Fifteen years ago I was living the ice fishing dream, spoiled by limits of big panfish nearly every outing on the lakes around Madison, Wisconsin. I was very fortunate to have become friends with Kevin Fassbind who taught me the ins and outs of ice angling for panfish on the Madison Chain. The real key to success was to aggressively search weedbeds for concentrations of gills and crappies. Underwater cameras were a relatively new innovation at the time and we utilized them to the fullest, drilling dozens of holes and probing each with the camera before ever wetting a line. Our strategy was based on the fact that panfish are relatively stationary in thick weeds - find holes with concentrations of fish, catch them and then move on to another hole where you saw fish on the screen. After fishing all of the promising holes we would rotate back through the best ones to see if they had reloaded - if not, it was time to keep on punching holes until fresh fish were located.
Over the last five or so years it has been much more difficult to meet up with Kevin on the Madison Chain. I now live in Oconomowoc and have two young children so my time is more limited, not to mention that between fishing the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (Kevin and his partner Nick Smyers finished second in team of the year standings for 2014) and all of his prostaff responsibilities for various ice fishing companies, Kevin is busy nearly every weekend. Because of this, I have been attempting to recreate the Madison experience on lakes closer to home. One of the most important things that I have learned is that not all lakes are created equal. The Madison Chain is a highly productive system with some truly amazing panfishing opportunities (I cannot think of many other continually pressured places that consistently produce so many nice gills, crappies, and perch). Just because you find a lake with good weeds and structure in SE Wisconsin, it does not mean that it will produce quality panfish like in Madison. It took me a few seasons to realize that you just need to keep trying new lakes until you find good fish. Lakes with limited access and those off the beaten path are often the ticket to limits of big panfish but it takes scouting to find these hidden gems. Fortunately, scouting new lakes has become much easier over the years with all of the relatively new technology that has flooded the market.
For me, ice fishing is easier and more fun when you have others to share the experience with. My process for selecting a new lake starts by tapping into the network of anglers that I know. Over the years I have met lots of people who share the same passion for ice fishing that I have. Our eyes and ears are always open, looking for leads on new places to try. Other starting points for finding promising lakes include reading through Lake-Link reports, chatting with bait shop owners and employees, and contacting WDNR fisheries biologists in your area. Once I have a lake in mind, I spend time online pouring over lake maps and aerial photos trying to pinpoint weedbeds to target when I actually get on the ice. The clarity of sandbars, rock points, and weeds are amazing on both Bing and Google Maps (as long as there isn't ice on the lake when the photos were taken). I always print out a map or aerial photo to bring out with me, but the Google Map App is just about the easiest way to find the same features that drew my attention when I was looking on the computer.
Once I reach my predetermined weedbed I drill lots of holes. I use a 5 inch auger powered by an electric drill. Beaver Dam Ice Fishing has introduced an ice drill converter that quickly turns your electric drill into a quiet hole-punching machine. Regardless of how you do it, punch a line of holes and then go back and look with your camera. If you are fishing with friends, drill and have someone follow with the Aqua-Vu. Look for fish (obviously) and green weeds that are standing tall. I honestly do not even wet a line unless I find a hole with a handful of good looking fish. Small gills and crappies appear long from head to tail while quality fish look deeper (tall from dorsal to pelvic fins). I love to catch panfish using "long rods" and therefore I am usually fishing weeds in less than ten feet of water. If the clarity of a lake is exceptional, and weeds grow deeper, I will use the Beaver Dam Titanium Tip Stick to work fish. The Titanium Tip Stick is a real nice rod due to the fact that it has a sensitive spring bobber that retracts for storage, or when jigging with heavier baits like a Kastmaster Spoon.
When jigging for panfish the presentation that I have found works best is small tungsten jig, such as a Chekai Jig, tipped with a piece of Uncle Josh Pork MEAT Ice Leech
. MEAT is a great alternative to live bait because of its tantalizing action, the ability to match it to your jig color, it stays on the hook, and it flat out catches fish! I usually start by slowly jigging up from the bottom watching for a bend in the spring bobber. If I miss a fish I make note of where the strike occurred and slowly jig back down to that level in the water column trying to elicit another bite. Sometimes it is apparent from looking on the camera that fish are holding higher in the weed canopy and it is necessary to jig further off the bottom. Continue experimenting with jigging cadence and color patterns until you figure out what the fish want. I usually begin jigging with a "dropper," or "double rig," to quickly determine what color is working on a given day. I tie on two different colored jigs (usually black or purple on the bottom and copper or chartreuse on top) just like you would set up a drop shot rig for open water fishing. If one color is working better than the other I will share the info with my fishing partners and potentially switch out baits on my other rods to similar color patterns.
When the hunt is finally over for panfish, and I know I am going to stay put for a few hours, I like to put out boards for pike. I have found that the flags on my Beaver Dam Tip-Ups are likely to pop when I place them on the edges of weedbeds that are loaded with panfish. I really don't like messing with sloshing bait buckets so I always carry a pack of hotdogs to use for bait, or, if I catch a tiny panfish, I will sometimes throw that on the hook (don't forget that this counts as part of your limit in Wisconsin). I have never caught any bass or walleye on hotdogs but I have iced some dandy pike! I used to carry frozen smelt but hotdogs have produced just as well, if not better, and they are a much cheaper, hassle free alternative. Simply center hook the dog on the treble hook of a Beaver Dam Fluorocarbon Leader so it hangs perfectly level about two feet off the bottom.
It sounds simple, but search for weeds and fish this winter and you will catch fish. Don't get discouraged, scouting and eliminating water is a big part of the game - with enough time on the ice, you will get on fish.
Tight lines and be safe on the ice this winter!
Dave Lorier lives in Oconomowoc and has been hunting and fishing in Wisconsin since his childhood. Dave earned his degree in wildlife ecology from UW Madison and then went on to work for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources in Fisheries Research and Management. Presently Lorier is a high school science instructor and also teaches youth outdoor education courses. Dave enjoys all types of fishing and hunting, especially competitive bass fishing, bow hunting, and ice fishing for bluegills.