While the temperature outside hovers around zero, many Minnesota residents hunker down for indoor activities. While some are content stoking the fire and watching the latest episode of American Idol, others have an insatiable itch. It’s an itch so strong that it drives them to wake up well before sunrise to chase that next hot bite. If this sounds familiar to you at all, then you may already be stricken. I can tell you that the crew from HSM Outdoors, the ever so popular Facebook fishing page, has it bad. They not only embrace Mother Nature’s icy grip, they live for it. You see for me, and the HSM crew, the addicting part of ice fishing is putting together the puzzle and unlocking the mysteries of the world below the frozen surface. That equals finding fish where others seldom look. According to a recent survey on my Facebook page, an overwhelming amount of anglers say the greatest skill an ice angler can improve on is the art of finding fish. This was seen as a greater skill than jigging style and bite detection. Then why do some anglers congregate over community hot spots, so accepting that the fish are simply not biting? These anglers have yet to be stricken with what we refer to, in my group of friends, as the panfish fish itch.
The fish itch is extremely contagious and usually comes on shortly after having success off the beaten path. Far out of sight, anglers with the fish itch, strike out confidently over fresh untapped ice. Symptoms begin as a feeling of persistence that drives you to keep searching until you have located fish. As symptoms eventually progress, you will begin to find larger concentrations of willing biters. Rumor has it that some anglers, who have had the itch for years, will eventually be able to pursue some of the largest specimens in a given lake, known as slabs and bulls. You will begin to recognize anglers with the itch this winter as they move quickly between holes, Vexilar in hand. If you have been stricken, here are some ways that you can scratch the fish itch this season.
Lessons from the Past
Taking lessons from the past is a huge part of finding fish on your own and gaining confidence away from the community hot spot. When going to a new body of water, try to find areas that have the same characteristics as the areas where you have caught fish in the past. Panfish tend to relate to similar areas on most bodies of water. Learning to identify fish holding characteristics and translating them to different bodies of water will lead to future success. One of my favorite crappie spots is a 20’ depression in the middle of a small shallow bay. When I study a lake map of a new body of water, I always highlight areas that mimic my favorite spot back home. One tip can be to visualize a contour map in 3D. Looking for fish holding areas on a piece of paper can be difficult. When you begin to see maps in 3D, you will get a feel for how fish relate to a particular spot. You will begin to understand how they find cover from predators, and how they find food.
Drive thru Panfish
Drive through the community hot spot. It is always worth seeing what type of areas the locals are fishing. Let’s say many of the permanent houses are spread out over a 30’ hole, surrounded by a shallow weed flat. I will begin to search the lake map for other areas with similar traits. Chances are if you can find a similar spot with less fishing pressure, you may hit the jackpot. It can be a huge advantage to work in a team with one angler walking ahead drilling, while the other follows with the Vexilar. Quickly driving up to each hole on the snowmobile and swinging the transducer in different directions will let you know if fish are present. If fish are seen when swinging the transducer, it will alert you to which direction to drill next. Once located, we drill holes closer together until we are right on top of the bio mass. Missing a school of fish by ten feet is like missing by a mile. The new Pro View Transducer from Vexilar has been a real game changer the past few seasons. It allows an angler to control the cone angle with the gain knob. The ability to search a larger area with fewer holes is a huge advantage and allows for more time scratching the itch.
Searching shallower than everyone else will often produce the largest panfish in a given water system. Panfish grow large because they are able to avoid predators, including anglers. Noise from anglers can push large panfish out of deep water and into heavy cover. Once in the weeds they will find the oxygen, food, and cover they need to thrive. The two factors that seem to draw fish are green healthy weeds and proximity to deep water. Coontail and curly leaf pondweed specifically will often stay green, even through the harshest fall weather. Hungry panfish will roam through the weed stocks, like a pack of lions, looking for that next easy meal. While pre-fishing for a tournament last winter, my wife and I stumbled on an interesting pattern. While most anglers drilled out deep basins looking for plankton feeders, we found huge bluegills gorging on Amphipods or freshwater shrimp on a large weed flat. Watching these fish with our underwater camera uncovered larger bluegills than we had ever encountered on this lake. We watched in fascination as these fish made their way through the weeds with ease, sucking shrimp off the stocks. Shallow water is where fishing fast really shines. Because fish aren’t as visible in shallow water on electronics, we briefly fish each hole we drill. By drilling a large amount of holes we are assured to find the open patches, pathways and edges, which hold the largest numbers of fish.
It’s a Slippery Slope
Steep drop off’s surrounding main lake structure can also hold large concentrations of fish. These areas hold food such as mayfly larva and dragonfly larva. While these food sources can be present in many different areas, the base of a steeply dropping slope will provide some of the highest concentrations. For years, panfish guru Dave Genz has talked about these sticky bottom areas. These areas house the correct type of substrate to allow larva to burrow.
It takes a certain type of angler to strike out away from the pack to uncover that next hot pattern, an angler with the fish itch. Once you get the itch, you may acquire a renewed passion for the hardwater season. It just may leave you dreaming for a late spring.
Written by: HSM Pro Garett Svir
Photograghy By: Kim Svir