Change tactics for panfish on winter’s ‘back nine’

By Captain Ted Peck

There is no doubt ice fishers are playing the “back nine” of winter in the Driftless, but make no mistake, the hardwater season is far from over. 

There is no doubt ice fishers are playing the “back nine” of winter in the Driftless, but make no mistake, the hardwater season is far from over. Environmental changes below the ice are impacting behavior in panfish, forcing successful anglers to adapt if they want to put some fish in the frying pan.
Barring a truly bizarre change in weather we should still have good ice for another 3-4 weeks on many backwaters of the Mississippi. 
Runoff from snowmelt changes pH, temperature, dissolved oxygen level and visibility. Fish, which have been dormant for nearly a month, are starting to wake up, with active bite periods under the ice growing longer each day following a major cold front – until winter’s next dying gasp from the north brings clear, blue skies and much colder temperatures. 
Visibility is a relative thing when fishing the backwaters. Panfish over-winter in essentially zero current.  Most of these areas “load” from downstream, pushing the clearest water and many fish toward the upstream end of their wintering areas.
On a river system, the ability to feed by sight under the ice may be reduced from several feet to less than a foot. If you can see your jig at least an inch beneath the bottom of the ice hole, the fish can see it too. In either case, fish which may have been swimming suspended in the water column find themselves relating more to structural anomalies like brush or rocks as water conditions change.
We are entering a phase of winter where holes tapped through the ice only a couple feet apart can result in feast or famine action. Fish don’t move as much in waters with a stable water column, but they do move.
Crappies tend to move vertically, while bluegills and perch often move laterally within a couple feet of the bottom. Regardless of prevalent panfish species, every brush pile or fallen tree has a “sweet spot” which holds more fish than other orientations around the structure.
Understanding the predator/prey relationship is key in finding consistent success. When a panfish is closing in on your hook it is in predator mode—like a little dog sneaking up on the mail carrier. If the mail carrier runs away getting bit is a real possibility, but if the mail carrier suddenly turns and growls at the little dog, it will likely go into prey mode and head off in another direction.
In either case, fish above the marks on your electronic fish finder. If you’re fishing in more than eight feet of water, an electronic flasher like the Vexilar FL-28 will increase your success several-fold.
Another numeric variable I’ve come to regard as an almost ultimate truth is that in waters where visibility is three feet or greater, the new soft plastics will outfish livebait like waxies, spikes or mousies every time.
When visibility is decreased, as is the case during periods of low light or stained water, livebait will usually outfish plastics. But the animation an angler can impart with the new plastics can trigger strikes even at mid-day when feeding isn’t high on the panfish priority list.
My go-to baits lately have been Tungsten Wolf Finkees, Bro Bugs or Marmooskas in either paddle or nail tail configuration. There are times when a purple or white tail has been more productive, but red is always a good choice because it mimics bloodworms – a popular winter panfish food.
Of course, a purple sparkle or pink Lil Cecil is always ready to go on another rod, especially if there are crappies in the neighborhood. Gold can be a hot color, too.
While deadsticking can be more effective than jigging when using bait, plastics require the angler to provide almost constant animation. The most productive animation is usually subtle, like ‘quivering’ the lure in place. But it can involve a foot or even more vertical movement to trigger fish.  On any given day—or even at different times of day the presentation fish prefer can change.
Probably the biggest mistake most anglers make when they have a pattern pretty much dialed in is failing to adjust the knot on their lure after every encounter with a fish.
Most winter panfish lures are designed to be presented in a natural horizontal orientation. Baits like the Bro Bug and Marmooska have the lure’s tie-eye oriented so the bait will remain horizontal on its own. With other popular panfish lures like the Demon and Rat Finkee adjusting the knot so it is at a 90 degree angle between the bait profile and line which goes up thru the hole will greatly enhance your catch.
The Lil Cecil is designed to fish vertically. Try mini-trolling passes back and forth in the hole while keeping the lure at the same depth, this will often trigger more strikes than working the bait up or allowing it to flutter down.

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