As everyone knows, I am primarily a walleye fisherman. I made my name and built my fishing career by catching walleyes and walleye fishing remains my favorite angling activity, virtually year-round. But there’s one time of year when I gladly abandon walleyes and pursue something different. That time of year is first ice; the critters I chase are panfish.
Well, there are two reasons. First of all, first ice forms in shallow water and it’s almost impossible to get to where the walleyes live on early ice. You have to wait for safe ice; by then, you’ve lost a lot of fishing time. But just as importantly, first ice is excellent for bluegills and crappies, which can be a hoot to catch and excellent in the frying pan. So, my first few forays onto the ice, I’m looking for panfish.
Typically, first ice forms off the main lake, in the cuts and canals, the bays and bayous surrounding the main body of water. You can have good, fishable ice while the main lake is still open water. The areas off the main lake are often protected from the wind and generally much shallower.
Whenever I go for bluegills, I like to start shallow–no more than 10 or 12 feet and preferably even shallower. The ‘gills are in there –they’re looking for warmer water and food. And there are generally still green weeds in the shallows, long after the deeper water weed beds have started to deteriorate. There’s lots of food in those weedy areas, like small minnows and all manner of invertebrates that relate to the weeds. It’s a perfect dining room. And once they’re in there, they tend to stay there when they find what they want.
The back-water areas are generally smaller, too, so you can cover them thoroughly by hole-hopping rather than looking for a needle in a haystack in deep water.
To me, first ice bluegill fishing calls for not just ultralight tackle, but ultra-ultralight tackle. (Maybe even ultra-ultra-ultralight tackle). Start with the line. Four-pound test? That’s overkill. Two-pound test is heavy. I use monofilament nylon sewing thread. It probably tests at less than a pound, maybe even a half-pound. The difference between sewing thread and 2, 3, 4-pound lines is like night and day different.
Bluegills (and crappie, to a lesser extent) don’t bite. They suck. When they sip on that bait, it swings into their mouth. Heavier line holds it back a little bit. You’re not dealing with walleye or pike. They’re sucking it in, and I’ve watched them do it in a dark shanty. When they try to suck it in, and they don’t get it, they leave.
Because sewing thread is so light and thin, you can use really small teardrops. Those little teardrops look like bugs floating around down there. If you use a heavy line, it’s stiff right to the lure. You’re just lifting it up and down like jigging for walleyes. On light line, that thing is bouncing around down there. It bends and swims a little. With heavy line, you’re pushing that jig down. With light line, it’s kind of floating down. It looks more natural and the fish can grab it a lot easier.
So use tiny jigs, no doubt about it. And tie directly to the line. Don’t put a snap or snap swivel on the line, that just adds weight, inhibiting the movement of the bait and making it harder for the fish to inhale it. When using ultra-ultralight line, you have to use an appropriate rod. My rods are really light, sensitive rods, really limber rods, kind of like noodle rods, really whippy. I don’t use bobbers, I just watch my rod tip, but with the ultra-ultralight rods and line, you can feel the bite. If you’re too freaked out to use sewing thread, then put a little bend in your line and watch that crease. It acts like a spring bobber. But if you use a whippy enough rod, you don’t need a spring bobber–the rod tip serves that function.
Remember, the rod acts as a shock absorber when using light line, just like steelhead fishermen use noodle rods and light line to whip 10-pound (or bigger) fish. You don’t have to worry about breaking off. A lot of times, you’ll get a bass or pike on it, and you can still catch them. You may have to let them run when they stop, gain line, and if they take off again, let them go. Just stay with them until you wear them down. I’ve caught a lot of 18- to 20-inch bass on these rigs.
My approach is to let the bait fall all the way to the bottom and pound the bottom–just like I do when walleye fishing–to kick up the silt. It attracts fish. The fish hear it, feel it and come over and check it out.
Start bringing the bait up, jigging it up a few inches at a time. Work the whole water column–there are fish that are on the bottom, and some are right up under the ice. Just keep coming up a few inches at a time. A lot of times the fish are feeding up high, especially crappie, which are just as likely to be suspended as on bottom.
When you get to the top without a bite, let the line drop back to the bottom, but pay attention as the bait is falling. If you catch one on the drop, you have an idea of where the fish are. So, fish at that level. Don’t waste time once you locate the depth the fish are feeding.
On that note, a fish finder is an invaluable tool, even in shallow water. You can keep track of where these fish are, you can see what your lure is doing, and the machines are so sensitive now you can see if the wax worm falls off the teardrop. That you’re not wasting time–you’re fishing with a baited hook, and you’re fishing where the fish are. Make the right presentation at the right time.