There is a time every year that anglers go a little nuts. It is the time between the lake being covered in good safe ice and when we have open water. We either flock to the rivers in hopes of tangling up with some migratory trout, or we just have to wait it out. Depending on the regulations in that area you live, panfish might be the first or only option for ice out fishing opportunities. Perch, bluegills, and crappie come in to shallow, muddy and weedy areas to spawn or feed and be caught by antsy anglers who know where to look. Granted it isn’t always hard to find them…just look for the crowds of people…they usually follow the fish around. You can still get away from the crowds and have some fun with a little leg work.
The panfish are looking for spawning grounds or food, so knowing what and where that is, is the first step to finding the fish. Perch are first to spawn, they will be found near weeds or structure where that they can lay there eggs over. The perch can be in shallow water, or deep water so it is important to find structure. Crappie will spawn next, once the water is a little warmer. Similar to bass, crappie create nests in shallow, soft bottom areas that have some cover nearby for safety. The males will guard the nest for a few days until moving the brood to shallow water for protection and food. Bluegill are last to spawn, and very much like Crappie create beds. It is not uncommon to see large schools of bluegills with spawning beds close together, like a little spawning community. They are very aggressive towards anything that gets close, making them vulnerable to anglers.
If you have a boat than look for mud bottoms and early weeds near shorelines with cover. But if you are a shore angler, one of the most popular areas to find panfish at ice out is near or in deeper marinas. The depth adds safety, and the docks usually warm up the water faster than on the main lake. Baitfish will also come into a lot of these marinas to spawn bringing in a buffet of food that will keep the panfish around a little longer.
Using small hair jigs, small plastic swimbaits, flukes and even insect imitations like the HT Sentz are super effective and easy to use, be it under a float, drop shot, or on a jig head. If you want to change it up from the crowd, spend a little time searching at the bait shops for the smallest spinner baits, jerk baits and crank baits you can find! The Strike King Pond Masters and Rapala X-Rap are my favourites and will set you apart from the crowd. It is something the panfish rarely see, and that will help you temp those larger panfish to bite.
One of my favourite ways to target panfish is with a fly rod. There are plenty of great patterns to use, from little clouser minnows and wollybuggers to gold ribbed hairs ears and scuds. You can use any of your trout rods, but I have an inexpensive 2 weight travel rod that I use with a cut down leader and 4 lb tippet. The fishing is pretty simple…I cast it out and drag the bait back slowly, making a pint to stay above the cover, watching my line for hits.
If the fish get really finicky than I will add a strike indicator and let the flies swing under and suspend until I make another long, slow strip.
One thing I never bring with me is live bait…it slows me down, it is messy, and lets be honest…panfish are not that smart. If you want to be lazy, sit around and just wait for something to come by and hit than go right ahead, but if you are like me, and you probably are if you are still reading, than you want to go and find those fish, and catch fish all day long.