Panfish (crappies and bluegills) are notorious for being aggressive during the first ice period. Devouring on everything and anything, these gluttons are in search of forage and oxygen. Often times, you can expect to find these kamikaze panfish dwelling amongst still standing green weeds and other vegetation. First ice provides ample opportunities for getting on a hearty pod of pannies. Using a presentation that allows you to dive quickly down the water column is crucial, especially when the objective is to catch as many fish as possible in as little time necessary. I tend to look vertical when targeting “quick-drop” pannies…

Jigging spoons are among one of the oldest tricks in the book when targeting winter fish, panfish included. Jigging spoons can be effectively fished in so many ways. We now have a vast assortment of colors, sizes, and actions to which jigging spoons are classified. For panfish we typically focus on 1/16 – 1/8 oz spoons. Spoons such as the Go Devil by Scenic Tackle or the Stinger by Custom Jigs and Spins are a couple productive panfish jigging spoons that come to mind. Lindy also has an excellent jigging spoon called the Frostee spoon. These jigging spoons have the ability to get down to where the fish are quickly, yet they still provide a triggering style action that can tempt and lure neutral fish into biting. When tipped with a maggot or minnow head, these spoons can be dynamite on first ice panfish.

The jigging sequence of a jigging spoon can vary depending on the situation. The key is to let the fish dictate what they want by keeping a close eye on your flasher and paying attention to how the fish react to different jigging actions. My flasher is my fish’s mood indicator. I let it tell me what the fish want based on how they react to what I cause the bait to do. If the fish tend to shy away when I work an aggressive jigging sequence, I’ll slow down to a more delicate approach. If the fish fly in and instantly hammer the spoon, I might fish more aggressively to keep activity levels high.

While jigging spoons are often used mostly for neutral to aggressive natured panfish, they can still trigger negative fish into biting. By using subtle twitches and pauses, you can coax these hesitant fish into striking the bait. More often than not however, a more aggressive hop-bounce sequence will more than likely seal the deal when targeting active first ice panfish with a jigging spoon.

Besides jigging spoons, we have a wide variety of jigs and ice flies that can be very prolific on first ice panfish. And like jigging spoons, they come in a huge array of sizes, colors, and actions. Sizes used for aggressive first ice panfish typically run anywhere from 1/100oz – 1/14oz. Some vertical jigs include plastics bodies, rubber tentacles, fur or hair, blades, spinners, beads, or just a plain hook. The options are literally endless for vertical panfish ice jigs. We now have the ability to mimic just about everything and anything that a panfish might feed on. I feel like a kid in a candy store when I step through the doors of tackle shop. And, I usually walk out with some new crazy off-the-wall colored jig that gets added to the collection.

With all the options out there for vertical panfish ice jigs, where does one start? To be honest, the answer to that question is ‘anywhere you want.’ The joy of ice fishing, or fishing in general for that matter, is that on any given day, the fish could want something totally different than the next day, and there is no real “wrong way” to go about figuring out what the fish want. Granted, we need to stick to within reason, meaning that dropping down a Shad Rap might not be the best choice for wintertime panfish. Staying within the realm of panfish ice jigs, one can start just about anywhere.

I normally begin my search with a Custom Jigs and Spins size 8 Shrimpo. The Shrimpo is a soft-bodied (finesse plastic) jig that can be fished without live-bait. And during first ice when the fish are highly aggressive and tearing apart anything that gets in their way, a presentation that allows me to keep my hands out of the maggot case or minnow bucket as much as possible is important. And in all honestly, I’ve spent days on the ice where I won’t even bring live-bait with me; instead I’ll bring a handful of Shrimpo’s and a few extra finesse plastic bodies. The Shrimpo is a great option for panfish throughout all the winter months as well. Another productive plastic-bodied ice jig is the Nuclear Ant by Custom Jigs and Spins.

Other than the Shrimpo, I typically rig up either a Custom Jigs and Spins Demon or Two-Spot when looking for a vertical style jig. Both the Demon and the Two-Spot can be fished with like techniques. These jigs are meant to be tipped with some sort or live-bait, whether it’s a maggot, minnow head, or a live minnow. Although you can add a plastic body to these jigs if you’d prefer as well. Twitch it, shake it, dance it… work the jig however you feel. And again, pay attention to your flasher to determine the action the fish crave.

During first ice, I will try and get away with the largest size jig as possible. This not only allows you to reach the strike zone faster when dropping down the jig, but it also increases your odds at weeding out the smaller fish in the pod. And, in the case where the fish are in a neutral mood, this can up your chances for triggering the more aggressive fish into biting. However, going smaller can be crucial at times as well.

Going vertical for first ice panfish can definitely have its advantages. Not only can you apply a presentation that lets you get down to where the fish are quicker, but you can incorporate more sporadic and aggressive techniques which will in turn produce more, and bigger fish when the time calls for it.

First ice is supposed to be a time of high-number days filled with fun and excitement. Try a vertical approach the next time you target first ice panfish if you haven’t already. Who knows, you might just find yourself a new favorite method for targeting wintertime pannies!!
Good Fishin,
Matt Johnson
Guided Open Water and Ice Fishing

Ice Team - "Join the Team!"

Ultimate Panfish League