Things are certainly different than they were during my formative days of ice fishing. I remember using sewing thread because it was the only line thin enough and subtle enough to fool winter panfish. A hand auger was the main tool for making a hole and if the ice was thick you didn’t make too many holes. Styrofoam bobbers were held in place with a wooden peg and you typically hand-over-handed a fish on to the ice. Fortunately, those days are over.
Today, ice anglers who like fishing for panfish have more options than ever and you’re making a mistake if you don’t take advantage of them. Things like underwater cameras, shelters, rods and reels and improvements in line and lures have made catching winter panfish easier than ever.
Nothing replaces time on the ice. There’s a direct correlation between how much time you have your line in the water and how many fish you catch. That’s where a shelter comes in. There’s no one-size-fits-all when it comes to shelters. It depends on whether you fish by yourself, with the family, how mobile you need to be and the body of water.
If nothing else, a shelter can be a way to get your gear out on the ice. I like the type that features a tub that can hold your gear and a top that flops down to provide cover. A comfortable seat that supports your back is a good thing, too. They come in different configurations from one-man versions to larger hub-styles that can house a half dozen people. Shelters provide a base camp to retreat to if the weather is bad. If you’re comfortable and have a line or two in the water there’s a pretty good chance you’ll catch a fish or two. Of course, you have to be on a spot that has fish, but positioning your shelter on an inside curve where crappies are traveling, along a weed edge or in the main lake basin where perch schools congregate stacks the odds in your favor.
Portable shelters are especially good on first and last ice. If the weather is decent you can use the shelter to haul your gear and then hopscotch from hole to hole leaving the shelter. A portable shelter always gives you the option of getting warm, blocking the sun and camping out on a hotspot.
Electronics have revolutionized ice fishing. There was a time when a depth finder for ice fishing was sinker with a clip on it. You’d send it down to bottom and walk back from the hole to see how deep it was. You had no idea if there were actually fish below you unless you caught one. Don’t make the mistake of heading out on the ice without some form of electronics to tell you the depth and if there are fish present. An underwater camera can tell you instantly if there are fish below you, how big they are and what species. My Humminbird Ice Helix 5 unit has a flasher and a graph plus GPS to save my location when I find a hotspot that I might want to revisit later in the season. A friend showed me the advantages of a graph over a flasher when it comes to telling you the attitude of the fish and how they’re reacting to what you’re offering. While these units can be a little pricey, they’re much less expensive than they were just a few short years ago, have even more features and are user friendly. I bought an ice transducer and a transom mount transducer for my Humminbird unit so I can use it year round.
It used to be that if you wanted a quality rod for ice fishing it had to be custom built. Not any more. Many manufacturers produce quality species-specific rod and reel combos that eliminate the guesswork of which rod and reel to use. Which one depends on whether you’re targeting bluegills and sunfish on first ice or probing the depths in mid-winter for perch. Many anglers have gone to using straight-line reels for winter panfish to eliminate line twist. When fishing deep water there are combos that have matching reel and rods that are perfect for presenting lures at depth and they‘re very reasonably priced. Rod length depends on whether you’re going to be spending most of your time in the shelter or out. Rods and reels for bluegills, sunfish and crappies need to be capable of handling lighter line. Perch anglers prefer a little stiffer combo and slightly heavier line. Fluorocarbon has been a godsend for ice anglers. It’s super thin and invisible in the crystal clear conditions ice anglers are faced with. 1- to 3-pound test is ideal for bluegills and crappies. 4- to 8-pound is best for targeting main lake basin perch. It’s amazing how you can land the occasional pike or walleye that you’ll encounter on hair-thin fluorocarbon.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to bait for panfish– live bait or plastic. Generally, live bait works best for bluegills and sunfish because they are bug eaters. Plastics work best for crappies and perch because they eat minnows. There are exceptions. Plastics these days come in a variety of shapes and sizes. There are definitely plastics that appeal to bluegills and sunfish with all their tentacles, antennae and wiggly appendages. You can add a spike or waxworm to them, but these days’ plastics smell real by themselves.
Plastics that have tails or minnow shapes are perfect for minnow-loving perch and crappies. Crappies are known to eat bugs too, and I’ve caught many a perch on mayfly wigglers. Generally, if the bite is hot then plastics excel because you can keep your line in the water. You can keep a variety of colors and shapes of plastics on your pocket. I never go on the ice though without some live bait for backup.n