Friday, February 21, 2014

On the Hardwater - Attacking a Small Lake for Panfish

Why people ice fish means many things to many people.  Some like the outdoors experience, just being out there, opting to not sit on the couch watching outdoors shows on the television.  Others like the social aspect of ice fishing, even bringing cooking devices out on the ice to have a big party while catching a few fish.  It's all good!  But my goal is to catch as many fish jigging as I can...that's how I have fun on the ice.  Smaller lakes often give you that opportunity.  I like to improve my chances by hitting the hardwater on the smaller lakes.  So, how do I approach my goal?
Small lakes offer an easy advantage to finding active panfish because you can cover a ton of ice in a single day.  During mid winter, I like to start deep near dams or creek channels, then work towards more shallow types of structure, or cover like weed beds or tree blowdowns.
I like solving the puzzle, not only finding where the fish are, but where I can find the ones that are willing to bite.  Sometimes it takes a little work, and at other times it could be a lot of work.  Rarely, you might cut only one hole!  But the most fun is catching them, one after another.  It takes some knowledge, either learned via experience or from various media, such as videos, magazines, books, television shows, fishing forums and even from other ice anglers.  And a little luck doesn't hurt.

The first step is to pick a lake that has a good panfish population.  When I'm talking about a small lake, I'm thinking about a two hundred or so acres or less.  The vast majority of the lakes in my region are man made, featuring a dam, flooded creek channels, points, islands, and other structure.

An advantage of finding a gem of a small lake is that you can cover most of if not then entire lake to find fish. You can still make that major change if the bite is off by fishing a totally different area on your lake or by having another nearby small lake as a back up plan.  Sometimes, that major change will put you on active fish.

My favorite fish to target through the ice are crappie, but I also love a good bluegill or yellow perch bite.  So I tend to prefer lakes with historically good crappie populations and size.  
Mixed bags of slab crappie, yellow perch, and bluegills are a real fun time.  These fish were all caught in thirty feet of water over a creek channel not far from the dam.  Smaller lakes give you the opportunity to catch a bunch.
Small lakes offer an advantage over larger ones with respect to finding fish simply because you have less water to search to find them.  But panfish size vary from year to year, especially with crappie populations where sizes often vary.  Some years yield those fat slab crappie, others give up the medium sized ones.  The same holds true for perch and bluegills.

Other lakes may have large populations of "dinks" and but sometimes give up the larger ones.  Those bigger fish are harder to find.  But if you're into dinks, move to another location on the lake and hunt for the bigger ones if you know that lake supports them.  This frequently occurs with bluegills and perch one some of the lakes that I frequent.

If' I'm marking a lot of fish, it's tough to leave them.  But if they are four to six inch perch, or tiny bluegills or crappie, it's best to move from my experience.  Usually, I'll move to a different structure or area of the lake.  If the dinks are deep, then I move to weedy break lines, for example.  Often that change results in bigger fish.
My brother Kyle poses with a dink perch.  If you're catching dink perch like this, move and go find bigger panfish.  Tiny perch like this often group in large schools like this as a defense against predators.   Later, we'd find a nice mixed bag of  bigger panfish to bring home for a fish fry.
Finding good sized panfish on larger lakes (near 200 acres) could prove to be tougher.  Basically, you have to break the lake down into more manageable water size to cover.  Use lake contour structure maps to locate an area where the structure is more suitable for panfish and work that area.  Have a back up location if you have to make a spot change to get on fish if your first spot doesn't pan out.

It helps to have experience on a particular lake.  I have a few favorites, and patterns from one year to the next tend to hold true depending on how late you are in the ice season.  Sometimes that past experience pays off by cutting down on the time spend searching for fish..

During early and late ice, I look for mid depth fish first, fifteen feet or less, then adjust accordingly.  But it depends on what species your targeting.  Weed lines or flats near structure, points or a creek channel, are good places to find perch.  The creek channels tend to be good crappie spots, or any cover, such as a sunken tree or brushpile, or man made fish structure.
After cutting a bunch of holes, we finally found some bigger panfish and a bonus stocked trout.  These were stacked up near a creek channel off the end of a long sloping point on one of my favorite small lakes.
During mid winter, my approach is to start deep, then work shallower.  The Eastern waters that I fish are usually small reservoirs, with maximum depths of twenty to forty feet.  I typically look for fish in the twenty to thirty foot range first, them move deeper in my search.  If that doesn't pan out, then I move shallower.

