Winter Panfish: Tricks & Practical Tips
January 08, 2020
Countless articles, videos, and TV shows have addressed the ins and outs of fine-tuning and finessing winter panfish to help us slide more slabs onto the ice. Since the early 1980s, In-Fisherman has led the way to advance the art of icing panfish from the Dark Ages to a mobile, tech-savvy Age of Enlightenment.
Today, hardwater warriors are armed with an amazing array of gear, tackle, and tactics to speed their quest for success and enhance their odds of hitting the mother lode on every trip.
We see it across virtually all angler categories. Tournament competitors have become incredibly adept at tweaking rigs and presentations to catch the most fish possible from waters within derby boundaries, even in the teeth of terrible conditions and brutal bites. Weekend anglers not fishing for first place are no slouches, either, and fishing guides have seriously upped their games to keep clients on the bite.
Veteran iceman Jeff Sundin of Deer River, Minnesota, follows the latest trends across the spectrum and makes plenty of his own to boot. A successful open-water guide, he spends winters crisscrossing the North developing tackle, building his content library, and helping produce Lindy Fishing Tackle’s popular Fish ED television and online programming.
Sundin also has a keen interest in fishery management and protection, and is a member of the Minnesota Department of Natural Resource’s Panfish Work Group, which convenes with state fishery staffers to discuss research, fish populations, harvest trends, and management.
As we gear up for another winter, he shares thoughts on the latest tips and tricks for finding and catching panfish, while respecting the resource and leaving fisheries as healthy when you depart them as when your boots first hit the ice.
Although Sundin has seen scores of hot new lures hit the market over the years, he never assumes he’s seen it all—or that there’s nothing left to discover. “Just about the time you think somebody has invented every conceivable angle on what can come up next, along comes something so different you have to pay attention to it,” he says.
Case in point, Lindy’s new Glow Spoon, a plastic-bodied bait that arrived last season. The lure relies on a replaceable glow stick for lighting, but unlike other lures and jigs that utilize externally mounted light sticks, color shines through the Glow Spoon’s plastic body. “It delivers light in a color pattern to the fish in a way that looks more like a living thing than a glow paint job or a stick you gob on the outside of the lure,” Sundin says. “It glows through the body, radiating the color and scale pattern, which is unique and productive. It’s become the first lure I tie on for crappies and I use it a lot for perch as well.
“You could argue that you can find other items that produce a brighter glow, but none that allow you to have the glow coming through the color and scale pattern,” he says.
Sundin says one case where the Glow Spoon’s effectiveness stands head and shoulders above other presentations is after the peak feeding period around sunset. “Picture an ice fishing trip where you have crappies come in around a 45-minute window of opportunity in the evening as the sun’s going down, then the bite tapers off and soon you assume the whole show is over,” he says. “At least twice last year, I was in fish houses when the evening bite died on some other bait, like a jigging spoon, even a glowing jigging spoon, and the lure stopped producing fish—but the Glow Spoon continued producing fish after the other lures fizzled.”
It’s not just a big-fish phenomenon, he says. “This also worked in areas where crappies averaged 10 inches. Although, fishing the 1/8-ounce Glow Spoon over the 1/16-ounce option can help you target larger fish in a school.” Indeed, Sundin most times starts with the 1/8-ounce size and only downsizes if conditions dictate.
While some anglers believed the Glow Spoon’s plastic body, made from the same material as open-water crankbaits, would create a radically different action than that of metal lures, Sundin says the difference is subtle. “It settles a little more softly, but overall I think the action is secondary to the color and light that is presented through the body,” he explains. “And, while some folks worried the plastic body would fall too slowly down to the strike zone, the lure has a very similar drop speed to conventional jigging spoons.” He also fishes it similarly to his other go-to spoons. “Tip it with a minnow head or a few waxworms or spikes,” he says.
Conditions dictate color selection. “In clear water, I use the more subdued, natural patterns,” he says. “In dark water or dark conditions, gaudier colors like firetiger and brighter finishes are better. In either case, fish with the same cadence as a conventional jigging spoon—sharp jig up, let it flutter back down. With crappies, as soon as there is a fish below me, I jiggle the rod tip as I pull up, to get the fish to chase, which often triggers a strike.”
Sundin hasn’t tried the Glow Spoon on pressured metro-area waters, but says he has fished it in areas surrounded by dozens of fish houses and done well. “It’s worth a try on pressured waters, because there were very few occasions the lure didn’t produce for me.”
On the perch front, he’s had success with the lure on a variety of lakes across the Ice Belt. He fishes them much like standard perch jigs, and notes hot colors trend toward perchy patterns. “Perch are predatory on their own species, so I almost always go with a perch or firetiger pattern that mimics the appearance of another perch—because they often prefer something that looks like their cousin,” he says.
As the discussion turns to bluegills, he says tungsten has been a game-changer in many situations. “When they introduced all the popular baits we’d been using in lead in denser, heavier tungsten, the extra line tightness and lure control was a big deal,” he says. “Bluegills don’t like a lure that swims or moves a lot, they like something that holds steady. The extra weight of tungsten allows you to hold your lure still. It also gives you control even with rods and lines not perfectly matched to the lure, so casual anglers can reap the benefits only serious finesse anglers used to enjoy.”
