Tips for Sight Fishing Success

By Steve Weisman

I still remember when I moved to northwest Iowa in 1978. I saw the chain of lakes called the Iowa Great Lakes, and I knew this was where I wanted to be. Although I have had great fishing on all of these lakes, it is West Okoboji that has become my favorite lake and also my toughest challenge. Why? Well, it has to do with its gin clear waters where for much of the year you can see anywhere from 12-20 feet down. Often times in the shallows, Big Spirit can offer clear water conditions too, and, certainly, there are other bodies of water and ponds in the state that have good water clarity. To me, especially when it comes to ice fishing season and I can use my portable shelter to block out the light so I can see the world under the ice…well, it just doesn’t get any better than that as I pursue bluegills, crappies and perch.

A Learning Curve: Gotta Learn
I do have to share my first year of unsuccessful clear water fishing. Here I was coming from South Dakota, where we used six-pound test and fairly good-sized tear drops. I was used to dropping the lure down the hole, jiggling the bait and catching panfish. Was I ever in for a surprise when I tried that on West Okoboji. Here were the locals catching all of these bluegills and crappies, and there I was catching one here and there or even worse getting skunked. I thought I knew what I was doing, but, wow, was I ever wrong!

I had to swallow my pride and go over to those anglers catching all of the fish and see what they were doing. Luckily, they didn’t laugh me off the lake, and they were willing to share some basic information. First off, I found that they were using much lighter line and way more sensitive rods. Basically, they told me to get rid of the rope! Since that time, I’ve gone to two pound and even one-pound test.

I also found that they were using tiny jigs, like anywhere from 1/32-ounce to 1/80-ounce jigs. Much different than my big tear drops. Now, some of them were using tiny bobbers and rolling the bobber to get the jig to subtly move or a light spring bobber to do the same thing.

However, that was only the beginning. Just because I now had the right equipment that did not mean I would be catching more fish. I had to learn the right presentation. To that point, I had been fishing outside, but I had no idea what the lure was doing when I jiggled it and how the fish were responding. I saw others using portable shelters, so I began using a small handmade shelter so I could see down. That’s when my sight fishing lessons really started, and I began to learn what works and what doesn’t work. Even though I have learned a lot over the past 39 years, there’s always more to learn…that’s what I like the most about sight fishing…the challenge and the successes and failures that go with it!

I’ve gone head to head with these fish for the past 39 years! We might be in the 3-4 foot shallows, the deeper 10-12 foot weedbeds and on up to the 18-20 foot deep weedlines.

Taking on the challenge
Let’s start from the beginning. First, to find the panfish, you need to find a good weedbed. Some of the weeds may be down, but if you can find a mix of standing weeds, that will be best. I try to use weedbeds that worked for me in the summer and into the fall.

To sight fish, you must come equipped with a good portable shelter that will block the light so you can see down the hole. I have both a Fish Trap Pro when I go by myself and a Yukon TC when I fish with a partner. With the darkness, the underwater world becomes like a huge television screen. Now, when the fish come in, we will see exactly what they are doing and how they respond to the presentation. If enough fish are in the area and enough are attracted to our bait, we begin to see a pattern establish itself. If we pay close attention, we can soon refine our presentation to get a majority of the fish to strike. The important thing to remember is that these bluegills and crappies are sight biters. The presentation must be just right to fit their mood. If it’s not, they will just go on by or back off.

As I mentioned earlier, I don’t use anything heavier than two-pound test line and small jigs. These jigs have changed over the years. I’ve gone to using the smallest Dave Genz Drop and Dingle Drop Series of tungsten jigs. They are tough, can get to the bottom quickly, and yet fish light. As for bait, it’s your choice. Some anglers have to use live bait: wigglers or wax worms. I do sometimes, but I also use plastics. Maki Soft Plastics and Berkley’s powerbaits both work well.

The presentation is what I call the “Okoboji jiggle.” It’s not a jerk; it’s not a jig. It’s a quick paced consistent jiggle, jiggle, jiggle…sometimes harder, sometimes softer…Don’t worry; the bluegills will let you know if you are jiggling correctly or not. Each day, each hour can be different.

