Michigan is blessed with some of the hottest hard water fishing in North America. Bluegills are best known and most sought after, with crappie coming in second place, and if conditions are ideal, there will be hordes of Michigan fishermen catching sunfish, perch, and smelt. As winter arrives, panfish opportunities blossom along weedbeds, drop-offs, deep water abyss, and options abound for limit catches for those who understand the species and use specialized fishing tactics. Here are some deadly strategies that produce from ice up until ice out that will transform the average outing into a fish catching circus.

Strike Indicators

It goes without saying the old reliable bobbers used decades ago to detect strikes have been replaced with new panfish rods having super sensitive tips that help anglers to work lures and see the faintest strike. Some anglers prefer titanium or wire strike indicators that can be attached to any rod tip. The idea is to have a flexible rod tip showing the lure’s swimming action and indicating strikes with ease.

Swimming tiny jigs attached to ultra-light line isn’t exactly a secret weapon. But in recent years, ice anglers are fast discovering the trick to catching limits hinges on your ability to see or detect strikes. Truth is, winter panfish aren’t always gulping presentations. Most of the time, they slowly approach dancing jigs, stop kissin’ distance close to the hook and slurp or vent the bait into their lips. Sometimes the strike shows as the fine rod tip or strike indicator just slightly jiggling up or down, other times, the take is an itsy wiggle and when you slowly raise the rod, the tip slightly dips down. Without an ultra-sensitive strike indicator, you miss the take, and detecting strikes is next to impossible.

The secret to hefty catches hinges on your ability to see and attract fish. You must work ’em with seductive little rod tip twitches that make the bait wiggle, and the tail goes up and down. Most importantly, you must learn when to anticipate the strike, hold the rod tip stationary and concentrate on the strike indicator. Sometimes panfish jerk it down, but most frequently, the tip barely wiggles to indicate the take. Savvy ice anglers are experts at detecting faint strikes and know a pause in jigging guarantees strikes. When they see the itsy movement, they know it’s time to set the hook!

Some ice buffs like to custom tie on spring bobbers, others slip-on or are designed to mount to your rod tip. If you are looking for a sensitive strike indicator, take a peek at Ice Strong Titanium Spring bobbers or slip-on Spring Bobbers offered by www.YourBobbersDown.com.

The author used electronics and drilled multiple holes along a deep shelf to eventually find a super concentration of both slab crappie and big ’gills. Ideal weather helps him be mobile, and he uses an 8-gallon pail complete with duct tape, rod holders to carry rigged custom rods, electronics, lures, drinks, and a pile of fresh fish.

Modern Electronics

Want to catch more and bigger fish? Then you need to be armed with electronics to help you find fish and actually see strikes. “Seeing believes,” says Dave Gentz, ice fishing guru, in response to a question about ice electronics.

If you want to light up your catches and actually locate fish and see them strike, then a quality fish finder is an essential tool for fishing success.

I’ve used Vexilar graphs for decades and swear my success is dependent upon electronics. I’m so sold on Vexilar that I don’t go fishing without my graph. Those huge Saginaw Bay walleyes, Saginaw River yellowbellies, Hamlin Lake ’gills and Holloway crappies get my heart pounding when they follow my lures. Years of electronics work has taught me exactly how to move and wiggle the lure and get panfish to slam the offering. Today I can spot ’em, make my jig swim, seductively dance upward, get ’em coming on a string, then pause and hold the rod still and call the strike seconds before they smash the presentation. Fish on! Now, that’s what ice fishing is all about.

Okay, you are on the ice, and typically you can see the fish on your electronics. Here’s how you do it; lower the lure but stop it from going below the fish, suspend the lure inches above the target fish and begin a slow/medium jigging action that gets their attention. When they approach the offering, you slowly swim the lure away, upward, which causes the fish to follow and ignites their predatory strike instinct. The trick to successful ice fishing hinges on how well you can attract, entice and encourage fish to strike. These goals are accomplished by concentrating on electronics.

Softbait Success

When I first tried sample soft baits on jigs for winter panfish, I was skeptical. But after getting slammed and icing slab crappie and bull ’gills, I’m sold on the effectiveness of this new development in ice fishing technology. My suggestion is give ’em a try. I’d start with the Little Atom Micro Nuggies one-inch size available from www.YourBobbersdown.com. Next, you graduate to the 1.1-inch Eurotackle Micro Finesse Crazy Critter with S-Pheromone technology. I tell you, the Roadside Minnows in Original Perch Eye is damn deadly panfish medicine at www.RoadsideMinnows.com.

Buckets of ’Gills

To get your favorite bluegill lakes rockin’, use a run-n-gun fishing strategy. That means drill several holes, and by the time you finish drilling go back to the first hole, and once you catch a few fish, move to the next. The idea is to keep moving, looking for new faces in different places. Concentrate efforts near known hideouts and take an aggressive approach. Don’t make the common mistake of sitting over the same hole all day when you can increase your catch by movin’ and groovin’. This strategy will often lead you to the mother lode, where you can sit tight and keep pulling fish.

I’m sold on the advantages of using tungsten jigs for ’gills because they have a balanced horizontal presentation. Tungsten allows you to use a smaller jig and gets you back down to schools pronto. If ice is covered with deep snow, my favorite color is Glow White with black dots and red bead on the tail. Other great colors include Metallic Green Pink, Raspberry Glow bead, Gold Chartreuse glow bead, and more.

If you are looking for “bull gills,” I’m talkin’ 10-inch models that will fill your hand and have a huge humped back, I suggest you make a trek to likely big ’gill hot spots. The trouble with most Michigan lakes is they produce massive numbers of French fry ’gills, and you need to travel for bigger fish. Don’t overlook the monster fish Houghton Lake offers, and please drop your line in my favorite monster ’gill waters of Hamlin Lake near Ludington.

