By Jason Mitchell
Both bluegill and crappie often suspend or move out over deep water basins on many bodies of water each winter. Deep and basin are often relative descriptions to describe a large offshore bowl of deeper water but more specifically, look for the bowls or basins that bottom out between fifteen and forty-five feet of water. Most of these basins are typically soft bottom but points and other structure that protrudes into these basins are often a harder bottom structure. The rock that intersects or protruded into a basin is really an overlooked location for panfish but often, we often find fish drifting through this open water suspended off the bottom.
Breaking down these basins for suspended fish can be intimidating but there are many adjustments you can make to become much more efficient at finding these fish. Typically, finding fish is everything. Large aggressive presentations can shine for eliminating water and finding fish. By midwinter however, even basin fish can sometimes require finesse. These schools of fish often suspend in a column where fish stack on top of each other. What this means is that you might have ten to fifteen feet of fish below you while somebody ten yards away isn’t marking a fish. These suspended basin fish are also typically moving. You might have ten to fifteen feet of fish below you and in a blink these fish are gone.
Because these basin fish do roam so much, there are basically two strategies. The first strategy is to sit in one location where you have a consistent flow of fish swimming underneath you. The second strategy is to be much more aggressive and drill a grid of holes where you can be much more mobile to contact roaming schools of fish. This more aggressive approach can become even more effective if you can fish off other anglers. Roam and explore holes and when your buddy finds them, fish right next to him until you lose the fish and then team up to find the next pod of fish. What can also be surprising at times is how fish respond to fishing pressure. There are times where the fish would simply slide off ten feet away so don’t be afraid to drill a lot of holes. Sometimes simply a handful of feet away from previous holes. If you are going to simply be patient and hunker down on one location, you are basically just running traffic… picking off fish as they swim by. This do less approach can also be just as effective particularly during tougher bites or if you are alone. Almost seems like the fish are swimming in a circle and the same school of fish swims by every half hour. The less people around you, the more the fish get to swim uninterrupted until they swim underneath you again. Here are a few additional tips and insights for pinning down suspended midwinter panfish over basins.
Rocking the Boat
When fishing through several holes, turn your Vexilar onto Manual Range so you can get a bottom lock faster and walk from hole to hole quicker. Don’t fish until you see fish. Hang the transducer just below the ice and with your sensitivity or gain turned up, rock the transducer from one side of the hole to the other. If the fish are off to the side, you can often pick fish up on the edge of the cone angle and tell what direction from the hole the school of fish is located. Drill several holes at once in a rough grid and walk from hole to hole with your electronics. Don’t stop to fish until you see fish.
When you find an area that is holding fish, half the equation is finding the fish but remember that over basins and open water, the fish also don’t usually have a problem finding you. Visibility is often excellent where fish can see your presentation from several feet away. When I am first breaking down a location, I often try to amplify that even more by fishing with large aggressive lures and fishing those lures high in the water column. I often find that I catch some of the largest panfish in the school (both bluegill and crappie) by fishing big and high. In fact, we recently filmed and aired a television episode which is on our YouTube channel called Heavy Metal Crappie. We used the CPT Pinhead Minnow Spoon and fished these spoons high in the water column aggressively with no bait. Flutter spoons, horizontal swim lures like Salmo Chubby Darters and other high visibility presentations often trigger big fish not just because of size and profile but because fish can see these lures from several feet away. If you can fish several feet above the fish, guess which fish climbs up several feet the fastest? Usually the bigger fish.
I have often been surprised more bluegill and crappie anglers don’t use droppers or chains below spoons. Often regarded as a perch tactic, chain droppers can work excellent over basins when the bite is off because you have the weight and flash of a spoon with the delicate finesse of the dropper. Especially with bluegill and sunfish, chains can be flat out deadly when fish get finicky. As a rule of thumb, we see many of these open water basin bites get more difficult as the winter progresses. Chain droppers can be difference makers and are very overlooked by many anglers.
First adjustment is often dropping down to lighter line. We often do most of our heavy lifting with three-pound Frost Mono for a big percentage of our panfish ice fishing. That three-pound mono is just perfect diameter and very versatile. On tougher bites, however, try scaling down to two-pound Frost Fluorocarbon. The weight and low stretch attributes of Fluorocarbon are nice over deeper water. Something else to consider is change your line often, as much as every day to two days of fishing. If you jig aggressively to bring fish in, you can really work up twist into the line when you hard pound jigs on light diameter lines. Regardless of what reel you use. When bites get tougher come midwinter, change your line all the time. Don’t have to change the entire spool, just the top fifty feet.
Regarding small profile horizontal and vertical ice jigs for panfish, I prefer a lot of tungsten jigs when fishing these suspended fish. There are many reasons why I like the extra denseness or weight of tungsten. The biggest advantage of tungsten in my opinion is the extra weight makes the entire presentation more sensitive and you can sometimes get away with using heavier line like three- or four-pound test. Tungsten will often make three-pound test feel like two-pound test. The advantages of tungsten become even more apparent when you really must scale down to the smaller sizes. Classic tungsten jigs that have become popular with winter panfish anglers include the Clam Pro Tackle Drop Jig. On the toughest bites, experiment with some of the vertical tear drop style tungsten jigs like the CPT Half Ant. Vertical jigs seem to offer a more subtle footprint and smaller profile when fish are looking up at the jig. Use horizontal jigs and soft plastics to find fish. Use the vertical jigs and live bait like waxworms to keep catching fish when they get tougher after you start to wear out your welcome.
Soft plastics like the original Makki paired up with a horizontal tungsten jig has probably been one of the hottest crazes over the past decade for good reason. I personally use soft plastics whenever I can because I like the durability and action of soft plastics. Soft plastics however are not the end all. On tough bites, there are still situations where live bait like Eurolarvae and waxworms reigns king. I often look at the ceiling in which fish will climb as the indicator between plastics and bait. If fish will accelerate and rise three feet or more to hit a presentation, I will often use soft plastic all day. If fish wont accelerate and barely budge a foot or less in the water column, expect the bite to be tougher and expect live bait to save the day. Especially with big sunfish and bluegill, waxworms and grubs can be key on tougher bites.
These classic basin and hole locations are prevailent on many fisheries. You can often see where these holes are located on many lakes by just looking for the cluster or permenant shacks. By midwinter, these fish can get picked over. One final thought to wrap up with is simply fishing new ice. Push to the edges of community holes. Find locations that havent been recently fished. Even a ten yard shift away from the commotion and harrassment can be a big move. Look over topo maps and look for areas within the basin holding fish that just havent had as much pressure. Finding and catching these fish by midwinter is as much about getting away from the crowds as anything else.
The author Jason Mitchell hosts the outdoor program Jason Mitchell Outdoors which airs on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. Additonal programming can be found on the Jason Mitchell Outdoors YouTube Channel.