The rule for panfish this winter--atleast for me and my clients, has been to fish shallower than "normal". Meaning those deep holes ( 30-40 ft) that usually produce nice quantities of nice panfish did not produce on most of my "go to" lakes. However, the shallow bite (5-15ft) never really died off like it tends to towards mid winter.
Ultra green weeds might have had something to do with it. Along with a delay in the cold fall weather I think postponed many panfish movements up to 45 days. And because our winter is so short (yes, I said short) I dont think the "normal" patterns that most anglers rely on to catch fish through the ice really kicked into full gear this season resulting in poor fishing reports. I personally think catching deep panfish is more fun for some reason (longer fight?) verses the shallow bite (set the hook and the fish flies out the hole) . Regardless of what I like, I definetely found more active 'gills in the shallows all winter long. I kept wondering if it would ever end, and here we are--it didn't end-- as a matter of fact, the fish are now expected to be found where I have been catching them all winter long. Hmmmm. that's fishing for ya. I didn't really change tactics either.
My standard "searching" approach includes the smallest "Genz bug" tied horizontally in either glow white or chartreuse, tipped with a waxie or two or three "spikes" of different colors. Remember, keep the bait small--even a big 'gill has a mouth the size of a Cherrio. The bait is tied to 3 lb test clear ice line and presented with a nice long sensitive rod so I can feel and see the bites at the tip without using a bobber or a spring bobber. Why 3 lb test? -- I like to compromise between 2 lb. and 4 lb. Armed with some sonar, find a good area --maybe the top edge of a big weed flat near deep water, drill 10-15 holes based on what is found shooting the sonar through the ice (do not drill holes first) and work the bait however the fish like it. Could be fast twitching, slow dragging, simply fluttering the bait from the surface down to the bottom, or maybe from the bottom to the surface (just under the ice). The sonar will show you how the fish react and cause you to react accordingly. What I'm trying to say is--do not simply drill a hole by a bunch of other anglers or fish houses, drop down a hook and bobber and expect to catch fish--doesn't usually work. A few more weeks will change that!
In about 2-3 more weeks--when the fish are getting schooled up just outside potential open water feeding/spawning areas, ( remember where you caught them last spring in the boat?--yeh, just outside those areas) it is possible to walk out to a bunch of anglers, find a hole that is not frozen at any time of the day, drop down just about anything and catch a pail of fish. Average depths for this kind of activety is the 4-10 ft. range where there is new weed growth combined with some old dead weeds. When the water is running down the holes because of inproved sun light and warm air temps--thats the time frame Im talking about. Dont forget to try just below the surface of the ice, they are there as well. The other thing--be carefull, dark ice is not safe--actually no ice is ever 100% safe, but its gets a little interesting the closer to April we get. So have fun and be careful! Good Luck, Capt. Josh. www.minnesotaguideservice.com