Downsize Your Ice Fishing

December 13, 2010 by  

By Nick Simonson

As the seasons pass and I have become more adept at ice fishing and technology has bolstered my ability on the ice, I have drifted away from those species I once pursued primarily in winter. Walleyes and northern pike, though tops on the food chain, take a back seat these days to chasing crappies, bluegills and yellow perch when cold weather arrives.

Maybe it’s a phase that I’m going through. Maybe it’s because they’re ready biters with the right presentation. Maybe it’s because they require me to be ready, aware and reactive to their subtle and tiny strikes. Whatever the reason, panfish have become central to my chase across the frozen lakes and ponds of the upper Midwest.

I still carry a “big fish” box in my ice tackle bag, loaded with spoons, jigs and other lures when I choose to pursue predators, but my panfish box is much deeper. Where I once spooled up my rods with four- and six-pound test line (which I thought was a bit on the small side at the time) and carried three nylon-lined tip-ups at the ready (which most seasons gather dust in my sled), I now find myself threading whisper-thin webs through the eyes of my rods. And those rods are not the telephone poles I once held over a hole in the ice either. The light and ultralight models, with super-sensitive spring bobbers, are designed to detect upward bites, downward bites and every direction of bite in between.

Panfish, especially bluegills require minute meals in the form of jigs that weigh 1/64, 1/80 and even 1/100 ounce. I’ve tied a number of small and simple fly fishing patterns on tiny ice jigs and found success in the past few seasons and I employ only the smallest store-bought lures, such as Lindy Genz Worms with hooks in sizes 10 and 12 when searching for bluegills. The same can be said for crappies and perch. While the larger, more aggressive fish may still smack a spoon, more often than not, I don’t exceed a jig bigger than 1/32 ounce. These jigs are rarely baited with anything more than a single maggot, maybe two. On an aggressive bite, it might be a waxworm, but for the most part, I keep the live bait small.

Downsizing my line diameter has also become a key factor in on-ice success for panfish of all varieties. Where I once used only four-pound test line, I now rig several light and ultralight rods with two- and one-pound test. The decreased diameter allows tiny jigs to drop faster and hang more naturally. That and the line, at least in my mind, is less visible to these fish, which are obviously capable of picking up microscopic bits of food under four feet of ice and snow. Modern lines are smaller, thinner, less visible yet stronger than ever before and a world of options awaits the winter panfish angler.
Finally, my rod selection leans heavily toward the light side of things. With three spring bobber rods in tow, an option is readily available no matter what species I’m after. I use the spring bobber while keeping a close eye on my Vexilar. As a red line approaches my bait on the sonar screen, I look for any movement in the spring at the end of my rod. Up or down movement, and sometimes just the tiniest twitch will signal a bite. Reacting to the movement can be the hardest part. Bluegills and crappies are notorious for their spit-takes, where a jig is inhaled and exhaled in a fraction of a second and the only sign is the telegraph of the spring bobber. Employing sensitive rods with even more sensitive springs have helped me learn more about panfish on the ice than any other tool.

Panfish provide great experience on the ice and are a lot of fun to learn from. They taste good too, at the end of the day, if you’re interested in a fish fry. From the glacial lakes of northeastern South Dakota, to Devils Lake, N.D. to the lake country bluegill waters in Minnesota, there are a number of species to choose from across this great region. Take these lessons I have learned and downsize for greater success on the ice this season…in our outdoors.


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