With the waters of the Ice Belt beginning to freeze over, we are well on our way to putting boots on ice in the near future. Many ice anglers choose to target bluegills, sunfish, crappies and perch, once the ice is thick enough, as these species have congregated in and along shallow water weed beds and are still looking for the last bits of good insects, bloodworms, and various other food sources.
Once winter takes full hold, the plants will begin to die off and scatter the fish as food, shelter, and oxygen are depleted. This is also the time when safety above all else must come first in our minds before even planning a trip onto the frozen water.
As excited as we all get once we see the thermometer drop and hear about those first ice reports (I being one of them), as the saying goes, no fish is worth going through the ice for. Nearly every state outdoor agency recommends at least four inches of good ice on the lakes before we set foot out onto them. Once it gets to that point though, it’s game on!
It is important to make sure you have the proper safety tools and have prepared for the worst in case it does actually happen. Be sure to review safety videos on how to get out of the water should you fall in. There’s dozens of videos online that show proper ways to getting yourself out of the water and back to the safety of the shore.
Pack a spare set of clothes in your vehicle, keep them there all season. Never go out on first ice by yourself. Having a buddy with you could save your life if you were to break through. Also, bring a safety rope with you.
Clam Outdoors makes a safety rope specifically for ice fishermen and I recommend it to everyone on the ice. Wear a life jacket, or at the very least, have one with you that could be thrown. If you have one, be sure you’re wearing one of today’s ice fishing suits that have buoyancy properties in them designed to keep you afloat if you were to break through. These suits are an extremely wise investment.
Having a spud bar to check the ice ahead of you, wearing spikes around your neck at all times as well as having ice cleats on your boots are all good ways to help keep you safe on early ice or help you to crawl to safety if the worst should occur.
If you’ve taken all of these steps into account and are prepared for it, then start looking for those good panfish locations! Weed areas are still green and lush at first ice and are havens for panfish to hang around.
If you know where you found them in the fall, chances are very good those same places will still be holding pannies at first ice. Look for those areas on lake maps or on your phone if you have a contour app like Navionics on it and had marked them.
Look to target the edges of the weeds first, where there is an obvious transition from weeds to sand, gravel, or mud. Panfish, especially bluegills, will hang out along those edges. Fishing in the weeds themselves can be a challenge due to the amount of clutter that will show up on your Vexilar screen.
You will need to fine tune it to show the least amount of clutter while still being able to see your lure. This can be done by lowering the power and the sensitivity to reduce everything that is sending a return back to your transducer.
When you can find the best setting, you will have no problem bringing fish in or seeing them. The Weed Mode feature on the Vexilar FLX-28 is perfect for this kind of fishing, thanks to its ability to limit the clutter on your screen with little effort other than twisting the dial. Finding open spots in between weeds can be a gold mine and having your unit able to find and read these spots is well worth the time you spent getting it there.
When fishing the weeds, it is important to have the right gear to do the job and do it quickly.
Here is where tungsten lures come in handy. Their ability to punch through weeds and get to the fish fast is a well-known quality these days, due to the density of tungsten over lead.
Having a smaller sized tungsten jig is also great when fishing with today’s microplastics, as the jigs allow for better cadence control when you match the proper plastic to the size of the jig. With plastics now coming so far over the last several years that they are almost better than live bait now.
They move, jiggle, and sway with the slightest rod tip movement and stay soft and supple even in frozen conditions. Most of the time, I don’t even use live bait anymore when going for panfish. The confidence I have in them grows more and more each season as newer pieces continue to come out.
Confidence is key in using plastics.
Once you have that confidence, you may find yourself using them almost exclusively. Your fingers may thank you when you’re not constantly rebaiting your hook with live bait in the cold.
With water temperatures dropping and ice forming soon, it is important to not only plan for where you want to go and what areas you want to target, but it is also more important to plan on returning dry and warm period.
Investing in safety gear is an investment in helping you out of a horrible situation if it were to occur. Your life is worth more than a fish, so it is important to not skimp on safety equipment. Once you’re taken the proper precautions though, go and find those pannies in the weeds and start your ice season off with some of the best fishing of the year! Be safe and enjoy this year’s hard water season!
By Scott Olson, HSM Outdoors