Sunday, January 29th, 2023
Sunday, January 29th, 2023

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Early-ice advice: Don’t ignore the shallows

By Jeremy Smith


It may seem obvious, but weeds are great places to fish, for everything! Traditional thinking is that as water temps cool in the fall, weeds die, and fish begin moving deeper, relating to areas near the main basin. This is true, but shallow areas with good healthy weed cover x continue to hold bass, panfish, pike, and walleyes well into early winter regardless of their proximity to the main basin.


The fish-holding areas I’m describing are extensive flats from 4 to 8 feet with a healthy diverse aquatic plant community, including tobacco cabbage, elodea, clasping leaf pondweed, and coontail. This mix of plant species provides both greenery and vertical cover and contains lots of zooplankton and thus a healthy food chain.


Finding fish on these flats can be challenging. Begin by identifying the location on a map – sonar will show you if weeds are present – but an underwater camera will show you the quality of the cover and what kind of fish are down there.


It’s been a revelation that many of the bass, crappies, and bluegills that we’d catch there in summer remain there during fall and winter. It’s fun to scout for fish this way and see how bass and sunfish are actually attracted to the camera, often curiously peering into the lens.


To find groups of fish on these flats, drill a lot of holes. I use the Strikemaster Lithium 40V with the 8-inch Lite-Flite bit. It’s insanely light, fast, and quiet, so if you’re a mobile ice angler this technology is for you. Begin by punching holes every 10 to 15 yards. 


In this situation, panfish – especially crappies – always are on the move. They slowly meander over a general area. When you find fish, start drilling holes close to each other, maybe 10 to 15 feet apart. Having lots of holes will keep you on fish as they roam. Having holes spaced too far apart will cost you fish.


If you catch a few in a spot, be prepared to move; they’re often just a few feet away. Also, keep in mind it’s shallow water and the fish are spooky. We see it time and again: Just walking is enough to spook fish. Find the fish, drill it out, then keep noise to a minimum.


This action begins once safe ice forms and can last for four or five weeks; that period varies across the Ice Belt. Again, good vertical weed cover on the flats is a must. Plants that are dead and all bent over often don’t hold fish. Look for standing plant stalks. Green leaves are really good, but as long as they’re standing, they can hold fish.


In some small lakes, this pattern disappears in late January, perhaps because the oxygen level in shallow water tends to drop then. 


In many lakes, these flats will be loaded with small bluegills and perch that almost can be a nuisance. You’ll need to adjust your presentation to target bigger fish. Typically, active crappies ride high in the water. Many of the marks you’ll see near bottom are small ‘gills and perch.


I tend to start with larger lures than are traditional, in part to discourage the many small bluegills and perch. One of my favorites for big crappies and largemouths is a No. 4 Rapala Slab Rap. It’s 11⁄2 inches long and weighs 1⁄8-ounce. It’s crazy how fish will pound this bait. It attracts fish, and when it’s on, they crush it.


Of course, they’re not always biting big, aggressive baits, so the second rod I have with me has a traditional jig. 


The VMC Tungsten Mongo Jig in 1⁄32-ounce is my go-to, tipped with plastics or maggots. I like the Mongo for a number of reasons, but primarily its bigger hook size.


Many small panfish jigs have small hooks, great for bluegills, but they often lack purchase or tear out of larger crappies and bass. The bigger hook just holds bigger fish better.


Finally, my experience on this bite has been that earlier in the year, fish may bite all day. But on cloudy days, the traditional early-morning and evening periods are best.


As safe ice forms this winter, try this pattern. Often, you’ll have the whole spot to yourself. Remember to practice selective harvest, especially with big bluegills. 


Keep the small- to medium-size fish and release the big ones.

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