Into the Deep for Winter Panfish
By: David Duwe
For many years, my father and I were plagued with catching only 5 to 6 inch panfish while ice fishing in the shallow weed flats. My how things have changed, with Vexilar and Marcum fish locators, 5-6 inch panfish are a thing of the past. The ability to see underneath the ice opened up the deep water structure on many local lakes. With fish locators, ice fishermen can now work the deep water locations where the larger panfish reside.
When I say deep water locations, I’m referring depths from 18-30 ft. The deep water panfish bite relies on clear water, enabling weeds to grow in depths of 20-27 ft. Some of the best deep water lakes in Southeast Wisconsin are Big Cedar Lake in Washington County, Pleasant Lake and Turtle Lake in Walworth County and Beaver Lake in Waukesha County.
The deep water fish are roaming; they aren’t concentrated in one spot for long because of the lack of structure. One needs to keep moving around, hole-hopping if you will, to find the aggressive fish. Most often the fish are tight to the bottom and you won’t see them on your locator until the jig gets near them. Another benefit of deep water fishing is the multiple species that you can catch. Not only do the bluegills use the main lake basin, but you can also find perch, white bass and an occasional largemouth bass. To get started, I begin on a weedline in 12 feet of water and gradually drill holes and go deeper finding the larger active fish. Most of the time, the fish are off any kind of weed in 20-25 feet of water.
My most sought after query in mid-winter is the yellow perch. Deep water perch fishing is my most constant pattern. Deeper water to me means greater than 20 feet. The biggest challenge of ice fishing perch is locating them. A good pair of boots and a Vexilar flasher is a necessity. Perch roam in small to massive schools. Finding an active school can provide all day action. It is always better to bring a friend along both for safety and eliminating unproductive water. Make sure your fishing buddy’s wife enjoys reading as it will help insure a long day out on the ice. Once I get to my desired area, I will drill a bunch of holes and start searching. Perch can be belly to the bottom or suspended up from the bottom. I will always fish the suspended fish first to prevent spooking the lower fish. Make sure to fish every hole a sufficient amount of time as the fish won’t show up on the Vexilar until a bait is presented. A good search bait is the Lindy Rattlin’ Flyer. The lure can be fished quickly to help find the roaming schools. These spoons put out plenty of flash and the good vibrations. Hop the spoon off the bottom a few times to see if you can get the actively feeding fish. As I am working the bait, I am constantly watching my Vexilar FL-20.
Spoons are good for actively feeding perch, however most of the time perch are neutral or in a negatively feeding pattern. With this in mind, it’s time to get subtle. A tear drop jig or Lindy’s new Toad jig are great choices. When fishing in deep or dirty water applications, the color choice is important, always use a glow color. This adds visibility to aid in the bite. Add a heavy weight 3 to 4 inches above the jig. The heavy weights are called pencil weights or I like a weight attractor by Tommy Harris Blades called an agitator in a ½ oz weight. The weight allows you to fish faster, getting the jig to the fish. Fishing faster in deep water, prevents the fish from roaming away before you catch as many as possible. To help pick up the pencil weight on the Vexilar, I add a very small washer above the weight. Again, fish suspended fish first as you don’t want to spook the whole school. Tip your ice jigs with spikes or wax worms. If I am over a big school, I will put another pole down, a dead stick, about 1 foot above. A dead stick is a pole you just let fish without any action. I will bait my dead stick poles with live bait, a small minnow or wiggler.
I use a stiff small jig pole with a spinning reel spooled with 4 lb. test. Fishing in such deep water you will need to reel in the fish. Also, when the fish bite the stiffer rod, it will let you set the hook more effectively. Because of this, I use a spring bobber. Consider the sensitivity of the spring bobber; don’t use one for bluegills because they are too sensitive with the heavy weight. I always try to have multiple poles rigged so I can change baits quickly without having to re-tie. A change of bait can entice a lot of the non-biters and get a school active again.
At night, crappies move into more open water. They are notorious for suspending throughout the water column. Crappies will school up in large numbers and wander throughout the lake feeding. With the fish off structure in the main lake basin the depth varies and is very dependent on the body of water you are fishing. The constant for most lakes is the crappies will suspend off bottom.
For schooling crappies I will try to fish three poles, which is the maximum allowed in the state. Two of the poles are dead sticks and the third will be in my jigging hand. The presentation I use is similar to summertime slip bobber fishing. I use a small Thill bobber with a small treble hook (size 16), and a small split shot. I like to position one of the dead sticks about a foot off bottom and the other will be 2-3 ft. off bottom. Minnows are undisputedly my favorite bait for late ice crappies. Of course, when using a locator you will be able to see exactly the depth they are coming in at. You can adjust your presentation to match their location within the water column. My jigging rod will have a small spinning reel spooled with 4 lb. Silver Thread. I found that lighter line isn’t essential when you are fishing at night.
On my jig pole I will use a spring bobber. Unlike most fish, crappies will strike both in an upward or downward motion. When a fish bites it usually jiggles your spring bobber downward. When a fish is biting upward, your spring bobber will go straight. This indicates an upward bite. You need to set the hook fast. When fishing a Thill bobber, if a fish bites upward your bobber will go flat on the surface of the water.
Fishing for panfish beneath the ice can be great fun, you just need to know where to look!