Slab Crappie

I cut my ice fishing teeth on Sanford and Wixom Lakes, but the flood of 2020 took them out. Fortunately, there are still plenty of prime crappie lakes in Michigan just waiting for your hook. My favorite crappie haunts are found in deep water that I visit at night from the comfort of my Shappell two-man shanty. My hottest crappie presentation is simple yet complex. First, I lower a battery-operated green underwater light to draw microorganisms that bring bait and tend to school crappies directly under my shanty. Next, I send down lively perch minnows back hooked through the skin with #8 size Aberdeen gold hooks with one small BB split shot 12 inches above. I set lines close to the bottom slightly above marks on electronics and move presentations higher when fish move upward as the night goes on.

I prefer to jig for crappie using Fiskas Wolfram Tungsten lures designed at a 45-degree angle for great action during daylight. My favorite jig color is the HP32 Clown with a lime green back with an orange belly, and huge eyes. My favorite jigging bait is a large wax worm, but when fishing clear water, I switch to two spikes. In deep water, I also like the GB81 Gold with glow bead. My hottest crappie jig is the HP56 Pinky tipped with glow Little Atom Micro Nuggies soft plastic tail in shallow water.

Crappies frequently congregate near structure in deep water. They love fallen trees, sunken stumps, rock piles, brush or edges of vegetation. During mid-winter, look for fish to school over deep water troughs, channels and hard bottom structure.

Perch Aplenty

Perch on Muskegon and White Lakes have been making a comeback, and improved fishing is expected on Higgins Lake this winter. When numbers are booming, it is common to catch 8-10 inch yellowbellies by the bucketful. In winter, perch are bottom orientated, and while jigging spoons or Rapala can bring good catches, I’m sold on bait rigs tipped with wax worms, perch minnows or spikes.

My setup is simple, bell sinker on bottom, two snelled hooks on 24-inch fluorocarbon leader attached to 6-pound Asso Super fluorocarbon main line with a small Black Bird barrel swivel. I drop the 5/8 ounce sinker to the bottom, take up enough slack to see the line tighten on a strike indicator, then set the rod in a custom made rod holder. I use 38-inch rods tipped with wire strike indicators, so when the perch strikes, I see the hit and set the hook. When positioned over a school of yellowbellies, it is common to catch doubles, and the fast-paced catching fun keeps you warm as toast.

The last time I hammered limits on Higgins, I was fishing the marl bottom found 3/4 mile slightly southwest of B&B Sports Center. Take I-127 to North Higgins Lake Drive, go east to Forrest Ave., and turn west and park near the lake. Perch can be found on top of the shallow sandbars, which have a marl or muddy bottom with some vegetation, which is home to crayfish, clams, aquatic insects and zillions of mayfly wigglers. Strikes come close to the bottom using waxworms, minnows, wigglers and spikes. If possible, get wigglers, keep ’em alive in a sealed container, pin them through the head, allowing the tail to undulate in the water from #12 size Aberdeen long shank gold hook and slightly jig near the bottom. I guarantee strikes come extra fast and are vicious.

December was dynamite perch fishing on Saginaw Bay, and I’m predicting that when solid ice locks up the Saginaw River, you can expect limits near the DNR boat launch found near the river mouth at the end of Shady Shore Dr. Take Wilder Road to Patterson and buy minnows at the corner store, head down Shady Shore to the DNR launch. Often schools congregate in the 30-foot depths found in the channel. During windy, cold weather, I like to run upstream to the channels and docks located on the opposite side of the river from Essexville. Live perch minnows off spreaders are my number one strategy on the lower Saginaw River.

Keep Bait Fresh

Ever notice after you have hammered a few fish on a certain jig that the wax worm looks milky white, void of body fluid and the sides are ripped up from tiny panfish teeth?

The trick to increased panfish catches is to keep replacing your bait. Far too many anglers get lazy; keep fishin’ the same bait while having plenty of fresh in their pocket. First, seldom do you run the hook full length of the bait. You will get better lure action and more strikes if you barely lip hook bait and use the undulating body to guarantee strikes. Oh sure, some fish will steal your bait, so what. Get busy, rigging new. This is very important when using minnows. You will double your catch if you keep them lively by constantly changing water, giving them fresh oxygen. Minnows that wiggle and swim on your hook attract more fish and guarantee increased strikes.

Clear Water Tricks

During winter, water temperatures are very cold. The colder water does not hold dissolved minerals and therefore becomes very clear for winter panfishermen. Under ultra-clear conditions, your best choice is obviously a very light line and, in many cases, sewing thread-thin. Low visibility line is important.

To further increase odds for success, savvy anglers cover the hook barb by pinning bait lightly and double hooking to stretch bait tissue over the barb. Finicky bull bluegills often require you to hide the hook and, more importantly, switch bait choices. This is when you reduce the lure profile and go with smaller spikes. To increase your odds, hook two spikes on the barb by the head, leaving the tiny spike tail pointing back to wiggle, jiggle, undulate in the
water, and mimic a live presentation. If you barely skin hook the head and drop spikes in the water you will be amazed at how the tiny offering looks alive, and the tiny waving tail entices strikes like no other.

If you want to increase your panfish catch this winter, use the above tricks to take most of the hit and miss out of your ice fishing season. Use quality gear, purchase fresh bait, select a productive location, put quality time in on the water, and spend less time guessing where fish are and how to catch them. When you put that hard fighting 10-incher on the ice, pick him up and look him in the eye and tell him Kenny sent you.