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(Wayne Ek)
Agape Fishing Guides

Fishing for late ice panfish can be fast and furious. Unfortunately the late ice bite usually only lasts a couple of weeks. Don’t get me wrong; the fish are still there and biting, but the ice deteriorates so rapidly this time of year that it quickly becomes too dangerous to venture out onto the lakes. My records show that the latest I’ve been able to safely get out onto the ice in my area was April 4th. The same journal shows that I’ve launched my Ranger boat as early as March 24th to fish open water crappies. So the first rule of late ice pan fishing is to use common sense and caution.

The Areas

You can explore the same areas that you target when looking for ice-out panfish. Check out shallow muddy bays that have a deep-water approach to them. My best area is a bay that is less than 8 feet deep at its deepest point. The mouth of this bay then drops into 15 feet of water and then gradually drops into the main lake basin. This bay also has 2 small feeder streams running into it, which is one reason the ice goes out so quickly on this particular bay. Historically the hot spot on this bay has been a semi-hard bottom ridge in 4 feet of water that supports pencil reeds during the soft-water period. My most productive late ice spots have some or all of these features and are the same places that I start exploring for ice-out panfish.

The Bite

The best bite seems to start in the late afternoon, and then continues until sunset. After sunset I’ve not had great success on shallow bays during the late ice bite. I don’t know why the bite shuts down. It may be that the oxygen level drops because the new submergent vegetation stops photosynthesis after dark. Or maybe the panfish become less active as larger predatory fish move into the area. But for whatever reason the bite seems to stop after sunset. We normally cut a lot of holes for this pattern and jump from hole to hole. It’s rare to spend more than 10 minutes at any one hole. Usually you will hit a hole and catch a couple of fish, then the bite at that hole will shut down. But, you can walk 20 feet to the next hole and catch a couple more fish. I think that small schools of crappies/bluegills are constantly roaming the bays searching for easy meals. Unless you keep moving with them you will just be sitting over empty water until they return. One of the strangest things we have noticed after fishing this pattern for so many years is that the crappies will routinely be right under the ice. In 4 feet of water, they are sometimes 3 feet off the bottom; you would swear their dorsal fin is scrapping the bottom of the ice. When you lower a jig down they hit it right at the edge of your hole, zooming past your hole more like a northern pike than a crappie.

The Presentation

This is pretty simple fishing. I use 3 rods for this type of fishing. I always use a dead stick. This rod is used with a slip-bobber and the smallest crappie minnow I can find on a #6 Demon jig, by Custom Jigs & Spins. I set this rig 1 foot off the bottom, even if I’m only fishing in 3 feet of water. I like to use a bait-casting reel on my dead stick rod for a couple of reasons. I think you get less line twist with a bait caster. And on a bait casting reel you can engage the free spool, then tighten down the spool tension knob. This allows any fish to take line without causing tangles or over-runs on the spool. My second rod is a 24” ultra-light action spinning rod with a size 10 spinning reel (Quantum Kinetic). I spool this one with a good 4-pound monofilament ice line. I like to fish a #6 Ratso or Fat Boy on this rig, tipping them with either a Berkley Gulp Earthworm or live wax worms. I take a lot of ribbing over my third choice in rods. I like a good old-fashioned jiggle stick, spooled with (or should I say wound with) 8-pound fluorocarbon line. I know this sounds like extremely heavy line for pan fishing, but you’re fishing very shallow with only 3 or 4 feet of line out. With line this heavy you can “tuna” a large crappie or bluegill right up onto the ice. Because I use such heavy line with this stick I like to use a heavier jig, like a Fat Boy or Genz Worm, tipped with plastic. When the crappies start hitting right at the bottom edge of the hole as mentioned earlier, this is the rig I go to.

The Equipment

This is a “ GO LIGHT” time of year. First, you’re going to have to pull all your equipment out onto the ice by hand. This time of year the ice is not safe enough to use ATV's for transporting your gear. I use the small Otter Sled, it rides flat, doesn’t tip over and the high sides allow you to get all the equipment you need into it. They also keep standing water on the ice from splashing all over your equipment. The temperatures can be in the high 30’s to low 50’s, so you won’t need a portable shelter. I use a hand auger this time of the year, as the ice is getting thinner and you don’t need the extra weight of a power auger. Also, you will need a spud bar (chisel) to test the ice and reopen any holes. Most of the time any holes cut by you or other anglers will stay open for the rest of the safe ice period. And don’t forget the safety equipment. At the very minimum take a PFD (life-vest) with you, better yet wear one. Have your ice picks hanging around your neck. I like to take a large boat bumper wrapped with 50 feet of nylon rope with me for a throw line.

Remember, even though late ice can be great fishing, think safety first. Don’t go alone; late ice is not the time for solitude. Be smart and take someone with you or only venture out where there are other anglers. If you get the chance give late ice panfish a try. One really nice thing about late ice pan fishing is once it’s over you’ve only got a couple of weeks to wait for ICE-OUT pan fishing. But that’s another story.

As always, stay safe and we hope to see you on the water.

Wayne Ek is a fishing guide, tournament angler and writer, living in Alexandria Mn. For more information you can contact him at Agape Fishing Guides.

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