Saturday, January 28th, 2023
Saturday, January 28th, 2023

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On the move: Anglers must be as mobile as the panfish they seek

By Steve Scepaniak
Contributing Writer


I dropped the big bluegill back into the hole in the ice and, as it swam out of sight, I caught a glimpse of the bobber on my nearby deadstick. I had that rig set up for crappies, and the bobber was moving ever so slowly downward. Seconds later, it stopped at 6 inches under the ice for a few seconds, then shot down another 6 inches before I set the hook. 


I was thrilled when I brought up a 141⁄2-inch crappie. Like the 10-incher I’d just released, this impressive fish also was tossed back into the water to be caught another day. 


It was the dead of winter and I was fishing a deep hole – 22 feet of water – located not far from a shallow, 11-foot flat that was full of weeds. And while I was catching far more bluegills than crappies, it was fun to get the occasional crappie in the mix. 


For ice anglers, trying to stay on top of the winter panfish migration can be somewhat of a challenge. But those who have studied and pieced together the puzzle of panfish movement reap the rewards on just about every lake they fish. 


Let’s take a look at some of the key things to consider regarding winter panfish migration.

Why they are where they are

During winter and beneath ice, shallow-water oxygen becomes depleted, thus forcing panfish to move to find better-oxygenated areas. These areas are in deeper water, sometimes the deep holes of a lake. Their soft mud and silt bottoms, rich and fertile with forage, make this the perfect winter home for panfish. 


There is another important element that makes these prime locations for an extended period of time in winter: heat. A winter phenomenon is slightly warmer water descending to the bottom of a lake. Panfish will school in these warmer-water areas. And, on sunny, warmer days, the heat of the sun can penetrate into the water column and heat up the bottom by a single degree or more, thus making this a prime staging area for panfish for most of the winter. 


Deeper water and holes that are next to significant pieces of structure in the form of a shallow sand or weed flat, a sunken island, or a rock reef will sweeten the pot when it comes to panfish habitat. These areas offer panfish the opportunity to hunt and forage for other types of food not found as frequently in the deeper water. When done foraging, they’ll move back to the security and protection of the abyss. 


In deeper holes, bluegills have a tendency to stay near the bottom, where they move about in search of anything that looks appetizing. There’s a host of aquatic life in those rich and fertile soft-bottom areas, including invertebrates, which are small crustaceans without backbones and insects.


Other underwater taste-tempting morsels in the panfish buffet are bloodworms and freshwater shrimp. Bloodworms can be located in the muddy bottom itself, where bluegills become aggressive when feeding for them, using their noses and tails to stir up the bottom as much as possible in search of their quarry within. 


The freshwater shrimp at times can be seen utilizing the entire water column, but when they inhabit deeper water they become prime forage targets for crappies and sunnies alike. The surrounding shallow-water structure is utilized by panfish for food – minnows, zooplankton and phytoplankton and invertebrates. So, in other words, if you were a panfish, you’d have more tiny little creatures to feast on than you could imagine. 


The bottom of a lake is not the only place to find fish food. At times, panfish will suspend higher in the water, feeding on shrimp, minnows, and other small creatures.  


When fishing for them, start near the bottom and slowly raise your jig above their location, teasing them. Continue to raise your bait until they commit to taking it.  


Crappies, at times, can be close to the bottom, but for the most part they prefer to suspend in the water column, constantly swimming while searching for food. When a pod of minnows or larger aquatic organisms are found, crappies will feast until their bellies are full or the pod is entirely consumed. 


As winter starts to wind down, the days become longer and warmer and the ice starts to give way to the effects of the sun. That’s when panfish will begin another migration. This time, panfish will head to the warm, shallow-water structure that has become well-oxygenated again and begin to stage in preparation for the upcoming spawn. 


These key areas include any weed flats that are near the much-shallower spawning grounds. The beds provide necessary protection, allowing bluegills to spend the remaining time until spawn foraging for food and soaking up the sun. 


For anglers, this is the opportune time to fish. 


Crappies, on the other hand, will hold back and stage near the first significant drop-off at the edge of the weed flats or nearby bulrushes. The deeper water along the weed edges gives crappies a sense of security and, when threatened, they can hide in the weeds or head to the safety of the deep water with the flip of a tail. This is where they’ll stage until it’s their time to spawn in the shallows. 


Find oxygen, warmer water, and an abundance of food and you’ll find panfish.

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