It's well known that the best ice fishing happens early and late in the season. Many species are still putting on the feed bag when the first ice seals the lakes shut, while longer days and the approach of spawning season for many species brings another burst of activity before the ice gives out altogether. But in between, things can slow a bit in what some anglers refer to as the February Blahs.
To me, that's the time to pull back a bit, simply my approach, and enjoy fast and easy action with panfish. Not only does the panfish bite stay strong all winter, but a good feed of freshly-caught perch or bluegills makes even the foulest weather a lot more tolerable. They're also just the ticket for introducing children to the joys of ice fishing since they're easy to catch and a panfish session doesn't have to be an all-day affair.
The fishing itself is pretty easy. Panfish like perch, bluegill, punkinseed and other types of sunfish seldom wander far from their summer haunts, but they will move into deeper water in mid-winter as oxygen levels in the shallows begin to thin out. Look for concentrations of fish to hold just above bottom off shallow, weedy bays and adjacent to shoreline points, saddles and islands in water from 12 to 25 feet deep. Finding fish generally isn't much of a problem, though finding numbers of larger, eating-sized fish is a bit more of a challenge. Larger fish tend to hold a little deeper than their smaller relatives, so once I start catching fish, I'll begin drilling additional holes in progressively deeper water in an effort to bump up the average size. Mornings usually produce the best action - panfish are generally inactive at night, so by early morning they'll be looking for a square meal.
Small pinhead minnows fished on a light hook are just about unbeatable for catching winter panfish, but I prefer to jig using small spoons or even a simple jighead with a bit of color on it. I find jigging to be more enjoyable that watching or a bite with a static live bait set-up, and I find it tends to skew the catch toward larger fish. Panfish often show a preference toward bright colors, so bright pink, red, chartreuse or lime green jigheads often outperform black or natural ones. With spoons, I've always had the best success with bi-colored spoons in a silver/blue, gold/red or gold/orange finish. Regardless of whether using spoons or jig heads, I like to tie them to the line by using a loop knot, which gives the bait more freedom of movement and, I feel, a more natural presentation.
It's generally not necessary, but tipping the hook with a bit of natural bait in the form of a waxworm, mealworm, maggot or small pinhead minnow can also help skew your catch toward the larger fish in a school. Artificials like Berkley's Powerbait Ice Action Waxies also work well, since the idea is to bulk up the jig a bit, so it sinks more slowly on the drop.
Just about any light ice rod and reel setup will work perfectly fine for panfish, though lighter outfits mean more fun. On pressured waters I'll spool up with straight four-pound fluorocarbon, since these small fish can react to fishing pressure like any other species.
The real reward of ice fishing for winter pannies comes at the end of the day, of course, when you fry up their small, succulent fillets in breading and hot oil. Honestly - few meals ever taste as good as a solid feed of winter perch or bluegills after a wonderful day out on the ice.
Forget the February Blahs and spend a few days enjoying pure and simple fun with mid-winter panfish through the ice. They're easy to find, easy to catch, and if you enjoy a good fish dinner then you can't do any better.
Over a near 40-year career as a full-time outdoor writer, Craig Ritchie has fished all over the globe for a variety of freshwater and saltwater species. The author of The Complete Guide To Getting Started In Fishing, he has written thousands of articles for magazines, websites and newspapers worldwide, appeared as a guest on several television fishing programs and won numerous awards for his writing and photography. He lives in the Great Lakes region where great fishing is as close as his own back yard.