Change Tactics For Panfish On Winter's "Back 9"

By Ted Peck - February 1, 2009

There is no doubt ice fishers are playing the 'back nine' of Winter in Wisconsin. But make no mistake, the hardwater season is far from over. Environmental changes below the ice are changing 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 smaller inland lakes and backwaters of the Mississippi. Southern Wisconsin waters I've fished over the past several weeks have between 8-22 inches of pretty much clear ice, although the ice sheath is starting to thin around the edges in some fisheries. Runoff from snowmelt causes drastic changes under the ice impacting pH, temperature and visibility.

Visibility is a relative thing on each specific waterbody. On a river system the ability to feed by sight under the ice may be reduced from several feet to less than a foot. Clearwater lakes may see reduction in visibility cut from over 20 feet to less than three.

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 to maintain the status quo. We are entering a phase of winter where holes tapped thru 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. As a general rule, panfish will tuck tight against the heaviest cover of a fallen tree during periods of low light, moving a couple of feet out away from the branches when visibility improves.

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. In either case you want to 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-18 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 eight feet or greater, the new soft plastics like the Lindy Munchies "tiny tails" will outfish livebait like waxies, spikes or mousies every time. When visibility is decreased, as is the case during periods of low light, livebait will usually outfish plastics. But the animation an angler can impart with the new plastics has the ability to trigger strikes even at mid-day when feeding isn't high on the panfish priority list.

My "go to" bait on all waters lately has been a small gold Genz "fatboy" jig with a red Lindy Munchie tail in either paddle or nail tail configuration. There are times when a purple or white tail has been more productive. But the gold jig has been a killer, probably because it is visible across a broader spectrum of water clarity conditions.

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 Fat Boy 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.

Author Ted Peck
Ted Peck
Cap'n Ted Peck has over 30 yrs. guiding experience, specializing in multi-species fishing on Pool 9-10 of the Mississippi from Genoa, Wi. to Prairie du Chien. Cap'n Ted is a pro staffer for Lund, Northland Tackle, MinnKota, Bill Lewis Lures, Evinrude, Uncle Josh, HT Enterprises and Custom Jigs & Spins. When not guiding Cap'n Ted communicates the outdoors experience via newspapers, magazines, TV, radio and through seminars. This work has taken him all over the midwest, Canada and beyond... but he always returns to the upper Mississippi which he considers the most diverse fishery in North America. Click here for more info on Ted's guide service. Cap'n Ted's new book Mississippi Musings with the Old Guide is a personal account of his long career as a professional fishing guide on Old Man River.