"Pounding the Panfish of Winter"

By Justin Hoffman

Playing tug-of-war with panfish during the cold of winter can be a rewarding and exciting endeavor for anglers across Canada. Nothing beats the pull of the line or the taste in the pan when dealing with these scrappy adversaries. Whether it be crappie, perch or jumbo 'gills, finding and knowing how to catch them is the key for a season of constant action.

Downsized Gear is Key
When chasing panfish on the hard water, specialized gear and lures are necessary to get the job done. Ultralight tackle is certainly the route to go, all the way from the rods right down to the tiny baits. Choose an ultralight rod between 24 and 28-inches in length. (Make sure the tip is sensitive and the lower half has some backbone present.) Couple this up with an ultralight spinning reel, with 4 or 6-pound test monofilament as your line.
As for baits, there is a myriad of lures out on the market specifically designed for panfish. To keep things simple, I like to carry three basic bait styles when heading out on the ice - spoons, plastics and jigs. Spoons work great for attracting a fish's attention, and will generally work well when they are in an aggressive mood. Small gold or silver spoons in assorted styles will do the trick. Tip the spoon with a couple of maggots or a small piece of minnow for added scent and attraction.
Micro Tube Jigs or Twister Tails are also a productive lure, especially for perch. Choose a bright color and the lightest jig head you can get away with. A plastic bait tipped with a maggot will also work well for added scent.
Lastly there are jigs. Jigging Rapalas (in the smallest size available), Dave Genz's specialty panfish jigs or any of the leadhead jigs work great. Tipping with minnows or maggots will up your catch ratio, and experimenting with which the fish prefer is a step I take when out on the ice.
For the most part, when it comes to choosing what to use, I start my day off with a more active or "search" type bait (such as a spoon) and then change and alter my presentation depending on the mood of the fish. If they are extremely finicky or biting lightly, I will dead-stick a small jig and minnow with little or no action in order to tempt their palate. I've had great success this year fishing the Genz Worm tipped with a Berkley Power Maggot. (The jig even glows in the dark when a bright light is shone on it - a perfect attractant for night fishing or murky water conditions.)

Sending Out the Search Party
Panfish can be somewhat challenging to locate during the hard water period, due in part to the amount of lake there is to cover. For shallow-style lakes, panfish will generally be in one area - namely the bottom. Hugging the bottom structure is a trait that crappies, perch and gills exhibit during winter, and presentations have to be in this "magical" zone in order to work. Look for subtle structure areas in these shallow lakes - things such as slight drop-off or points - and the panfish shouldn't be too far away. Crappies rarely suspend in these shallow lakes, which is something they are prone to do when the lake depth increases.

When fishing deeper, sprawling lakes your best bet for action is in shallow basins, flats, points and humps. Anything that a fish can relate to in terms of structure will act like a magnet for these wandering fish. Schools can be huge when you stumble upon the perfect spot, however, the fish will most certainly be positioned different in accordance to their specie. Perch will almost always hug the bottom contour, with as little as six-inches to a foot being a big movement for them. Crappies and bluegills, on the other hand, will regularly suspend on these bigger lakes. Finding that magical depth can be a tricky adjustment, but the payoff will be well worth the effort.

Tricks and Tactics
One of the greatest advances in ice fishing has been the use of electronics while out on the ice. The Vexilar Sonar is an innovative product that allows you to spot fish, watch your presentation on the screen and increase you chances for success. Electronics will help you by-pass unproductive water and adjust depths when fish are in a suspended mode. If you're not fishing with sonar out on the ice, you really are missing a whole new dimension in the fish-catching game.
Mobility is key when chasing panfish. Schools of fish will come and go and the prepared angler should be mobile enough to follow. Portable ice shelters are great for chasing panfish as they allow set up in less than a minute, and allow you to work your micro presentation more carefully as there are no elements to fight. Wind can play havoc on light line and 1/64 oz. jigs, but in the safety of a shelter, it's a whole different ballgame. (I've watched anglers struggle to get a few crappie when I've hauled them in one after another, the only difference being my shelter and sonar for guidance and help.) Give yourself 15 or 20 minutes at a new hole - if you haven't been bit or had action, it's time to pick up and move to the next hole.)
Not only are panfish great on the table and at the end of the line, they simply are a fun fish to chase. Be it crappie, perch or 'gills - the wintertime is the perfect time for action!


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