By Mark Strand

Depending on where you live, 'early ice' can be a brief period right after the ice forms or an ongoing phenomenon as fishable ice comes and melts, comes and melts.

In general, bluegills are good biters during this time, but you must locate them to be successful. No matter what you might read or hear about 'where bluegills are found' at early ice, their location is not a simple matter. And where you caught them last year at this same time is not necessarily where they'll be this year.

Fall Weather, Physical Makeup

Essentially, the key to finding early-ice 'gills centers around two important variables: fall weather and the particular physical makeup of each body of water. It sounds complicated, but anybody can understand it, and it's the secret to consistent action.

It was Ice Team Captain Dave Genz who began, some years ago, writing about the dramatic impact fall weather patterns have on ice fishing. In general, where abundant sunshine, relatively warm air temperatures and light winds dominate the weeks prior to ice-up, you often find hospitable conditions in shallow water that can keep bluegills (and other species) using healthy weeds long after they would otherwise vacate for deeper water. The opposite tendency is seen when fall weather is downright nasty, with strong winds and colder-than-normal temperatures. Those years, it's common for bluegills to be holding deeper as soon as the ice comes.

"You have to pay attention to what kind of fall there was," says Genz, head Power Stick pro for Ice Team. "If you travel to a new area, ask what kind of fall they had."

The dynamics surrounding bluegill location, beyond weather patterns, is another topic that Genz has broken new ground on. He wrote an eye-opening chapter in his book, "Bluegills!" that was subtitled, "How Clear is the Water, Momma?" In it, he explained that water clarity and weed growth are everything, when it comes to bluegill location.

It's a long story, but the bottom line is that, where and when you have healthy green weeds, there's a good chance bluegills will use them. Because dirty water limits weed growth, it's common to find bluegills in deeper water when it's off-colored. Even in clearer water, if late fall weather forces knock down the weeds, don't expect many 'gills to be in the 'brown-and-down' remnants, even at early ice.

"After a typical fall," says Genz, "a lot of bluegills will be in any remaining, standing weeds at first ice. As the winter goes on, deeper weeds in inside turns are usually the last ones to die off, because there's usually less wind impact.

"But I can think of a million variables. In Illinois, they catch 'em in shallow channels as soon as they can get out there. But on one good lake in Minnesota, they're usually in the hole next to the deep weeds. In one stained-water lake that has a good bluegill bite, they're suspended over deep water right away. In most of the small lakes and ponds, we find most of the bluegills in the deepest water.

"Every time I try to say something it backfires, because I think of some lakes where it doesn't apply."

He describes last winter: "We had a weird year in Minnesota. There was a lot of sunshine and warm weather in November. We had bug hatches, and weeds started growing again in the shallow water. When that happens, it pushes the bluegills shallow. If the weed growth is good enough, those fish can stay in shallow bays all winter. But in those same lakes next year, if it's a more normal fall, there might be no weeds in the shallows at first ice, and no fish in there throughout the entire winter."

You Have to Search for Big Bluegills

What's the lesson in all this? "When you go to the spot you normally catch 'em at first ice and they're not there," says Genz, "don't just say they're not biting. Backtrack and start thinking about what's different. If you don't see any decent weeds in the shallower water, look deeper, especially in holes, depressions in bigger bays. If they normally bite right away over deeper holes and they're not there, go looking for weeds in the shallower water."

To conduct the good search, you need the right tools. A Vexilar flasher is Genz's go-to search tool for quickly checking large areas. At early ice, the transducer can often be placed on top of the ice and read right through it, allowing you to find depressions in bays, underwater weeds, and fish-although they tend to be skittish without snow cover.

To search well, you have to drill a lot of holes and fish quickly. Genz often walks on first ice, spearing the ice ahead of him regularly with a sharp chisel. If it punches through easily with one blow, he turns around and goes back where he came from. If he's walking, he usually packs a Lazer hand auger in the sled of his Fish Trap, to keep overall weight down. But as soon as the ice is thick enough to support his Arctic Cat Bearcat, he brings the power auger-nowadays, a new generation four-stroke from Strikemaster.

His typical presentation is a jig baited with lively maggots, wax worms or a Techni-Glo plastic tail. For bluegills, "I like to start in the middle size range," says Genz, "with a #10 hook. I like Fat Boys, Genz Bugs, and Genz Worms, because they fish heavy enough to take all the kinks out of my line and I can feel them bouncing on the rod." (New for this winter is a series of rods and combos, called Genz Stix, that he designed.)

To get a great look at weed condition, especially in relatively clear water and bright light, the new color monitors on Aqua-Vu camera systems are amazing high-tech tools. In deeper water and under low light conditions, black-and-white displays provide a better look at things. With either, you get a picture of how healthy and upright the weeds are, and how much 'life' is around.

Safety is always an issue on the ice, but especially early and late. "Wear a life jacket," says Genz, who practices what he preaches. "Fish with a group, and stay far enough away from each other to be safe, but close enough to help each other just in case."

Dave thinks that early ice is a time when he feels coldest, especially right near sundown, for some reason. "Maybe our bodies are not acclimated yet," he wonders out loud. "All I know is I'm cold a lot of times, and that's why I bring a Mr. Heater Buddy in my Fish Trap, even if it feels pretty nice when I first get out there."

When you do find 'gills, the action can be fast. Landing and unhooking fish has always been best accomplished with bare hands, but that compounds the cold. This winter, ice anglers will find the first waterproof, breathable gloves designed for them, bearing the Ice Armor brand.

Another key to early ice 'gill action is to fish smaller lakes and ponds.

"This is the time of year to fish those little waters," stresses Genz, "especially if you live in a place where the winter hangs on for months. Oxygen levels become a factor in those ponds and little backwoods lakes later on, but they can be hot right away."

Not only does a smaller body of water simplify your search, but tiny waters typically freeze up sooner than sprawling, windswept lakes. That gets you out there ice fishing while others are still watching cold whitecaps keep big lakes open.

Article from Ice Team.