By Noel Vick
The season opened with a bang. Walleyes were spanking, so too were the pike, perch, and ‘gills. And the annual crappie massacre at first ice went off as scheduled. (“Massacre,” of course, is used metaphorically to illustrate hot and heavy action. Only a few eaters were held over, the rest released. Just so you know.)
Yeah, those were the good old days. Back when sunfish would swallow a spoon and perch preferred minnows to maggots. But that’s all changed. The “funk” is underway. The midwinter blues, so to speak.
“First ice is merely a continuation of fall,” says Northland Tackle ice fishing expert Brian “Bro” Brosdahl. “The fish are still binge feeding, packing it away for the long haul. They know what’s coming.
Prior to the present funkiness, foragers put an emphasis on baitfish, not creepy crawlies – they’re for later. And weeds were more important too, just like in late fall. Find the greenery and you’ll find some fish.”
But as Bro well knows, the rapture of first life isn’t eternal. A tide of sluggishness overtakes the lakes. “By late December, maybe early January, the tank starts running out. The weeds die off. Oxygen goes to hell. By mid January, at the latest, the funk is in full force,” says a disheartened Bro. He definitely misses the ecstasy.
He continues, “In my mind, January is the toughest month of the year, period. It’s cold, hard, and dead. But I fish anyway. I’m just more selective of my targets. I chase big walleyes, perch, and sometimes head down to the southern edge of the Ice Fishing Belt.”
The doldrums don’t last forever, though. Long about the time Bro’s ready to trade his auger for a Sony PlayStation, the awakening begins. “The clock starts ticking again in February,” says Bro with more vigor in his voice. “That’s when panfish turn their attention to the mud.”
The mud he speaks of is the deeper and softer bottom zone where invertebrates dwell. And the dominant dwellers of the muck are bloodworms. Bloodworms – also know as Chironamidae and midge larvae – are also one of the first edibles to rouse and subsequently be guzzled by panfish.
Bro says that bloodworms are common in natural lakes, squirming in holes and over flats with floors of clay, mud, and marl. Bro’s most productive midge beds lie in 19 to 28 feet of water, but he sometimes encounters bloodworm farms in 40 feet of water and beyond.
“You’ll know right away if you’re over a bugs nest,” Bro says “because the very first fish will upchuck bloodworms all over the place.”
The key to finding soft and potentially buggy bottoms is knowing how to interpret flasher signals. Bro, using a Vexilar FL-18, watches for the bottom mark to “thin out,” denoting a change from hard to soft. Bro believes that it’s crucial to recognize what every flicker and blip on the screen represents. They’re all pieces to the greater puzzle.
Besides Chironamidae, panfish also feast on phantom midge larvae (Chaoburus). These glassy-looking invertebrates rise into the water column during lowlight periods, having originated from spongy bottoms. On a flasher, they appear as waves or cyclones of green twinkles that can range throughout the entire water column. Panfish, as expected, love dining on them too.
Mayfly larvae – critters much larger than bloodworms and phantom midge larvae – are also kicking around in the mud. They were slithering around earlier in the winter too, but not to the degree seen in February and March. Certain bottoms can literally crawl with mayfly larvae.
The ever present swarms of zooplankton must also be acknowledged. They too zing around from first ice on, but are now in true game-form. The longer days coupled with higher sunlight angles make zooplankton extra jumpy. They’ll become more and more energetic as spring approaches as well.
So bugs are in play. Panfish – crappies, bluegills, and perch – are focused on slow moving, but high volume provisions. Schools of fish gather to graze, and they often linger for long periods of time too. Good areas evolve into great areas, so long as invertebrates are abundant.
Once a fertile-floored area has been established, the next measure is producing baits that emulate nature’s offerings. And Bro has favorites.
First, he gets creepy. “If I’m into jumbo perch, or even larger crappies, the Northland Creep Worm gets the nod. With it, I like using a small minnow.” The Creep Worm sports a four-piece segmented body that imitates an aquatic invertebrate with museum-like realism.
For even more universal appeal – targeting crappies, perch, and bluegills – Bro ties on a Northland Jiggle Bug. The larvae design entices all panfish species, and they come in sizes down to miniscule #12. In stained water, Bro fishes glow blue and red, preferring glow green and chartreuse in clear conditions. Whichever size and color he selects, though, a wad of maggots or wax worms cover the hook shank.
Occasionally, even during the improved bite of February and March, fish turn pernickety, shunning the usual stuff. Maybe high pressure shuts ‘em down, maybe too many anglers on the ice. Regardless of the reason, though, Bro has solutions. And his hottest contraption of late is a customized panfish dropper rig.
“First, I tie a #12 or smaller Mustad Aberdeen hook on the main line and cover it with maggots. Then, I pinch a couple two or three Hot-Spot Split Shot 8 to 12 inches up the line. Maybe even thread a Buck-Shot Rattle Bead between the shot for added sound.
The Hot-Spot gives me weight and attraction, which allows the business end to remain small and simple. I’ll even change shot colors to see if that helps. This is the ideal rig for light bites.”
By midsummer, you’ll be cursing bugs, both the biters and ones that stick in the corner of your eye and cause that indescribable pain. But now, in the meat of winter, take succor and pleasure in the fact that bugs are what’ll bring you to a panfish panacea.
To learn more about Northland Tackle’s complete lineup of winter and summer lures go to www.northlandtackle.com or dial 1-800-SUN-FISH and request a free catalog.
By John Peterson with Noel Vick