A Panfish Ice Primer

By Nick Simonson

Bluegills, perch and crappies can provide fast action on ice, but like any species this terrific trio can also provide a challenge, as there’s nothing more frustrating on hardwater than watching a red line rise quickly on a sonar only to fade away without offering a bite.  What follows is a quick primer on how to gear up for these great targets and turn more marks on the screen into fish on the ice. 


Besting Bluegills

Hand-sized bluegill provide a fun challenge on the ice, and can require some finesse to get the true “bulls” to bite. Simonson Photo


When bluegills are on, they are on.  When they’re not, they can still be caught but require a bit of finesse.  The basics to busting big bluegills comes down to thinking small.  Thin line, tiny jigs and mini-movements are needed when the school is a bit tentative.  A reel with one-to-two-pound test line keeps the monofilament distraction to a minimum and presents small jigs more naturally. With the advancement of fly-style ice reels helping to eliminate line twist, those jigs stay horizontal and don’t spin in a way that distracts fish.


Having a selection of small jigs and flies, anywhere from 1/64 down to 1/100 ounce, also provides a presentation that fits the appetite of bluegills.  Tungsten options will get down to the fish faster, especially when paired with ultralight line.  Whether baited with small natural offerings like maggots, artificial options like Berkley Gulp, or tiny plastics, these small packages can pay big dividends for bluegills.  Utilize a spring bobber rod to detect bites, and to move the offerings in a manner that mimics underwater insects that bluegills eat.  This means slight hops, quivers and pulses.  If the inspecting fish don’t take a whack at it, move it up a few inches and watch the sonar to see if they pursue, repeating the process and pausing to see if the fish attacks.


Powering Perch


Yellow perch often provide a strong backup target to walleyes on the ice and are more apt to bite during daylight hours, and while smaller offerings like those mentioned above for bluegills can help turn the fish when they get fussy after a cold front, more aggressive tactics, or a one-two punch of an active lure like a spoon or jigging rap with a stationary live bait offering on a rod in the adjacent hole is often better at brining perch in and getting them to bite. 


Lines up to four pounds in test work well for perch and provide added strength on those waters where walleyes also roam with their black-striped cousins and take to the same baits.  A selection of small spoons, from 1/16 ounce on up to quarter-ounce models, along with small jigging raps with either trebles or small droppers are great active offerings for perch.  A selection of jigs, such as Genz Worms, Fat Boys, Northland Bro Bugs  from 1/32 to 1/8 ounce also provide a middle ground between super active baits and still selections to adjust to the mood of the fish.


Work the hole next to an active offering with a back-hooked minnow on a #4 or #6 octopus hook under a split shot, noting that the more weight used and closer to the hook will limit the baitfish’s movement.  Keep a tighter leash, say 12 inches or so, when fish are neutral to negative, and let it swim more freely with 18 to 20 inches of line between the lead and the hook when perch are neutral to active.


Catching Crappies

Using old technology like spring bobbers paired with new technology like sonar, anglers can catch more crappies each winter. Simonson Photo


Few fishing moments are as memorable as watching a stack of crappies show up on the sonar screen.  Lit like a Christmas tree, the flickering reds, yellows and greens signal the school is below and ready to bite.  It can be fast and furious, and getting small spoons tipped with minnow heads, maggots or other smaller baits keeps things moving and puts fish on the ice fast before they taper off and the group heads off to other environs.  Have a selection of small spoons with lots of flicker, like Swedish Pimples and small Northland spoons.


But when things are a bit slower, smaller jigs with the tiniest of minnows or a pair of maggots can help turn those slabs that aren’t as aggressive, or when there isn’t a group in a feeding frenzy below, jiggle them gently to impart action on the bait in a position above the fish, as most crappies rise to their prey due to their field of view which looks forward and upward.  Use a jiggle-and-pause pattern, and utilize a spring bobber when specks are biting lightly.  Paired with two-pound test line, these baits present more naturally and give less of a clue that something is amiss when inspected by the big eyes of a black crappie. 

Panfish are a popular pursuit on the ice, but for those targeting them for the first time, each species can provide a challenge. Getting set with the right tackle, line and tools for the job will increase success and provide a winter’s worth of fun.

Featured Photo: Hole Lotta Fun! A black crappie comes up the ice hole. Finding panfish and converting them on the ice is an enjoyable challenge. Simonson Photo.

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