Each year thousands of ice fisherman flock to the Great Lakes in search of trophy walleye. Living in close proximity to Lake Erie, I was often a repeat customer during the ice season. But unstable weather, shifting ice, and Coast Guard rescues began to chip away at my desire to head out on the big water for trophy ‘eyes. Erie’s yellow perch population isn’t all that accessible most times either, spending much of the winter far, far away in the lake’s main basin. These factors have led many anglers, myself included, to explore the central Great Lakes panfish population, often unexploited in the many harbors and boat basins throughout Michigan and Ohio.
It’s hard to beat bluegills for pure enjoyment, and willingness to bite, through the ice. Main lake harbor areas are often loaded with bluegills throughout the ice period, as they represent a stable wintering area to the fish. On Lake St. Clair, for example, the major boat basins are often the deepest water in the area, and home to massive populations of ‘gills, crappies, and largemouth bass throughout the winter. These same harbors attract baitfish, most notably emerald shiners, each fall, and therefore become hot spots at first ice.
To capitalize on the bounty, the first key is to move, and move often. It’s absolutely necessary at first ice to utilize a depth finder, in my case a Humminbird flasher, at first ice. The water is often too cloudy to sight-fish early in the year, and the key to the “run and gun” strategy is to know what kind of response we’re getting from the fish immediately. Remember, during first ice the water is the warmest, it contains the most oxygen, and, therefore, the fish are the most aggressive. Maximize your success by fishing fast and making a bunch of moves. In the harbors, drill holes up against dock poles, in the middle of the harbor, in boat slips, and over rip-rap shorelines; represent every option with a set of holes and then rotate through them until a pattern presents itself. Often the most in obvious spots are the best. A quick check of a shoreline area revealed a dredged out hole in a favorite harbor of mine last season, leading to a week’s worth of bluegill bliss.
Bait selection is often fairly simple for bluegills, but each body of water usually has a best option. Jigs should be small in size, but dense in weight to allow for a quick drop. Every bluegill fisherman has their favorite, mine being a Ratso jig. Jigs can be tipped with spikes, waxies, mousies, small minnows, or minnow pieces—there’s a never-ending set of possibilities. Oftentimes it’s best to listen to the locals here (each body of water seems to have a secret bait), and color options are endless as well. Do a little Internet research, check chat forums, talk to other fishermen; whatever it takes to shorten the learning curve. One we’ve got a bait the fish are dialed into, it’s simply a matter of moving throughout the harbor to find the best zone.
Crappies present similar challenges, although they are incredibly susceptible to minnows. Frequently the best baits for crappies are small jigs, or even Aberdeen hooks, tipped with lively lake shiners. For crappies, pay close attention to the details happening below as displayed on the flasher screen, it’s vitally important not to fish beneath the fish, but rather above.
Another option in today’s world of constant tackle advancements are plastics. Old-school ice anglers will scoff at the thought of plastic lures performing as well as their tried and true live bait, but I’m living proof that they often do. I began using artificial lures more and more the last few seasons, and now rarely break out the real thing. Fishing with lures is slightly different, however.
The key to filling a bucket by the end of the day while using live bait is often patience. The opposite holds true with artificials. There, the key is to capitalize on the aggressive fish in each location.
When I first drill a new hole, I know immediately how successful I will be on the first drop of my lure by watching my flasher. When in a productive area, fish may not always bite immediately, but they will approach instantly. That first drop down the hole is the most important. It gauges the environment.
Once I begin to see fish on the screen, a number of different retrieves/jigging strokes have potential to catch them. Sometimes, the fish want the bait lifted very quickly; often they want simple shakes of the bait with a long pause. Most panfish seem to respond to a lure dropped down to their level, or just above, and then jigged upward, occasionally rather quickly. The fish will follow the bait up, and then a slight pause or continuous slow jig will get them to commit. It’s easy to experiment because, with a close eye on the depthfinder, an angler can immediately recognize productive tactics. Deadsticking is also one overlooked option that yields big results with negative fish.
Sometimes when it seems you need to fish slower, you actually need to fish faster. Quick jigging, with major rod movements, can be the key to get panfish to commit to a reaction strike when they’re otherwise not biting. I try to fish more and more aggressively throughout the day, to see if I can reach a threshold with the fish. My ultimate goal is to find aggressive, biting fish that will hit the largest artificial offerings, like jigging Rapalas, thus exhausting the need for any bait and increasing my efficiency in catching fish. It keeps my hands out of the minnow bucket, which I really appreciate on the coldest outings.
When fishing diminutive plastics, options are endless. Northland makes a variety of attractive baits, as does ISG, a Wisconsin-based manufacturer that’s been in the micro-plastic sector for years.
In addition to gauging the environment with the flasher, I can get dialed-in to the precise retrieve with the help of an Aqua-Vu. I’ve used the new Aqua-Vu micro for two seasons. It’s the size of a smartphone, and deploys instantly. For ice fishing it’s a no-brainer and tells me everything that’s happening down there, immediately. It’s become such an important part of my arsenal that I often use the unit’s shanty mount on my bucket when hole-hopping in the marinas around home. I can’t go on the ice without it.
Rod and reel options have evolved tremendously for this type of fishing in recent years. I once had to use custom rods, and those intended for open water fishing, to get the action I needed and the length I wanted in a jigging stick. Today, that’s not the case.
A few years ago, Frabill recognized the unique needs of shallow panfish ice anglers and developed a rod called the Jiggler. This long “pole-style” rod is intended to be used in very shallow water; shallow enough that the fish are simply lifted out of the hole, rather than reeled. The line flows through the blank, resulting in no wind drag on the line, and, with the rod measuring over four feet, anglers stand far back from the hole. This promotes comfort and spooks far less fish.
The ultra-sensitive sticks are more like open water blanks—very parabolic and light. When a fish is caught, the angler simply lifts it up and is able to immediately put his lure back at the same depth. I find myself using a Jiggler all winter for a variety of techniques; even out of the boat at ice-out in spring when fishing straight down for perch with small spoons. They’re very user-friendly pieces of equipment.
I’m always pleasantly surprised when I clean, fry, and eat bluegills and crappies caught through the ice. This season I’m making a pact with myself: stay off the main lake, hit the harbors more, and bring home more fish in the long run. The fishing is simple, very cost-effective, and the fish fight hard and are quite plentiful. Besides, Coast Guard rescues only look good on TV.
Joe Balog is a promotional outdoors figure in the Great Lakes market specializing in big water fishing and hunting, and owns Millennium Promotions, Inc.