By Kyle Wood
March is a wonderful time of the year that can bring warm weather and with it, thoughts of open water. This leads most anglers to begin preparing for open water leaving many opportunities to fish areas with limited pressure. Some of the biggest bluegills and crappies that swim in systems are caught now. Late ice can hold wonders for those who venture out and capitalize on once-again active fish.
One of the most important parts of late ice fishing is knowing your limits. Absolutely no fish is worth risking your life on sketchy ice conditions. Only go out on ice that is thick enough to make you feel comfortable and always drill and check the ice as you walk out on to the ice, no matter how thick you may have heard it is.
Ice picks are a must to carry around your neck if the ice is thin. These will allow you to pull yourself back onto the ice if you do fall through. Try and fish with a friend or two as an added safety measure in case something was to happen. If you do head out alone just let someone know where you are going and what time you think you could be home. These may sound like unnecessary precautions but you can never be too safe.
Shallow water is the key to locating large numbers of panfish this time of year. And when I say shallow I mean 5-10ft of water. Whether it be a pond or lake, shallow flats with deep water nearby are crucial. With oxygen levels beginning to rise in the water column, spawning flats become the area panfish cruise in search of food.
Food plays a major roll on where exactly you will find big panfish located in a body of water. With the spawn just around the corner bulking up is high on the priority list for panfish. Obviously small minnows play a factor in the main forage for these fish but they also prey on a whole host of aquatic insects and zooplankton.
Dark bottom areas in most waters will have large numbers of aquatic insects hatching out. As these bugs hatch out they will disperse throughout the water column. This in turn scatters the fish in the water column. The fish found near bottom will tend to be less active, simply waiting for the easy meal. More active fish will be found anywhere from a foot off bottom all the way to a foot below the ice.
The other thing to keep in mind is the weather. Fish that begin to move shallow after being in deeper water can be very sensitive to weather changes. With a nice stable weather pattern it will have fish moving shallow but if a cold front comes in most of the panfish up shallow will slide back off to deeper water until the weather stabilizes.
When searching a pond for gills or crappies I generally like to start near the deepest basin. Since this spot will hold a majority of the fish during mid winter it makes the most sense to check it first. Fish you find in the deeper water will generally be scattered throughout the water column from right on bottom to a foot or less below the ice.
If action is slow you can simply move up to the nearest shallow flat. Any type of cover on shallow flat will be a magnet for panfish to hold on. Brush piles are a perfect place to hold fish as they provide a great ambush point for them, but also provide protection from hungry predators. Fish will travel from deep to shallow on and off during the day. This means you will have new waves of fish coming up to the shallows so action can be consistent. Though most fish can be found shallow, keep an open mind never go out with a set depth to fish.
When approaching a lake to find late season panfish it is very similar to a pond. The only real difference is you are doing it on a larger scale. Finding a spawning flat with good close access to deep water is what to look for. Any point coming off the flat to deep water will act like a highway to funnel fish from deep water to shallow. Points with thicker timber or weed growth are high percentage spots and areas such as these are great places to begin your search.
The fish that can be found up on the flat will generally be holding near any green vegetation. Not only do green weeds mean good oxygen, but it also means there will be signs of life such as forage. These are prime areas to find bluegills and crappies mixed together and provide solid action.
There is no doubt that this time of year panfish are hungry and looking to feast. Despite this there are times they can be picky as to what you offer them, so having a selection of baits will put the odds in your favor.
Waxworms and spikes are the classic choice for bait and work wonders. With more of a focus on aquatic insects these offerings can really shine. While I enjoy having both to try on the ice I tend to favor spikes. Not only can you get a variety of colors with spikes, they also last longer on a hook than a waxworm will. Try experimenting with color and the number of spikes on your hook. You will find at times one color may be preferred over others which is when it pays to have a variety.
Crappie minnows are also great choices for late ice panfish. While this will help produce crappies, big bluegills cannot seem to pass up a helpless minnow. If the option is available I like to mix up my minnow choices as well. Rosie reds can work wonders and can often out produce regular minnows.
Since a lot of the forage base is focused on the bugs hatching out of the mud this is a great time to use artificial baits. There are more options than ever on the market today for artificial baits which makes it easy to experiment to find what works. Color is important when picking artificial bait. My two favorite colors are red or black. These best resemble the different bugs that panfish feed on.
New to the ice fishing soft plastic world is Northland’s Impulse. They are offered in 4 different body styles with their tapeworm and mayfly being my top picks. Thread these on your favorite jig so they sit horizontal in the water. Work them by gently bouncing your rod tip to move them ever so slightly and hold on.
Gulp! makes a perfect bait for this tactic called the fish fry. Its thick body and small tail provide the best action in the water to imitate a struggling bug. Custom Jigs n Spins Shrimpo and Ratso are also favorites to try.
When working plastic baits one of the best approaches is to pound your jig off the bottom. This helps attract fish to your area and resembles an insect hatching from the mud. If that does not yield a bite slowly work the bait up the water column and see if that draws in any takers.
For jig choices when using artificial baits you want a hook with a longer shank on it. Northland offers the Bro Head jig which is designed with a long shank and extra wire to help hold your bait in place. Gill Getters and Mud Bugs by Northland are also great choices to tip plastics on. Custom Jigs offers a Diamond jig or Gill Pill which are favorites among many anglers. The big key is they have long enough hook shanks to allow proper presentation of the bait.
One of the last options for jigs if fishing live bait are vertical jigs. Custom Jigs Ratfinkee, Moon Jigs, and Northland Doodle Bugs are great options for this presentation. It gives the fish a different look than what they are used to seeing. Simply nose hook a waxworm or spike and let it hang straight down. Or mix it up and thread the worm on so it is perpendicular to the jig. These are proven producers of big panfish and are often overlooked by many anglers.
Late ice for panfish is without a doubt some of the best action all year. With nice weather and hungry fish it makes for a great time on the ice. Always keep in mind the ice conditions and remember they can diminish quickly. Stay safe and make a trip out to your favorite panfish water before the ice is gone for good!