where we find perch suspending all the time. It’s that mid- to late-winter bite when perch target more zooplankton. Perch like smaller depressions, too. A 15-foot flat with a 20-foot depression—they love that. It’s the same time of year when crappies and bluegills suspend. That’s when basin fishing shines, when the weeds have died back and deeper water is more stable in terms of temperature. Because of barotrauma, I try to avoid deep water. We want to keep hunting, fishing, and releasing fish all day, looking for the opportunity to find a few trophies for clients. Then we can look for suspended fish 20 feet down or less in the evening, or target the shallower basins within that lake.”
Guide Brian “Bro” Brosdahl finds maps on electronics invaluable out in the basins. “You’ve got to have a map chip in your GPS,” he says. “I use a Humminbird 360 set for full circle. I made it portable for ice fishing. You can see fish way off to the side, cutting search time in half. Outside of that, my Aqua-Vu Gen 2 is one of the most important things I have for finding fish. Using the infrared setting, crappies flash bright silver and can be seen way off to the side. Bluegills are curious and come right up to it from a distance. I find crappies right under the ice that depthfinders can never find. It’s addictive, and it saves a lot of trips.”
“Electronics and a good sharp auger—those are the most important tools in basins,” Roach says. “I can drill 100 holes or more with my StrikeMaster Lithium 40V before switching batteries. You may spend three quarters of your time trying to find them. Once found, they’re generally biting. I’d rather spend more time looking than sitting. You’ve got to get on top of them. The strike zones are tight for any panfish. I spend my days off hunting basins from mid- to late winter so we can put people on fish the next day.”
Matan says tungsten jigs are critical tools in basins. “That’s why we have six styles of tungsten jigs in the Custom Jigs & Spins lineup—from true horizontal jigs, like the new Tütso, to jigs that hang at 40-degree angles, like the Chekai,” he says. “Sometimes panfish prefer one over the other, just like they often prefer one color over another. I always use plastics. Keeps the smaller fish off. You don’t want to catch an 8-inch crappie in 30 feet of water.”
When it comes to hunting in basins, “I do things wrong,” Matan laughs. “I look for old holes, take a look with the flasher, and if I see marks I stay put. I’m not that technical and I carry too many rods. I have 10 rods rigged up from super-light to medium power with Frabill straight-line reels. Each is specifically chosen for a different weight and style of jig, from 3-mm to 5-mm tungsten, to the RPM Minnow, up to the 1/8-ounce Slender Spoon. Line strength ranges from 2- to 5-pound-test mono. Everything changes during the day—wind, the depths you target, the aggressiveness of the fish, and so on. I want to be able to grab a rod already rigged and balanced for the conditions as they occur.”
Matan hunts with bigger baits. “My heaviest rod is the Eyeconic 32-inch Mag Lite Fast,” he says. “I use that with RPMs, 5-mm tungsten jigs, and spoons, with 3- to 5-pound test. Bigger works faster with more flash and vibration to bring in panfish from outside the cone angle on the depthfinder.”
Brosdahl calls basin areas the last frontier in jumbo perch fishing. “Everybody’s got GPS,” he says. “The A spot is the structure, the B spot is the featureless flat. These days, that’s where you score biggest—out on the mudflats with nothing specific anglers can mark.”
Crappies hold near the deepest inside turns over mud. They don’t have to be near bottom. Most of the time they’re on zooplankton. Bluegills are always on the edge of the hole, on the not-so-deep flat edge—a shelf flat. They’re more mid-range. Middepth flats are where bluegills are.
On deeper basins, Roach hunts the rim first. “A lot of lakes have multiple basins within them,” he says. “Even if the basin is a little deeper, I always look around the edge. Bigger panfish and numbers of bluegills and crappies relate to structure, even if only loosely. Within basins, I look for transition zones. They may be along the edge of a breakline or on the edge of structure, but they’re on transitions most of the time.
“If you hunt along a transition, you’re going to find perch,” he says. “Hard-to-soft bottom transitions are key. Perch aren’t always in the deepest part of the basin. They want quick access to shallow water. They sit on those softer contours where they’ve got access to shallow water and transitions. A lot of hard-to-soft transitions parallel a depth contour. Not always exactly, but it’s a good idea to parallel the contour where you found a transition. If you find the food source, where perch are spitting stuff up, they’ll be in that area. You no longer have to extend the search by miles, but by yards.
