By Jason Mitchell
Some of the shallowest panfish we catch each winter happen in March during late ice on many fisheries. Fun sight fishing patterns often emerge. Fish can sometimes be found in a few feet of water under the ice. Shallow weed patterns often come alive at late ice. Many anglers assume that aquatic vegetation has to be green and vibrant in order to hold fish. While still green weeds do hold fish, dead stands of weeds will also hold fish if the weeds provide cover and there is good oxygen. When the ice begins to rot along the shorelines and water begins to seep into the lake along the shorelines, shallow water can be extremely productive.
One of my absolute favorite locations for looking for shallow water bluegills at late ice is really shallow pencil reeds. Pencil reed beds are common on many lakes and often hold big fish. In many cases… depending on the thickness of the ice, we might only be fishing in two to three feet of water under the ice.
These pencil reed locations can really vary in size and profile. Some dish bowl lakes might simply see pencil reeds lining the rim of the lake where there is the right sand bottom composition. Other locations might be prominent reefs and bars that might be several acres. My favorite type of location features pencil reeds that are growing out into five or six feet of water with a little bit of a roll to the contour where there is a sharper break running along the outside edge of the reeds.
There are many strategies to fishing these reed beds but there is one overriding challenge. You have to drill several holes to really figure out the nuances of the location but drilling a lot of holes over these shallow locations seems to push the fish off.
Can’t prove this but it seems like electric augers and smaller bits seem less intrusive. Six and four inch augers shine for cutting enough holes to really figure out these locations. On the flip side, these smaller holes are terrible for sight fishing. If you are planning on strictly sight fishing, use an eight or ten inch auger to give you a bigger window and let everything settle down after you drill your holes. Another tip is to not drive vehicles over the location or drag anything on the ice. When initially figuring out a location, we typically drill a lot of holes for simply learning the spot.
You can walk from hole to hole and fish but what we so often find is that we catch a lot more fish by recognizing the sweet spots and waiting out fish. The sweet spots are often open lanes and cuts, troughs and dips in the bottom that funnel fish movements. Once you recognize and locate these spots, you can sit and let everything settle down. Seen it happen often where you drill your holes and it takes five to ten minutes for fish to come back underneath you. You can definitely fish too aggressive and move too much in this type of situation because the reality is that fish might be scooting ten to twenty feet away from each step you take. Have also seen situations where fish wouldn’t swim underneath a shelter or sled. As a rule of thumb, you can get away with much more noise and presence if you are alone and on the spot first. As angling pressure increases over multiple days however, it seems like fish become more sensitive to everything. The more you fish a location and learn the spot on the spots however the less holes you have to drill and the less intrusive you can be.
Big bull bluegills in pencil reeds can be a handful. These fish can wrap you up and break you off. Because this can often be combat fishing, I often opt for heavier line like the Frost Four Pound Mono. This isn’t finesse fishing. Because four pound test can lack sensitivity, I often use tungsten jigs even in this often shallow water just because the added weight of tungsten improves the performance of heavier lines.
These patterns are notorious for producing big bluegills and this is fun fishing. Much like trying to pull a heavy bass from out underneath a dock or laydown, there is an element of drama when fighting big fish in heavy cover. Focus on the troughs, holes and bowls or any sharp outside edge that is in tight proximity to high dense stands of rushes and you will typically find big bluegills at late ice.