As for finessing tough-bite panfish, something says tungsten definitely has its place; however, he seldom deploys it for anything but perch. “I can almost always have a larger bait on for crappies or bluegills,” he says. “Perch are a different story. They can actually go two ways. Scaling up your lure size can sometimes help you get into bigger fish, particularly when the perch are feeding on minnows. I use a glow spoon or Rattl’n Flyer Spoon to get them excited and call them in, because they’re already chasing baitfish around. But if they are on some type of insect bite, tuned in to feeding on larvae on the bottom, then smaller is better. Scaling down to a Tungsten Toad or Tungsten Bug can be the ticket to the biggest perch.”
When bluegills play hard to catch, Sundin is not one to downsize to dainty baits and surgical presentations. “All things considered, my favorite go-to lure for bluegills is a regular Lindy Frostee, and I typically use a size 4, which is a good-size bait for bluegills,” he says. “If the fish get so finicky you can’t catch them on a decent-size lure, it’s time to consider making a move to find fish that will.”
It doesn’t have to be a gigantic move a mile down the lake or into the next county. “Bluegills aren’t nomadic, roaming around the lake like crappies,” he says. “If you’re in the right type of area, you don’t have to go far to get on a different school of fish. Drill new holes a little shallower, a little deeper, a little father out on a flat, making small exploratory moves until you get over a group of fish that haven’t seen any lures yet.”
An added benefit of not switching to tiny lures, he says, is ease of release. “Bluegills are more likely to be hooked in or near the lips on larger baits than small ones, which is better for the fish and makes life a lot easier for the angler, because nobody likes fishing small lures out of the far end of a sunfish’s throat,” he says.
In recent years, the rise of social media, fishing forums, and other forms of communication have pushed information sharing into the stratosphere. As a result, productive panfish patterns and fishing areas seldom remain secret for long. While a boon to those hoping to shorten the search process or learning curve, it can also be the death knell to hot bites and vulnerable fisheries.
It’s not uncommon anymore for a Facebook post or tweet to spark an angler invasion of gold-rush proportions. A lake with low fishing pressure and a healthy panfish population can be covered with portables and wheelhouses in a matter of days once word gets out. Once the bulk of the active fish have been removed in five-gallon buckets, the crowd disperses in search of the next hot bite.
“That is the major trend in winter panfishing right now,” Sundin says. “And you either have to figure out how to completely stay out of the loop and away from the chaos, or how to stay ahead of it.”
Sundin prefers the first option, for multiple reasons. First, it allows him to bypass the competition. “Anglers in this trend are typically very tech-savvy, carting around the latest electronics, and very proficient at using it,” he says. “They’re willing to drill a lot of holes to find fish. If they know a lake is good, they’ll keep searching until they find them.”
Sometimes, the carnage can completely alter a lake’s panfish population. Sundin tells of a lake north of his Deer River home that was hit mercilessly several years ago, and has yet to recover. “You went from having a few anglers catching slab crappies in a fairly concentrated area to hundreds of anglers pounding the school,” he recalls. “The DNR estimates 60,000 fish were removed from the lake in one winter. Today, if you offered me a million dollars to catch 10 crappies on that lake in a day of fishing, I couldn’t do it. They have all but disappeared.”
His current strategy for avoiding the crowds also allows him to reduce fish mortality. “Spending time on the DNR Panfish Committee taught me a lot about barotrauma,” he says. “Pulling fish from water over 30 feet kills them. Even if they swim away when you release them, they more than likely die shortly afterward. So my formula for the perfect panfish lake is one that doesn’t have much water deeper than 30 feet, or better yet, 25. I can release fish in good conscience, knowing they stand a better chance of surviving. Plus, they’re not all concentrated in one deep hole, which is the easiest place for anglers to target them.
“Fish scattered in a shallow lake are more flat-oriented and hence harder to find, so you have to look for subtle nuances such as pockets of weed stubble or bottom transitions on flats,” he says. “Many anglers avoid these situations because there’s nothing obvious to focus on, especially those who only have a weekend to work with and are looking for a lake where they know they can quickly find and catch fish.’”
Sundin likes lakes with simple structure. “Maybe one subtle depression and a point or two, with lots of flats from 14 to 18 feet deep,” he says.
One of his favorite locations, particularly for sunfish and perch, is a ribbon of marl separating hard from soft substrates. “Marl is a sticky bottom, a combination of fine sand and clay, that produces insect hatches throughout the winter,” he says. “It doesn’t occur at a certain depth; you need to follow transitions between hard and soft bottoms to find it. Marl is the stretch of territory between the soft, decaying bottom and firmer footing. A narrow band of marl is worth looking for, because it yields a steady progression of insect hatches and life-cycle stages that provide panfish consistent feeding opportunities under the ice.”
Crappies are a different story, he says. “Crappies like cover and structure too much. You need a weedbed, sharp break, or pile of rocks. It’s harder to pin them down on just a soft bottom.”
His scouting missions often begin well before freeze-up. “The way I’m doing it lately is identifying lakes that look like they have decent potential, then get on the water in late summer and fall, when the fish are on a good bite, to identify areas that should produce good winter fishing," he says. "With today’s electronics and mapping technology, it’s easy to scout and create your own maps, not just of contour lines, but also of bottom composition and transitions, weedbeds, and other pertinent cover or structure.”
He cautions that such scouting strategies are not surefire. “If I follow this plan on three different lakes, there’s a good chance one of them will be a total bust, one lake will be decent, and the third will be dynamite.” It’s not batting 1,000 but to Sundin’s way of thinking, it’s still a great payoff for those willing to plan the shallow game and avoid the crowds.
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. Guide contact: Jeff Sundin, 218/245-9858, jeffsundin.com.