I've found that schools of crappie during mid ice tend to hold over the deeper basins of lakes that I fish, or off creek channels near dams.  Often, you'll find yellow perch and bluegills with them this time of year.  Our lakes are man made, so most of the time there are creek channels, flats, points, primary and secondary drop offs to check.  I like to search the channel edges first.  As you move shallow, search for weeds because they could be the key when the deeper waters seem like a dead sea.
To me, crappie like this slab are what I look for and expect on the smaller lakes that I fish.  I am in seventh heaven catching crappie like these through the ice all day long!
Start by using either your own past experience on the lake, where you've caught crappie during mid ice, or locate the type of structure that you'd like to fish on a lake contour map.  Start by cutting a series of holes over the location of the structure, or where you think it may be.  I use a hand auger because, in my neck of the woods, the ice rarely gets thicker than a foot.  So, cutting a good number of holes becomes an obvious workout the thicker the ice gets.  That's when a power auger becomes effective.
I use my Clam Fish Trap Pro as my home base, then start cutting and checking holes.  Don't waste time on inactive fish.  Move and find fish.  Small changes at first might work.  If not, think bigger changes.
I usually cut a half dozen holes to start, then check them with my sonar.  I search for either suspended fish, or fish marked on the bottom.  For those fish on the bottom, the sonar shows the bottom jumping.  When the fish moves, the mark flickers, and if that mark is close to the bottom, it appears as if the bottom is flickering.   If the bottom doesn't jump or move, most likely you're not marking fish.  If your sonar transducer hangs or is supported by a float, make sure that it's stabilized and not moving, which could give you a false reading of marked bottom fish.

If I mark fish, then I'll drop a lure down and see how they react.  I can see my jig fall as a bar on my sonar toward the bottom.  If another bar moves off the bottom toward it, then I know the fish are active, and that means a fish is either moving toward my lure or interested in it.  When the bar representing the fish meets the bar representing my jig, I take my eyes off the flasher (sonar) and watch my rod tip.  If there is any movement of the rod tip or line, set the hook.

Now, marking fish is one thing, even ones that appear interested, catching active fish is another.  Just because a fish moves in to inspect your lure doesn't guarantee a bite.  Fish sometimes are curious, but finicky, and it either takes extra effort to tease them to bite or they just aren't interested.  We call those "sniffers."  If you routinely mark sniffers, move.  If they are in every hole that you cut, move and cut more holes.

Later in the day though, it might be wise to remember where those sniffers are, especially if you catch one and it's a good sized fish.  Because, often low light conditions, commonly thought of at the magic hour, that last hour of daylight, finicky fish might become more active later.  If you get into a good bite and it dies off, it may pay to go back and recheck the sniffer holes again.

Some anglers may try a variety of jigs to tempt the sniffers into biting, hoping that the magic jig will turn on the bite swtich.  At times, making changes in your offering, either tipping with bait or downsizing, will work.  But more times than not, moving is the key.  While those guys are trying to get that one fish to bite, I'm looking for multiple biting fish.  You can pad your numbers in a hurry by finding those biters.

Another thing about sniffers.  They may not be big finicky fish, but rather could be dinks.  Dinks often will sniff because, quite frankly, your jig might be too big for them.  If you mark a fish that charges up to your lure but then gets spooked the second that you give it a jig, most likely it's a small fish.  Move!

Since I really love crappie fishing, I tend to search for suspended fish.  I have very little patience when dealing with sniffers and fish that won't rise off the bottom much.  I search for suspended fish when I can.  There are times when you won't find them, but sometimes you do.  When you do, the reward usually means more bites and active fish.  Perch really like to feed off the bottom, so that might explain why my crappie and bluegill numbers when catching a mixed panfish bag are higher than my perch numbers.
This is what I'm looking for when searching for big schools of panfish.  When reading this sonar, the bottom was nineteen feet, shown at about eight o'clock.  The surface of the sonar is at twelve o'clock.  All of the marks in between are suspended fish.  Fish also were on the bottom.  We call this, "sonar lit up like a Christmas tree!"
When I finally find the crappie, I will fish that hole out because they usually hold in big schools.  If they are suspended, often you'll catch perch and sunfish that suspend with them.  That situation may result in that nice hundred fish day!  If you plan on fishing for crappie after dark, remember what holes you caught them in because it's likely those holes may produce near or after dark. I'll provide some night fishing secrets in a future post.

The key to being successful to this type of fishing is to move when things aren't going well, and find those active fish.  It may mean cutting a ton of holes or making major spot changes, but the reward could be worth it.  This isn't a new concept.  I learned it many years ago from my ice fishing mentor, Jeff Redinger, who taught me the Dave Genz approach, using sonar to find fish and a comfortable portable shanty that allows you to easily make those important spot changes.  I'm sure that there are other pioneers out there, but that's how I learned.
My ice fishing mentor and friend, Jeff Redinger, posing with a massive redear sunnie.  Jeff has caught countless slob sunfish like this over the years using the techniques that he taught me, techniques made popular by ice fishing legend Dave Genz.
Many of you may apply these tactics already and have experienced that success.  But some of you may not have learned this yet, and my hope is that this helps you.  Just because you have a sonar unit and are marking fish, doesn't mean that those are the fish that you should be targeting.  Move away from sniffers and go find some biters!  Move away from dinks and go find bigger panfish!

My best of luck wishes go out to all of you hardwater anglers, and please be safe during these next few weeks of late ice!


Atlas said...

Those are some really nice fish man. What a slam. Great blog, keep up the good work!

Fat Boy said...

Thank you Atlas! I appreciate the feedback!!!!