by Mike Gnatkowski/gnatoutdoors.com
Last-ice panfish can be fickle. A lot depends on where you’re at in the last-ice cycle. If you’re still in the throes of winter, perch fishing can be hot in the lake’s mid-lake basin. If run-off has begun, fish will be on the move, and bluegills, sunfish, and crappie will be more active and relating to weed edges. The million-dollar question is to figure out where you’re at in the cycle.
If the lake you’re targeting has yellow perch, late winter can produce one of the most consistent bites of the hard-water season. “You can count on perch relating to the deepest part of the main basin of the lake,” shared ice-fishing guru Brian Brosdahl (www.brosguideservice.com). “Deep is a relative term. In some lakes it might mean 20 feet; in others, it might mean 50 feet. It might only be the difference between 18 and 18-1/2 feet, but you can count on late winter perch relating to the deepest water in the basin.”
The reason perch school there is food. “Bottom composition is key. A muddy bottom is what you’re looking for. If it’s not, you need to move until you find mud. Mud harbors creatures like bloodworms, wigglers, and crayfish in it. That’s why the perch are there,” said Brosdahl. “People think crayfish are only in the shallows. That’s not true. I’ve seen crayfish in excess of 40 feet of water in the winter. You’re going to find young-of-the-year perch and panfish and shiners and other minnows there, too.”
Roaming schools of perch scavenge the bottom to root out whatever they can find. Because of this, your bait needs to be near the bottom too. “A lot of times I’ll put on a big spoon and just pound the bottom to stir things up and attract a school of perch and then I’ll switch to a smaller spoon when I get serious about catching them,” joked Bro. Spoons, like Northland’s Buck-Shot® Rattle Spoon, Buck-Shot® Flutter Spoon, and new Glo-Shot™ Spoon, excel at attracting and catching perch in deep water. The key is to lift and allow the spoon to flutter down occasionally making contact with the bottom. Keep a close eye on your electronics for signs of perch. Resort to shorter pops, jiggles, and quivers then until you find out what the perch prefer.
The action of a jigging spoon combined with a slip bobber rig can send perch into a frenzy. Use a 1/2 – to 3/4-ounce bell sinker on the bottom and add two snelled #10 trebles (where legal) on short, 4- or 5-inch stiff leaders six inches and a foot to 18 inches above the sinker. Add a Slip-Knot Stop and a Lite-Bite Ice Float and you’re in business. Bounce the sinker up and down every few minutes to stir up the bottom and attract perch and stimulate a feeding frenzy. The key is keeping something down there to keep the school around and interested. If the bite is hot, you can get away with scent-enhanced plastics like Northland’s Impulse, which saves re-baiting, otherwise, a minnow head, wigglers, or wax worms will keep the perch snappin’.
At some point in late winter/early spring, the perch abandon the main basin and head shallow. The late winter thaw, when water starts coming up through the holes and the ice is melting along the shorelines, signals it’s time for perch to move. It’s not an overnight rush and may take the course over a few days or a week, but perch in mass all headed for the shallows where’s there a hard bottom. Shallow could be 10 or 12 feet or afoot. It depends on the body of water. The perch are looking to spawn in these areas in early spring, but they’re also feeding along the way following shiners and other minnows that are heading the same direction attracted by the warming shallows and increasing sunlight. The whole scenario though can be reset by a sudden cold spell. It’s not uncommon for panfish to move shallow and then back out several times depending on when the last ice actually occurs.
Light, flutter-type spoons, like Northland’s Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon crush jumbo yellow bellies in the skinny water. Many times the perch are so shallow you can look down the hole and watch the perch attack your spoon.
Where you find late-season bluegills, sunfish and crappies depend on vegetation. “Bluegills and sunfish, and to some degree crappies, are creatures of edges,” offered Brosdahl. “Panfish are use to being on the edge of weed beds, but when the weeds begin to die they will move deeper to the edges of the basin. Crappies will suspend; bluegills generally don’t, but not always,” offered Brosdahl. “Panfish will move in from where they’ve spent the winter to the edge of the weeds. It doesn’t matter if it’s cane or rushes. If this edge is in deeper water, it’s better. The average will be 4 to 6 feet. Panfish on last ice will just stack up there.”
Zooplankton is the main forage of bluegills, sunfish, and, to some degree crappies, during the winter. These species have fine gill rakers that allow them to sift these microorganisms. Crappies have a sweet tooth for minnows, too. Oft times, minnows will feed on these same microorganisms, and specks will suspend below them to take advantage.
Panfish would prefer to stay in the vegetation during the winter, but dying weeds makes the vegetation inhospitable. Falling oxygen levels from decaying vegetation forces panfish and baitfish to deeper water, but there are exceptions. For some reason, possibly underground springs, flowing water, or clear ice, some weeds stay green all winter. These are healthy weeds. Find them and chances are good you’ll find panfish all winter long. “I wouldn’t think of going on the ice without an underwater camera,” advised Brosdahl. “A camera is extremely important for finding green weeds, edges and identifying how big and what kind of fish you’re seeing on your electronics.” Aqua View’s (www.aquavu.com) new Micro 5 Revolution underwater camera is hand-sized with an outstanding, clear, bright image and you can store the camera in your pocket!
Crappies love minnows and big bull bluegills are not above gulping a hapless shiner. “A small spoon, like a small 1/32-ounce Forage Minnow, is death on crappies and even big bluegill sometimes,” shared Bro. “But if the panfish you’re targeting are the more modest size you’re better off using lures like the Gill-Getter. Last season, I had tremendous success tipping them with the Impulse Skeleton Minnow. Surprisingly, my best color was the bloodworm red, but green and purple were good, too.”
Other tear drop-style lures will work. Although tungsten baits are preferred when fishing deep water, they may not be the best choice when targeting the shallows. A lighter lead jig produces a subtle action, swimming motion that last ice panfish can’t resist. You don’t want your bait to go zooming past fish that might be positioned just under the ice. It’s good policy to start just under the ice and work your way down. Another decision is to choose a vertical or horizontal jig.
Although last ice is fleeting, it offers the perfect chance to end winter with a bang.
Safety is paramount on the ice all year long, but especially on late ice. Deteriorating ice conditions require additional caution. While falling through is a real hazard, falling on the ice is more threatening and likely. Once the ice begins to melt and gets a thin layer of water on it, it becomes super slick. If overnight temperatures dip below freezing it can create a surface that is like glass. Be sure to use to wear ice cleats before even thinking about venturing out.
Take a spud or chisel and check ice conditions as you go, even if you fished the area recently. Ice conditions deteriorate rapidly and can change from day to day.
Wear a PFD or inflatable. Carry life-saving devices like ice picks. Let someone know where you plan on fishing and when you plan on returning. It’s best to err on the side of caution.
Captions for: Image by Brian Brosdahl
Big, bull bluegills, like the one Brian Brosdahl is displaying, are not above crushing small spoons.
Jumbo perch produce consistent fishing in the mid-lake basin all winter long.
At some point on last ice, jumbo perch like the ones Brian Brosdahl is admiring begin a migration to the shallows.