Details Rule the Day Part 2: Panfish
In the evening, as the sun drops near the tops of the trees, the
web of life comes alive and panfish rise to actively feed on
zooplankton and other food sources. During this brief period, as
long as you’re in the right place, you can cash in with
less-than-stellar presentations. But what about the rest of the
day? What about most of the day?
During the daylight hours, most ice anglers struggle to catch
much of anything.
It doesn’t have to be that way. It isn’t that way for Dave Genz,
because he has a system, the Winter Fishing System, that produces
consistent catches of nice bluegills, crappies, and perch in the
middle of the day.
It’s all about understanding what’s going on down there. That,
and attention to detail.
Generalizing gets you into trouble, but on most days on most
waters, panfish species are driven by the desire to avoid being
eaten by bigger predators such as walleyes, bass, and northern
pike. “Panfish, you might say, are in hiding mode,” says Genz.
Dave talks about three primary daytime panfish
* In the weeds.
* Depressions (deeper holes) in bays or on large flats.
* Suspended over open water, at a depth where they become hard
for predators to see.
Daytime panfish are usually not active, but will ‘sample’ your
bait, if it looks natural.
If you mainly pursue panfish, this is the time when you must
remain on the move, drill lots of holes, and keep looking until you
locate fish. This is also the time when attention to detail in
presentation is critical.
Here are more details on what to look for in a daytime
* Weeds or other available cover.
If a lake has abundant weeds, and they grow down to about 8 feet
or more, chances are many fish will use the weeds-especially at
early and late ice. Best weeds are green, upright and healthy. In
some iced-over lakes, some weeds actually grow if sunlight
penetrates. But, even when weeds are brown and yucky, fish will
still use them, especially if they remain upright. In the middle of
the day, key on thick clumps of weeds close to outside edges.
* Depressions and other holes.
If you know that panfish typically inhabit a certain large bay,
for example, and you can find a couple places where it dips even a
few feet deeper, those “depressions” as Genz calls them, can be key
Some of today’s ultra detailed contour maps will show you these
depressions and holes. If the detailed map can be displayed on a
GPS unit, you can go right to the spot and start drilling holes.
Even cruder contour maps will often show the rough outline of such
* Deeper water.
Many panfish use the relative security of water depth to hide
from predators during bright daylight hours. The fish simply hold
in a depth “where they’re hard to see,” notes Genz, who has long
suspected this dynamic. If a lake does not have much in the way of
weeds or other shallow-water cover, panfish will use ‘the cover of
relative darkness’ in this way to escape predators.
* Specifically, sticky-bottom areas.
It was Genz who got onto the magic of what he called
In places where the bottom composition is neither rock hard nor
‘too mushy,’ burrowing insects make their home. In the days before
the Vexilar, “we used to use those lead weight depthfinders you
clamp on your hook,” remembers Genz, “to find the bottom and set
your bobber. I noticed that in a lot of places where we caught big
panfish, when you dropped that weight to the bottom it would stick
when you tried to pull it out. Your rod tip bent, and you had to
pull to get it free.”
Sticky-bottom areas in middle depths have bonanza potential.
“That’s the frontier in ice fishing,” says Genz. “When you find
those fish, they’re often the biggest ones in the lake, and they’re
usually not pressured. You can have those spots to yourself.”
As an ice angler, you have to face the fact that you cannot
troll or drift, or make long casts, in order to ‘check’ large
areas. That’s why Genz always talks about efficiency, and mobility,
especially when it comes to daytime fishing.
Here’s what efficiency in ice fishing means:
* Being set up for mobility, and in the mood to move as often as
This means wearing ice-specific clothing, so you can kneel on
the ice and fish numerous holes quickly. It means packing only what
you need into the sled of your portable shelter, so it’s as light
as possible. It means using a vehicle, ATV or snowmobile to make
“big moves” from one lake to the next, or one general section of a
lake to another. (Or, being willing to walk long distances if
that’s what it takes to find fish.)
This is the ‘horizontal’ aspect of efficiency, meaning you move
as far and often as necessary to try new spots until one of them
pans out. This aspect also includes being able to drill holes
almost effortlessly, “which is now possible,” says Dave, “with the
new augers we all use.”
* Getting up and down quickly, even in deep water.
This is the ‘vertical’ part of efficiency. Genz is partial to
jigs and other lures that “fish heavy for their size,” so he
doesn’t have to wait long for the bait to descend into the fish
zone. When he fishes, it’s a study in speed whenever a glow bait
has to come up for a shot of light, or to check the bait. If he’s
seeing fish 18 feet down over 22 feet of water, his bait drops like
a rock until it gets to about 15 feet, then he slows down and
fishes it into the ‘zone’ looking for a bite.
“No matter how deep or how dirty the water is,” he says, “I can
see exactly what I’m doing on my Vexilar. You see the fish, you see
your bait, and you see how the fish responds to the bait.”
If the fish does not respond right away, Genz experiments with
presentation details. If the fish won’t bite after a few minutes,
he goes looking for one that will.
First Drop Magic
Genz has forever said that big fish get big by being aggressive.
That’s why he urges us to be completely ready as our bait sinks on
the first drop down a new hole.
“If you’re going to catch a nice fish,” says Genz, “it usually
happens right away. You put the bait down there and they come up
So, in the Genz playbook, you…
* Pre-stretch the first 50 feet of line before you start
fishing, so it hangs loose and straight. This gives you much more
control and feel with light baits.
* Put on fresh bait, or make sure the plastic trailer is
* Slide the knot around on the eyelet of the jig, if it’s a
horizontal bait, and make sure it hangs horizontally before you put
it down there.
* Concentrate as the bait is sinking on that first drop down a
“Be happy,” says Genz, “when you catch a nice fish. But don’t
fall in love with that hole.” While you can sometimes catch more
nice fish out of the same hole in the middle of the day, that’s the
exception. If you don’t catch another within about five minutes,
Remember that details rule the day. All the little things need
to be working in your favor, so you can piece together a good catch
a few fish at a time. That’s what daytime ice fishing is, piecing
together a good catch one at a time, with lots of moving and hole
drilling between bites.
Note: Dave Genz, known as Mr. Ice Fishing, was the primary
driver of the modern ice fishing revolution. He has been enshrined
in the National Fresh Water Fishing Hall of Fame and Minnesota
Fishing Hall of Fame for his contributions to the sport.