Wednesday, February 8th, 2023
Wednesday, February 8th, 2023

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Winter panfish and why we love ’em

By Larry Gavin
Contributing Writer

I’m a panfish guy. My earliest fishing memories are spending hours fishing the rip rap on Dobbins Creek while using white Crappie Killers. I think what I liked most was watching the fish charge the lure and eat it. 

Winter panfish are the focus of 80% of my fishing time. I love to search them out, locate them, and zero in on the larger fish. It’s a challenge. To catch them, you have to find them, so I’ll start with that.

My methods of finding winter panfish have evolved over the years. In the past, I started shallow and worked deep, searching by using electronics, but also by simply fishing. Dying vegetation held panfish, just like living vegetation does in the summer. So I usually found fish, and that made me happy. That dying vegetation was usually adjacent to deeper water, and as the season progressed, I slid out over deeper water to find fish.

These days, I tend to start in the deep water – sometimes 30 feet or so – and use electronics to locate schools of suspended fish and then target them. In some ways, it’s easier fishing that way. These schools of fish can be finicky, but individuals are competitive, and that competitive nature allows me to get fish to bite. I’ve found I can still move shallow and encounter more fish if need be.

I don’t know why, but the bigger fish seem to surround the schools in deeper water. They are fringe creatures that can be surprisingly aggressive; they didn’t get big by being shy. I harvest a few, but prefer to just release these bigger fish to keep their genes alive and useful. 

Electronics are a big part of finding fish. The equipment one uses can also be important. I like a soft-action rod and artificial lures and flies. Most of the deep water I fish has a mud bottom, and these bottoms produce insects that panfish love. The emergence of these insects signals fish to feed. I use a lot of plastics, but I also fall back on wax worms to add a little meat and scent to the equation.

I jig aggressively at first and then adjust my approach to what works that day. Patterning these fish is different every outing.

I use 2- to 4-pound-test line, never heavier. Sometimes I use a ball-bearing swivel to eliminate line twist. It seems some lures twist more than others. Fluorocarbon leader material can be a game-changer in difficult conditions. It sinks, it is abrasion-resistant, and it reflects light in the same spectrum as water, making it invisible, or nearly so. One spool of 2-pound test lasts all winter and it doesn’t weaken or degrade in sunlight.

Mobility is important. But some days I like to fish lazy. On those lazy days, I set up on sharp drops and edges and wait for the fish to ride up and down the ledges, say, from 8 to 25 feet. There will be times of waiting for the fish to come to you, but sometimes slow times on a sheet of ice with an occasional flurry of activity is just what the doctor ordered.

Other times, I punch a bunch of holes and hole-hop to find active schools. It depends on how active I want to be.

In my region, the big picture can also be important. Different lakes get hot at different times of the season. While first ice is usually good anywhere, as the season progresses, fish get active on some lakes toward the end of the season. Of course, snow depths can influence fish activity.

Local bait shops can provide up-to-the-minute fishing reports if you’re totally in the dark about what to do. Just hang out and listen, ask questions, and buy something. You’ll surprised what you might find out. Electronic resources and online sites can help, too.

Panfish often are mentioned as a good chance for introducing kids to winter fishing, and they can be the perfect fish. But it is no sure thing. Before taking youngsters fishing for panfish, do your homework. Numbers and action matter to youngsters – not the size of the fish. Be prepared to do little fishing yourself, because kids will keep you busy.

As always, safety is important. Ice conditions vary greatly, and many things can contribute to thin ice. In some lakes, schools of carp affect ice depth. In some lakes, there are river channels or narrows between islands. Springs can be another reason for unsafe ice conditions. Aeration systems can be, too. It’s yet another reason to check with area bait shops about ice conditions on their lakes. 

Get out there and check out the local panfish action. Keep a few for the table and enjoy the hard-water season.

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