There is no such thing as a “first ice” feeding frenzy. (that’s an attention getter!)

Hence, why I will never be in a rush to walk on 3” of ice for any fish. What is actually happening is the awesome late Fall fishing patterns are simply frozen over and the action extended (it’s not like the fish were waiting for ice over to feed like crazy). Anyone who fishes open water up until actual first ice can attest that late Fall fishing is actually better than “first ice” fishing when the late Fall patterns actually start to dwindle and change. “First Ice” fishing is actually a false first impression for most anglers simply because they haven’t fished throughout the Fall patterns up to actual ice over. Another factor is that presentation (bait) control through a hole in the ice is very precise vs. sloppy boat control. This gives any angler a perfectly positioned presentation over a bunch of “Fall” schooled fish—a perfect combination to create a magical “first ice bite”. Try the theory next Fall—fish a late Fall / early ice spot in the boat.  Let the lake freeze over. Go back to the spot on safe ice. Compare notes. 

For fast action you have to find big schools of fish!  (Summer too!) Big schools create competition amongst its members thus creating a great “bite” for us anglers above. Low numbers will create a “slow” bite—even if the fish feeding factors/moods are “good”.  So in other words, to maintain a solid fast paced “bite” try to  locate big schools of panfish—not just one or two fish at a time. That Vexilar should light up like a Christmas tree! Start by fishing the top of the school and as the active fish are caught “work” your way down through the main body of the school until you end up at the bottom of the school.  I like to imagine the school of fish like a layered birthday cake. Eventually, the action will slow to almost a complete stand still due to the fact that the active fish are caught and or the fish catching commotion has made the other fish leery.  Time to leave and find another big school of fish (unless you really want to sit there and grind a few more out).  I like to make a “milk run” of multiple schools of fish throughout a lake that I can harass throughout the day. By fishing multiple schools of fish throughout the day (sometimes hundreds of yards or miles apart), it allows an angler to “circle back around” to the other schools that were hit earlier in the day by letting them “rest” for an hour or two. And trust me, it only takes an hour or two to “recharge” a bunch of new “feeders” in a school of fish.  In other words—not all fish feed at the same time!

Panfish eat small stuff—like plankton, insect larvae, cool looking crustaceans, and small minnows. Keep your presentations tiny or small in general. Remember, even a trophy bluegill has a mouth the size of a Cheerio! Panfish are sight feeders—high light conditions = small baits, low light/dark conditions = larger baits. Ice thickness and snow pack will influence light levels as well.

Fish shallower than you think. Start shallow when you begin your search. Bluegills and crappies in many bodies of water spend all winter in water less than 10 ft. deep cruising weed/sand edges. Many of my largest panfish have been caught in 6-8 ft. of water on weedy flats throughout the entire winter season. Last season for example, I had good “bites” in 4 ft.  of water well into February. Weed growth, oxygen levels, and the food supply (plankton in the weeds) will dictate this shallow water pattern. 

Stay away from heavy fishing line.  In my opinion, 3 lb. Berkely monofilament is a great all around line for just about everything panfish.  Don’t get me wrong, 1 or 2 lb. line is great, but 3 lb. gets the job done with a lot more room for error involved—especially when fishing weed growth were bass and pike will be caught. Maybe, I will jack it up to 4lb line for slip bobber set ups in deeper water.  A tear drop on 10 lb. test—Never.

Play the shadows to extend your morning bite. Obviously, the sun comes up in the East. The shadows on the East side of the lake linger a long time, so start on the west side of the lake where the sun hits first. As the West side shadows dissolve due to the sun getting higher in the sky and the fish may start to “settle down” or “roam less”, jump over to the East side of the lake to take advantage of the shadows that are still in full effect. This plan of attack requires an angler to have pre-determined locations “ready to go”—there will be no time to search out fish at this point.

Keep it simple! Everything including your sonar should fit into a back pack, a five gallon bucket, or a small sled. Two to Three rods, a small pocket sized tackle box about the size of an I-Phone, bait puck, a squirting water bottle for searching/Vexilar work, a  tiny minnow container (small thermos will hold minnows and water). The auger can be carried. I typically start using a power auger at around 10”of ice, before that—an old fashioned hand auger. Simplicity equals efficiency.  While you are fumbling with too much gear, I’ve already got 6 fish on the ice. Not to mention, if ya look like you know what you’re doing (even if you don’t), desperate anglers will follow.   

Try to get as precise as possible before choosing were to drill. Search, Search, Search.  Location, Location, Location is the name of the game. Finding the break line or a good “edge” to fish is to be done 15’ at a time using your Vexilar looking “through” the ice—not drilling 25 holes in a straight line out to sea and then checking the depth. Before a hole is drilled, baitfish and fish need to found.  Then a hole is drilled—but only after a small 10ft x 10ft area of consistent “fish marking” I found.   Try to remember, ice fishing is like an anchored boat.  If the anchor is dropped in an area void of fish—you’re sunk!

Well that’s all for now folks! By the way, the definition of pandemonium is “wild and noisy, disorder or confusion; uproar”–according to my I-Phone dictionary. I do not recommend using pandemonium to catch more panfish through the ice! 

Lotsa Fish! Lotsa Fun!

Minnesota Fishing Guide Service

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About The Author

Josh Hagemeister

I have been a professional Minnesota fishing guide for 20 years! My extensive guiding time on the water takes me to some of the best fishing areas throughout the state. Some of my favorite areas include Park Rapids / Walker, Ottertail, Fergus Falls, Brainerd /Nisswa, Paynesville, Mille Lacs, Richmond / Cold Spring, Annandale, Detroit Lakes area, and the Alexandria area. See Service Area Map. I can also arrange trips to Lake of the Woods or Rainy Lake!