Jan 10, 2014
Icing Pan Fish on the Madison Chain
By: Adam Walton
When ranking the most popular fish people target during the ice season, bluegills and crappies place near the top. They fight strong, taste great, and are plentiful in most lakes. When pursuing these well-liked fish, I’ve learned two very important factors. One is to learn panfish winter habits and their movement. Knowing why and where these fish move to can make you unstoppable on the ice. The second factor is to keep an open mind and be willing to quickly adapt to fish feeding changes. Too many times, anglers get stuck in a rut using a tactic or bait that produced well on a Thursday three years ago. Panfish feeding behavior can change daily… and some days it seems to change hourly. Although the same old song and dance may catch some fish, being able to adjust to these feeding changes will pay off greatly.
First and foremost, locating fish is obviously the most important factor when on the ice. Some anglers get lucky and drill holes right over a school. Others however, spend countless hours fishing areas that fish moved out of weeks ago. Taking time to learn the habits and movement of fish may take a little while at first, but the reward will last all season. To help find fish and understand their winter habits, we combine the use of underwater cameras and flasher sonar units. When first hitting the ice in search of fish, higher power flasher sonar units like Marcum LX series work well to quickly cover area. These units can shoot sonar through the ice, eliminating the time it takes to drill holes. Just put a little water between the transducer and ice to see what’s below. This tactic works best early in the season, where ice clarity is somewhat clear and thickness is six inches or less. Once fish are located, it’s time to implement the underwater camera. Equipped with these cameras, watching fish behavior is as simple as drilling a hole and dropping down for a look. Aqua-Vu has released some great underwater cameras throughout the years, but nothing compares to their new Micro series. These compact units fit in your pocket and have DVR recording options, allowing you to view recorded footage anytime. This is an excellent option for hardcore ice anglers who study fish behavior not only on the ice, but also back home. Respected angler, Tom Fuller, once told me, “Not using flashers and cameras is like not using a dog when pheasant hunting.” You’ll do okay here and there, but you’ll do great with the right tools. I believe in this philosophy 100%.
When looking specifically for bluegills, nothing beats the weeds. Unlike the warmer months, weeds may be harder to find in the winter since many die off. Last year, fellow angler Matt Simpson and I spent a day marking promising areas on Lake Kegonsa near Madison, Wisconsin. We returned later to a previously marked area located in five feet of water with sparse weed cover present. After drilling a few scouting holes, Matt had his first gill on ice within a few minutes and we decided to set up our ice shelter. The water was fairly clear and with help from our Aqua-Vu camera, we were able to watch the fish below. We noticed the bluegills would come by our holes every ten to fifteen minutes and move away clockwise. Even though the gills would bite each time they came through, we decided to go mobile and drilled more holes around our location allowing us to make clockwise moves with them. This tactic worked well and recognizing these movements made the difference between catching a few fish and catching limit. Later in the season, I had the opportunity to fish with Dave Lorier from Uncle Josh Bait Company. We applied similar techniques on Madison area lakes while trying out the newly released 2” Uncle Josh “Meat” leech. Since these Meat leeches stayed on the hook much better than wax worms or spikes, there was no need to re-bait each time a fish was caught. This made it easy to quickly get back to fishing before the fish moved on. Once fish did move however, we simply moved with them, jigging from numerous holes we predrilled ahead of time. Staying mobile in weed cover, combined with great results from the Uncle Josh Meat leeches, made for an awesome day on the ice. We not only caught numerous bluegills, we also managed to catch bass, walleye, and perch.
If it’s crappies you’re after, search deep areas. We found the majority of crappies schooled in water that was twenty to thirty five feet deep. Most were suspended within five feet of the soft, weedless bottom. Again, with use of our underwater cameras, we quickly learned these fish didn’t move nearly as often as shallow bluegills and when they did, it was only a short distance. We were able to fish within fifty yards of a marked area all season long with very productive results. With fish holding tight, staying mobile wasn’t nearly as important in this case. What was important however was the ability to detect these notoriously light biters. Unlike big gills, crappies commonly bite light and upwards, making strikes difficult to detect. Incorporating bite detectors like Beaver Dam’s “Easy Bite” and using Aqua-Vu cameras can help tremendously. The “Easy Bite” has the capability of detecting upward or negative fish strikes while the Aqua-vu helps watch fish actually bite. We found that many times fish would softly strike jigs at the head and not the hook end. Although it felt like a bite, the hook wasn’t in their mouths and any attempt to set the line simply pulled the jig out of their mouth. With the camera, you can wait until the hook is completely taken before setting the line, increasing your hook up percentage.
When talking about adapting to feeding changes, there are many things to look at. As stated before, panfish feeding behavior can be phenomenal one day and sporadic the next. Many times, simple systematic changes are all that’s needed. Systematic change is key, because doing too many changes at once won’t specifically clarify what fish truly crave.
A lot of times fast jigging action will bring in fish, but once they come in, slowing things down can entice more bites. Watch how fish react on your flasher and camera. If fish are slowly approaching your jig or if they seem to scatter after coming in, they’re more than likely in a negative or neutral feeding mood and need some slow encouragement to take the bait. On the other hand, if fish sweep in with aggressiveness, they’re most likely in a positive feeding move and prefer faster jigging action.
If changing up your presentation isn’t doing the trick, sometimes a simple color change is all that’s needed. In semi-stained to heavy stained water, brighter colors are a good starting point. In clearer water, dark colors and natural bait colors can work well, but don’t overlook anything. There are days where black works great and one day later fish only hit white jigs. Let the fish tell you what they want, with a little trial and error, but make sure to give each color enough time to prove itself before switching out. If fish haven’t shown much interest within 15-20 minutes, it’s probably time to switch things up.
Hopefully these concepts help improve your season this year. Having the right tools and understanding their full potential can make a drastic difference on the ice. Let the fish tell you what’s best and be willing to quickly adapt to any changes they make. Most importantly, have fun on the ice this year and stay safe!