There are a variety of factors that influence the presentation and our overall mindset for catching panfish through the ice. Over the past fifteen years, there was a strong overall trend to power fish through locations and find fish. Whether we were attempting to break down expansive basins or push through weed locations, drilling holes and fishing fast was a winning formula. Finding fish or more specifically… being the first angler to land on the fish was a simple ingredient to success. Those basic guidelines continue to work for panfish but there seems to be more situations and conditions that dictate an adaptation to more finesse strategies.
I often joked that I don’t use one pound monofilament unless I have to. I don’t use a size fourteen hook unless I have to. Typically when you are in search mode and are the first to land on fish, you are dealing with more aggressive fish where you can get away with three-pound test and much larger jigs. Bigger is better if you can get away with it. Because of angling pressure, however, and other factors like zebra mussels, there are situations where we simply have to scale down and use finesse. So I joked that I don’t use one pound monofilament unless I have to… on today’s ice fishing scene on many bodies of water, I have to. As ice anglers continue to get better at finding and catching fish and as many bodies of water continue to clear up from invasives like quagga and zebra mussels, there is a strong case for an increase in using finesse, especially for panfish.
Perhaps no other adjustment creates such startling results as simply dropping down to one or two-pound monofilament. Granted you have to drop way down in line diameter just to retain the sensitivity of smaller jigs but there is more at play. Lighter line also swings and moves in the water easier when fish attempt to inhale the jig. What also becomes obvious is that panfish, particularly bluegill and sunfish, simply see the line. On heavily pressured water where there is excellent water visibility, anglers who drop down to one and two-pound test continue to catch fish while anglers using four-pound test simply don’t. What is really is startling to me is situations where we could sight fish in these situations. I have watched bluegills stall at three to four feet away from a jig when using heavier three or four-pound mono.
Fishing with one or two-pound test takes some adjustments. Setting the hook is different. Fighting fish and landing fish is more tedious. You can’t windmill larger fish and lift them from the hole to your hand using the line.
On the toughest bites, spooler reels like the Clam Ice Spooler Elite can do a much better job of managing your line. There is misinformation that spinning reels cause twist and that there is no twist when using a spooler reel. The reality is that there is no or little twist on either a spinning reel or spooler reel when the line is fresh and new. You can better manage your line and simply get more mileage out of your line however with a spooler reel but twists develop into your line when using any reel because when you pound the jig, you are creating twists. If you can imagine fishing hard for a week… you might get three to four days out of your line with a spinning reel before you have to change the line or take care of it where you might get six days out of a spooler reel before you start to notice the twisting. On tough bites, you simply have to monitor your line and change your line frequently so that you don’t have any twists in the line that turn your jig fast when you pause. You can stretch the line with your fingers and drag the line through the snow to work out some of the twists to get through a day but changing line often is the key to catching fish when the bite gets tough. I still find myself using a classic spinning reel often particularly when I am fishing outside, but I have to change line on a spinning reel much more often. Bar none, the best ice mono on the market right now is the Frost Ice Line because of the thinner diameter and knot strength. This line is also marked every three feet with a high vis orange interval which makes bite detection much easier when having to watch the line.
The rod simply has to load up and handle the lighter line. I am a big fan of shorter rods on really tough bites simply so I can block out more wind disturbance and keep everything closer to my eyes. My favorite finesse rods are the twenty and twenty-four-inch Meat Stick Rods in our Jason Mitchell Elite Series lineup. The tip is sanded down so that you can watch the tip like a spring bobber. What I find on tough bites however is that rod tips and spring bobbers have the most influence on softening the stroke on the presentation but be prepared to watch the line. Watch the cadence on the line as you quiver the rod and if the cadence changes, set the hook.
When we scale way down in jig size, we create some challenges. Obviously, it takes more time to get down to fish but on tough bites, the fish want the jig worked slowly through the water column from a much higher ceiling. You simply can’t get away with dropping right down to the level of the fish. In really clear water on heavily fished fisheries, you often have to fish down into the zone from four or five feet, sometimes higher. Perhaps the biggest challenge is that smaller hooks simply require a more babied approach during the fight and you will usually need forceps to remove each hook. There are times when we simply have to drop way down in size but the first adjustment I try to make that usually makes a difference is a switch from a horizontal jig to a vertical jig. Vertical jigs like the Clam Pro Tackle Half Ant have the classic teardrop shape but are made out of tungsten. Vertical jigs often shine when the conditions get tough. I personally believe that teardrop-style jigs move less water and have a much smaller profile from a fish’s perspective when they are looking up at the jig. From a bluegill’s point of view, a size ten vertical jig looks as small as a size fourteen horizontal jig. This is a huge advantage because you get the added weight and larger hook on the vertical jig with less bulk and less profile.
Another factor to experiment with is your knot. There are situations where a loop knot will cause the jig to flash and swing more as you pound it. A Palomar knot allows you to change the angle of the jig and adjust how the hook rides below the jig. There will be days where one knot will outproduce the other.
As a rule of thumb, I would rather use soft plastics over live bait because of the durability and a list of other factors. There are some tough bites however where you simply struggle to catch panfish with soft plastics and have to use bait like wax worms or maggots. In fact on the toughest bites, you often have to use fresh bait in order to get bit.
Sight Fish Tuition
I have said this many times but the knowledge you gain from sight fishing makes you a much better ice angler. Obviously, you need the right variables to sight fish. You need fish in shallow enough water with good enough visibility where you can simply watch the fish. Even if the fish are small, spend some time watching fish below the hole. Use an underwater camera if you have to. Spend time watching how panfish approach the lure. Watch to see what fish like and don’t like. This education is not only enjoyable but will serve you well when you can’t watch the fish. When you have to create the mental picture in your mind from reading the red lines on your Vexilar, the lessons you learn from watching fish will serve you well. Looking back at almost all of the very best bluegill anglers I have ever met on the ice, almost all of them became scary good from time spent sight fishing.
The Big Picture
The reality is that no matter where you fish, finding fresh fish is often the key to being successful. Fishing new ice and being the hunter who finds the fish is paramount. When you are in search mode, you can sometimes fish with a different style and error on heavier line, heavier presentations, and fish much faster. On many metro fisheries or on water that sees a high amount of pressure, however, your windows of success are much narrower where the conditions dictate a much higher reliance on finesse. Combine the fishing pressure with ultra-clear water and you simply have to make that adjustment even during the search and find phase of the day. The reality for many ice anglers today is that you have to make that adjustment to consistently catch fish.
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