By Joel Nelson
It’s getting more difficult lately to find panfish and, especially, to catch them during this part of winter. Most anglers have moved from walking and ATVing to trucks and in some cases wheelhouses, which dramatically change the winter fish-scape. Overhead noise and pressure can relocate fish, but it’s also important to note that anglers have taken them directly from the lake. That’s why for midwinter fishing, you need a few tricks up your sleeve.
Community hole edges
It’s inevitable that you’ll be forced to fish in areas where other people are fishing. Lots of folks know to fish the edges of the community spots, but you can be strategic about which edge, based on ice traffic patterns.
Usually, the access side of a community hole sees the most traffic, so I’ll head to the back-side of a group. I’ll also be ready to relocate should a few groups be making constant noise or otherwise disturbing fish, especially in shallow water.
For bluegills, I’d rather go shallower than the rest of the group to escape angling pressure, and in most instances for crappies, I’ll go deeper – all else being equal.
Fish secondary structure or cover
Now is the time to find fish on less-than-fishy-looking spots. That can be a sand flat surrounded by mud bottom or a secondary point at the base of a big main-lake flat that’s getting less attention.
I also like fishing weeds during this time of the year, as you can find them in lots of places, and you don’t have to concentrate on only a few areas in the lake where people are colonizing.
Fish-bite windows are the name of the game come midwinter, with fish feeding at times in only 15- to 30-minute intervals. It’s imperative that you have multiple rods rigged, with different baits tied on and at the ready.
Drop on the same fish with different baits until you find the winning combination. I like to have an attractor-style spoon, a horizontal presentation, and something that hangs a little more vertically. Have plastics and live bait handy and ready. If you break off, tangle, or otherwise can’t drop on the school of fish, abandon that setup for another and fix the mess later.
Travel to fish
Midwinter is the perfect time to explore new bodies of water and hit trophy destinations. The bite can be challenging on famous lakes, too, but it can be comparatively better than what’s going on in your backyard.
Even if you strike out, I’m reminded that every trip like that makes you a better angler in the long run.
Use your camera
Underwater viewing has changed the way we fish, perhaps more than any other technology to date. From the use of swivels and inline reels to learning the importance of green weeds and fish behavior within them, owning and using a camera simply means learning more.
For certain panfish bites, especially during midwinter, using a camera can mean catching more fish. I can think of more than a few finicky perch and crappie bites where seeing the fish inhale the bait every so subtly was the only way to converted hooksets.
Patience is your friend
In today’s world of lightweight lithium augers and enhanced outerwear, it’s easier and more comfortable than ever to go right to the fish and keep after them.
During midwinter, while it always helps to be near fish, sometimes there’s no substitute for waiting them out and fishing quietly. That includes deadsticks for panfish and live bait, as well as a steady approach to staying near fish without swiss-cheesing the lake with auger holes and pushing the fish all around.
Pick your spots, ensure there are fish there, and fish silently through a feeding window to see if staying put might outproduce running around.
It’s hard to emphasize this point enough, especially for bluegills. While crappies tend to tolerate pressure and fishing fast a bit better, big bluegills are a tougher customer come midwinter.
Last week, I was on some shallow-water fish that spooked when an ATV came within 50 yards.
An underwater camera was crucial to have the patience to read these fish, jig quietly, and let them come to us.
Had I been punching holes all over, it’s clear that at least for these fish on the lake I was fishing, all I would’ve been doing was herding them elsewhere.