“Perch can be tough to find,” he says. “They’re serious roamers. Perch can be down in deep basins, shallow basins, or roaming shallow flats. They go where the food is. Most of their diet might be based on invertebrates like bloodworms, but perch are cannibalistic. They’ll disregard invertebrates when there’s a big bloom of young-of-the-year perch, which tend to be around cover.
“Perch love crayfish, too, which means finding rocks or transitions nearby. I love fishing for perch, so we spend lots of time drilling holes to find them. We work harder to find and stay on perch than any other species—one of the most challenging fish under the ice. They can be anywhere in the water column and anywhere in the lake—on structure or off. The nice thing is, once you find them feeding in a certain location, you can pattern them and find them in similar places.”
Structure might be a hump, rock outcropping, point, depression, or other feature defined by the bottom itself. Cover might be a rockpile, boulder field, brushpile, log, or other feature on the structure. (It’s amazing how many professional anglers and fishing-show hosts confuse those two terms—cover and structure—but we hear it happen on television almost every day.) Bluegills and crappies tend to use the base of a break from structure or cover when inactive or feeding on invertebrates, but will suspend above it when feeding on zooplankton.
“Crappies suspend more,” Matan says. “That’s the most fun when you see suspended panfish, target the water right above that and watch them rise to inspect the jig. But lower the jig slowly the last 5 feet or so. Plummeting the jig right down to their level often spooks panfish. I use a 3-mm jig a lot for suspended fish, which can get down there, but requires a rod with a very sensitive spring bobber or built-in titanium tip. It’s pretty hard to tightline with a 3-mm jig. They won’t suck that heavier bait in some days. Bluegills especially get very wary, even down there.”
The Ol’ One-Two
Something we’re seeing expert ice anglers do more often than ever before is deadstick deployment, for all species all the time. Roach calls it the ol’ one-two. “I use a call bait adjacent to a hole with a deadstick in a rod holder a lot,” he says. “A small lipless crank for noise and vibration, or a small spoon for flash to call them in with a deadstick rod situated nearby puts twice as many fish on the ice as fishing with just one option. I like Rapala Rippin’ Raps and Slab Raps for call baits—bigger profiles for calling them in. A 1/6-ounce Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon works, too. You can stay just as mobile with a deadstick as you can with a tip-up or anything like that.”
Roach uses his St. Croix CI28MLXF Tungsten Tamer for working call baits. “My deadstick rod is a St. Croix house rod, medium to moderate power and action, with a soft tip but a stiff butt,” he says. “You need a soft tip so they can’t feel resistance until that stout butt sets the hook.”
Brohsdal says deadsticking is a necessity these days. “It’s a big part of a guide’s schtick,” he says. “It’s important to use all the lines you can use. In Wisconsin, we can use three. I love a soft-tipped deadstick rod in a rod holder with a live minnow. It’s especially important for jumbo perch. They see the jig moving and won’t come in, but that slowly circling minnow that’s continuously moving triggers them. You don’t need a bobber. Perch are stubborn and keep pulling until they’re hooked. I adore catching panfish jigging, but there are times when the deadstick gets more bites.”
“Once I find an area with fish, I set up a deadstick,” Matan says. “Sometimes you just can’t move it slow enough with the rod in hand. I use the Tütso because the plastic tail is moving even when deadsticking, especially if you have any wind or current. The jig needs to hang completely horizontal so you have to make the knot sit right on top of the eye. I use the Tütso with a minnow quite often. I find that horizontal jigs work better for deadsticking. I put that softer rod in a cheap rod holder on a bucket and tap or shake the rod every once in a while.”
The move from shallow flats and weedlines to deeper basin areas triggers some behavioral changes. “They move a lot,” Roach says. “A lot more than you think. If basin fish disappear toward evening, move shallower. You might have tons of fish under you during the day then they’re gone as the sun gets low. I’ve seen them move during peak feeding windows toward shallow water. Think shallower in the evening.
“It’s complicated,” he says. “It’s also incredible how much noise can play a factor in spooking those fish. Trucks, augers, and machines can really chase them off. In areas with a lot of traffic, they spook even if they’re 20 feet down. It’s incredible how fast they move. A couple hundred yards is pretty typical.”
Atypical to find bluegills 17 feet down over 40 feet of water midwinter. Like the man said—it’s complicated. Sharpen the auger blades, fire up the maps, bring underwater cameras, and expect the unexpected in basin world.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw is an exceptional multispecies angler, a member of the National Freshwater Fishing Hall of Fame, and an inspiring writer.