A favorite time of the entire ice fishing season for many anglers is the last few weeks of the season before safe ice eventually gives way to open water. The weather is often warm, the days are longer, and panfish really go on the bite during this time.
The first key to late ice panfish success, like in most fishing situations, is finding fish. Crappies and bluegills are numerous in many lakes, but finding the bigger fish can be a challenge. I keep an open ear for lakes that have produced big fish recently and also spend time exploring new lakes and the waters within.
When exploring, I usually target the mouths of bays that look like they have potential to hold feeding and spawning bluegills and crappies later in spring. The fish often start to stage on the drop-off edges leading into these bays during late ice, anticipating spring and open water.
Once potential fish-holding areas are found, I drill holes looking for fish and the presence of weeds, especially green weeds showing life. Green weeds along an edge leading into a bay can be the proverbial “spot on the spot” for ‘gills and crappies.
Catching panfish in these areas can be pretty simple with the right set-up. I use a tungsten jig on light line, tipping the jig with waxworms or a small plastic offering.
Tungsten jigs work well because they are denser than lead, meaning they fish heavier than lead. A heavy jig in a small profile crashes through slush in the hole and any weeds encountered on the way to the fish without hanging up.
And, because panfish often come through in schools, a key to maximizing the catch is quickly getting back down to the fish after catching one. Again, this is where a small, but heavy tungsten jig shines.
Recently, I started using the Drop Jig and Drop Jig XL with great success. The Drop comes in five sizes, lots of “fishy” colors, and is designed to facilitate positive hookset. Tipped with a couple waxworms this jig has been deadly. When fishing plastic baits or when I really want to bulk up a jig with waxies or other live bait, the XL and its bigger hook gets the call.
My rod and reel set-up consists of a spring bobber rod and reel loaded with 3-pound line. The Matt Johnson Pro Series panfish rod I started using this winter has a very sensitive spring bobber tip and the backbone needed to fight and land big panfish.
Loaded with 3-pound Floroice line, which handles great in cold water and is nearly invisible to the fish, this set-up is great for late ice panfish.
The right jig and rod/reel set-up is important to catching panfish from weeds, but another essential gear item is a good winter sonar unit. A good flasher with very small target separation helps separate, and target, individual fish in a school from other fish and the weeds.
The FLX-20 flasher I use lets me easily distinguish weeds from my bait and fish allowing me to put my bait just above an individual fish, which can be a key to getting that fish to bite.
Getting a bunch of fish to bite yet this ice season can still happen, as long as the ice is safe to be on. Heading to a good panfish lake and using some of the tips provided here just might help you get in on some of the year’s fastest ice fishing action yet this season!
As always, remember to include a youngster in your next outdoors adventure.
Mike Frisch hosts the popular Fishing the Midwest TV series and is a co-founder of the Bass Pro Shops and Cabela’s School of Fish. Visit www.fishingthemidwest.com to see all things Fishing the Midwest.
(Editor’s note: The Minnesota DNR reminds anglers that all ice is never 100 perfect safe ice. Especially at this time of year with the spring thaw occurring, anglers are reminded to practice safety precautions. Ice depths of less than four inches are considered dangerous even on foot.)