So you let the fish tell you what they want. However, do not and I repeat DO NOT let the jig spin. A spinning jig is not something that panfish want. Using the new flyrod options help eliminate this spinning. However, a spinning reel can cause spinning issues. To make sure this doesn’t happen, I will let out line, put it in my fingers starting at the rod tip and putting pressure on the line, I will run my thumb and index finger down to the lure. It’s amazing how the jig will spin and spin until I get to the jig. This will effectively eliminate the spin. If not totally gone when the lure is down at the fishing level, I will actually take the line near the rod tip and slowly twist it against the direction of the spin.

To give you an idea of what to expect, here are a few typical scenarios that I have experienced many times each ice fishing season. Although there are times when it seems as if they will bite anything you throw down the hole, more often than not, it’s much harder than that. Also, don’t wait to set the hook until the jig is in the mouth. That is too late, and the fish will spit it out before the hookset. Set the hook as it is entering the mouth!

Scenario #1
Often the bluegills and crappies will swim right in, right toward the bait and then slow down and stop… and stare and stare at the bait less than an inch away. Remember, they are sight eaters, so everything that happens in their lives happens in clear water. Keep doing exactly what you were doing when they come into view. To change, to quit, to go faster will often just send them off. Keep doing what you were doing! That will work, most of the time. However, there are times (especially during the middle of the winter) when they are so lethargic that the jiggle must become barely perceptible.

Scenario #2
It’s easy to miss a bite. I’ve had this happen many times, because the point of the hook is not turned in the direction of the incoming fish. They can inhale the jig and spit it out, and you’ll never touch them. You have to make sure that the point of the hook is facing the fish. If it’s not, slowly turn the jig (but don’t spin the jig), so that the hook faces the fish as it approaches. However, keep jiggling the jig exactly as you did when you first saw them. They will stare and stare and stare…don’t change anything.

Case in point, there are times when the bluegills are very finicky, almost lethargic and only come through in singles. They move slowly, and approach the bait almost hesitantly. They will come right up to it and stare and stare and stare. If I change my presentation (a tight jiggle, jiggle, jiggle), they stop and just hover there…and then they slowly fin back and away, moving at an extremely slow place. I have found, however, if I continue the same jiggle, and I do not vary it, they will very slowly come…nose to bait…and then inhale it. Sometimes, however, it is only the tip or maybe it is the middle or the head of my tiny jig. So, I have to also adjust to that and set the hook at exactly the RIGHT time. Sometimes, yes, sometimes, no! Of course, it’s always the big fish that seem to do this, which makes it even harder to keep the presentation going the same.

Scenario #3
Sometimes things change. I’ve seen it happen where the panfish are lethargic to begin the day and then after a period of time, everything changes. Here I am using the same bait, the same jiggle. Then as if a switch is flipped, a gill or a crappie will appear, come straight toward the bait and inhale it. They just plain turn aggressive (almost making me think I know what I am doing!) At times, many gills come from different directions right toward my jig. Exciting, you bet. However, it also causes troubles. They sometimes cut each other off at the pass. Sometimes they even bump into each other in their desire to get to their “food.”

When that happens, it kind of sends a shock wave through the bunch, and they will just sit there, trying to decide whether they should continue toward the bait or not. Sometimes one or more than one will continue on. At other times, they will all move away. Sometimes one single gill will come rushing right toward the bait so hard and fast that it misjudges its approach and slides right on by. Sometimes, it will swing around and come back, but at other times it just continues on. Still, the presentation must be consistent with what brought them into the strike zone. Any change or even stopping will shut them down right now!

Then suddenly, as if on cue, the fish change their entire attitude. They now want something totally different, and it’s our job to figure it out!

Gotta love it
That’s the way I look at every time I am on the ice sight fishing for panfish. Whether the fish win or I win, I feel that the mission has been accomplished, because I have been able to battle wits with the finicky bluegills on the gin clear waters of West Lake Okoboji.