His cronies call it “the magic act.” Legendary angler Brian “Bro” Brosdahl sweeps across sprawling shallow flats like an oracle, incising select ice holes and extracting pudgy panfish with surgical precision. Conversely, in a frequently futile effort to find panfish, anglers unnecessarily burn the ice with holes, Swiss-cheesing these massive vegetated zones into oblivion.
When Bro shows up, there’s a nearly palpable shift in the frozen façade. He’s been known to nonchalantly survey the scene, peak at his Humminbird screen and then slice a single hole in the ice. More often than not, almost supernaturally, he’s right on the money, positioned directly above swarms of angry hump-heads.
It all sounds like the ultimate dream scenario. Unfortunately, ‘found fish’ don’t instantly translate into ‘caught fish.’ Robust 9-, 10-, even 12-inch sunfish seem to relish the pain they often inflict on anglers and their presentations. Jig goes down, dances before sets of intense eyeballs, stops, jiggles again. Nothing happens. Angler agonizes. Sunfish smile. But still won’t bite.
Ever watched what happens to a tiny panfish lure when you stop jigging? Bro has. And spying on his pets with an underwater camera, he long ago discovered that lures at rest often spin like a top. Thanks to line twist that can develop on the spool of a tiny spinning reel, micro lures twirl in never-ending circles. To say that big bluegills find such moves distasteful is an understatement. The micro morsels panfish eat dance in a lot of crazy ways, but gyrating in a continuous circle isn’t one of them. Bro says that making a lure such as a Northland Bro Bloodworm or Slug Bug swim like something panfish want to eat is only part of the plan. Some of the most selective, bullish bluegills he catches only bite lures that hover absolutely motionless. And the best way to present a jig dead still and spin-free is to tether it to a reel that yields line off its spool in straight, coil-free ribbons.
In search of the perfect, spin-free presentation, astute ice anglers have for years been tackling panfish with single-action fly reels. Some term the tactic “straightlining,” delivering tiny jigs on 1 to 4-pound test, watching where line meets water for those subtle signs of bites. More recently, as anglers have increasingly sought spin-free presentations, manufacturers have listened, producing premium single-action ice reels, such as Bro’s beloved Frabill 241 Straight Line Combo. Initially reserved for shallow water duty, newer straight-lining tools such as the 241 reel feature a speedier, tricked-out retrieve that eases fishing in waters to 30-feet.
Inevitably, the first time most anglers clutch one of the new fly-style reels for ice fishing, confusion reigns. Unnecessary, says Bro. The key to successfully employing these reels is to spool them properly. Bro begins by adding a heavier monofilament or cheap fly line backing onto the spool. He then connects the two lines with a Uni or similar knot, and loads the spool with 100- to 150-feet of premium fluorocarbon— his favorite being 3-pound test Bionic Fluorosilk. Fluoro further minimizes coils and line twist, connecting him directly with the lure below. To maximize line speed and pickup, he fills the spool to within 1/8-inch from the top, as overfilling causes tangles. In vegetation, Bro says that slightly heavier lines up to 4-pound test are fine, but in cover-free zones, he often slips down to 2- or even 1-pound test for max stealth.
On the business end, Bro often opts for “non-horizontal” jigs that hang with the micro plastic tail pointing slightly downward. “I like to rig ‘messy,’ rather than perfectly horizontal,” he states. “Invertebrates rarely hover arrow-straight in the water, and neither should your jig. When I’m doing long pauses, I’ve noticed that big ‘gills usually prefer to eat a jig-plastic that’s tilted slightly down, with the wispy little tail just dangling.”
The all-powerful pause
“When you’re finally face-to-face with a big fish, there’s this moment of great drama,” Bro proclaims. “You can’t make any mistakes, and one of the most common ones is letting lures spin during pauses. It’s disastrous. Big fish stare things down, studying your lure for any suspicious detail. Here’s where you either perform perfectly with your presentation and get hooked up, or reel in disappointed.”
More often than many anglers believe, Bro says, success hinges on the pause—a move that done right, incites bites on cue. While many anglers have been trained to continuously and nervously shake and quiver their lures for panfish, the opposite approach often shines for the biggest ‘gills. Bro uses his Humminbird flasher to precisely position his namesake Bro Bloodworm or Scud Bug a foot or less above individual fish targets. He’ll often employ his rod’s specialized “quick tip” to give the jig a sharp rise and fall, or two to three quick jigs in a row. Each move is then punctuated by a long pause. Often, this is when the biggest ‘gills bite.
“When something pauses in nature,” Bro explains, “predators instinctively recognize it as the perfect moment to strike. Even though a dead-still pause seems like an overly simple method to anglers, to wary, selective fish, it’s probably the most spellbinding maneuver of all.”
Speaking of the supernatural, Bro’s “magic act” leads him to nooks and crannies on vast shallow weed flats that the rest of the world overlooks. “We’ve been trained to seek out areas with the thickest vegetation—beautiful cabbage and coontail clumps, in particular.” More important, he says, is bottom composition. “The invertebrates panfish eat live in soft bottom areas, so when I find weeds growing in squishier substrate, I know I’ve discovered a goldmine.”
Rather than littering the ice with dozens of holes, Bro locates premium real estate in a boat, prior to freeze-up. Scanning shallow zones with Side Imaging sonar – vegetated, soft-bottom regions reveal themselves like gems in the rough. With GPS engaged, he drops digits on select spots. At first ice, Bro’s back. Having swapped his sonar from boat to ATV, the same waypoints lead the way. Finally, through a single drilled hole, another slab slips neatly into his palm.