Wednesday, February 28th, 2024

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Sportsmen Since 1967

Wednesday, February 28th, 2024

Breaking News for

Sportsmen Since 1967

Why it might be best to wait a bit for early-ice panfish

There’s early ice and there’s earliest ice. While the temptation is to get after ice panfish sooner than later, try to resist. Conditions – including ice thickness and other factors – will improve, and crappies and bluegills likely will be just as eager to bite… and perhaps they’ll be a bit less skittish. (Photo courtesy of Resonate Outdoors Group)

Deer season is nearly behind most of us, and thoughts of ice fishing get the blood flowing.

You know the days: just a few inches of clear, black ice with sunfish twirling below and to the sides of the hole as we extract them from hungry schools off the edges of standing green weedbeds.

It’s typically the shortest part of the season, with 3 to 4 inches of safe, walkable ice. And it’s the first and last trip most ice anglers will see with these conditions. These are the days that ice dreams are made.

Or are they?

In recent years, I’ve been talking more and more with ice-fishing fanatics who challenge that theory.

A short wait

Not all ice is created with the same uniformity. That’s true for many lakes in the same geographic area, as well as for the ice upon a single lake. But most lakes with comparable depths in a similar latitude will freeze up and form similar amounts of ice.

Yet, that small amount of variability certainly poses a safety hazard, especially in the age of social media and digital communication. First ice junkies hit lakes in North Dakota and other extreme north portions of the ice belt, and the rest of us can’t help but feeling left out. Perhaps our local lakes have a skim of ice, and maybe they don’t, but falling through on a thin film of ice or scant ice surrounded by 4 inches produces the same outcome. From a safety perspective, it’s dangerous business – sometimes even with a chisel to guide your path on the earliest of ice.


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Aside from the safety concerns, I’ve found more and more that a short wait has produced better fishing. Imagine bluegills and crappies under first ice, fish already programmed by nature to be wary of all things, given their proclivity for ending up as a bass or pike’s meal from time to time.

Now, encased in a see-through layer, they hear different sounds above them, see shadows, and eventually feel vibrations of ice being drilled or chipped away just above their heads. It would have to be a harrowing experience for these fish which are, again, also prey.

That’s not to say I haven’t had some great days on this very early ice. I can think of numerous bites during which the ice looked nearly translucent it was so “black.”

We caught fish on deep weed edges, and toward dark, especially, the bite really got going.

We chiseled our way out, had more than 3 inches of solid, uniform ice in the area we delineated for travel with our same spud bars, and stuck to a singular area of the lake.

That said, going back in time, I’ve had more days during which we had better fishing on anywhere from 4 to 8 inches of cloudier ice. Typically, there was some snow on top to hide our shadows and cushion our movements.

Fish were still in the same locations, but had a much brighter disposition. Bites could be found throughout the day, crescendoing into the evening hours, but schools of bluegills and crappies seemed far easier to locate and then target.

The best part? We still had the lake, relatively speaking, to ourselves. Only a handful of hand-drag anglers and some daring ATV and snowmobile riders were out there with us, and there were plenty of fish – and fishing areas – to go around.

As an added bonus, ice was also relatively more safe across the board. Not only were fish less skittish and more accommodating, but we also were able to focus more on fishing and less on worrying about falling through.

As it turns out, I’m not alone in my observations, with other notable ice anglers making this a frequent discussion topic at shows and shoots.

Early-ice tactics

If we’re fishing early or earliest, fish are going to be where we last left them in the fall. That’s a trickier game for crappies than it is bluegills, but be informed by your last bit of fall fishing – if you were able to get out in November.

In deep, clear, water bodies where crappies are the star, this can be a small offshoot lake with a deeper basin, or part of the main lake itself. Inside turns on this basin, just off of the weedy areas in 18 to 30 feet of water, can be productive as fish hover between suspending and relating to remaining invertebrates in standing green weeds.

Bluegills definitely will school along the weed edges proper, as they tend to run a bit smaller as a species, making them prime early-ice meals for big bass and nearly any pike.

Often in shallow and weedy lakes, however, bluegills and crappies will act similarly and can be found in and among the weedbeds. Standing coontail and cabbage flats can be productive, especially where there are natural breaks in them, inside turns, pockets, and the like. Inside weedlines can even be fished during this time of year in these kinds of lakes, provided the inside weedline is deeper than a few feet or so.

I’m always amazed by how well these spots can produce fish, even in 5 feet of water or so, but it requires a stealthier approach. Usually, it’s a long pause after drilling and setting up, then waiting for fish to cycle back down that inside weedline toward you.

Underwater cameras can inform the angler immensely, both in terms of the weedbed quality and condition, but also in terms of the attitude of the fish. Make no mistake, there likely are some hungry, aggressive panfish in all but the worst conditions during this early ice period. They should respond to small spoons, even rattle baits, and something that fishes a bit faster.

Think loud first to attract, then scale down to tungsten and plastics if they don’t cooperate, moving eventually toward lead (slower) and live bait, scaling down in size along the way.

When fish are finicky, don’t fight it but realize that you have options for some active fish during this time of year.

So there you have it: Earliest isn’t always best for panfish, at least in my experience. Life on the hardwater is a bit safer when you choose to let that first ice cloud up a bit, perhaps get a touch of snow cover for easier, stealthier approaches, and fish hard from there.

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