First ice ‘gills: Techniques for early season panfish ice fishing

By on December 8, 2014
A bluegill caught while hole hopping on a canal near Chelsea, Michigan. (Credit: Jeff Elliott)

Every year as fall transitions to winter, I watch the forecast closer and closer, anxiously awaiting cold, calm nights ideal for ice formation. There is something exciting about the first time I get to walk on water every year. Maybe it’s the tradition, or the change of scenery, or the anticipation of the feeding frenzy going on below. Whatever it is, “first ice” is my favorite ice.

While first ice is a great time to target many species, my absolute favorite is bluegills. They often load up like wolf packs on the prowl for meal in protected man-made areas like canals and marinas, and the best fishing in these places often happens before the main body of water even freezes. These areas are highly oxygenated and full of invertebrates that bluegills crave. Not to mention they typically offer easy access and minimal gear to get started.

I have a few main approaches in these areas but the gear for both is very similar. Straight lining small tungsten jigs (#16 size) tipped with spikes is my go-to. I’ve found a really small jig triggers the most bites in these areas, even from the biggest fish. The hooks are small, but bending the point outward and offsetting it a bit can work wonders in helping to land fish. I could expand into all the different ice plastics on the market today, but it’s hard to change when a couple spikes on a jig have produced quick limits for so many years.

Sight bite

The author’s wife Amanda Elliott with a bluegill caught sight fishing. (Credit: Jeff Elliott)

The author’s wife Amanda Elliott with a bluegill caught sight fishing. (Credit: Jeff Elliott)

Many of these marinas and canals are fairly shallow, offering an amazing sight fishing opportunity if the water is clear enough. The more outside light you can block out the easier it is to see in the water, so a dark shanty is a must. Short rods also help, getting you right over the hole and minimizing back stress.

Since these fish are often roaming, I like setting up on one of their travel routes. Intercepting fish as they first enter the channel from the lake is one of my favorite places to set up. But bends in the dredged channel, the very back of the channel, or near dock pilings can be very productive to. Other times there can be no rhyme or reason to it, so pop some holes, set up shop and go to work as the fish move around.

It’s exciting when they show up ready to feed, and watching the fish react to the movements of the jig adds a whole new element. Being able to see what’s below also you allows you to pick out which bluegills you want to add to the bucket. It can be a game of cat and mouse, taking the bait away from the smaller fish until a good size bluegill bites.

Besides being a really productive method sight fishing is also really entertaining and one of the best ways to introduce beginners and kids to the sport. Nothing gives people confidence like actually seeing the fish they are targeting. A warm shanty helps too.

Hole hopping

Shanties on a dredged marina in on White Lake, Michigan. (Credit: Jeff Elliott)

Shanties on a dredged marina in on White Lake, Michigan. (Credit: Jeff Elliott)

When the water is too dirty, too deep, or the fish are just too spread out for sight fishing, it’s time to make the ice look like swiss cheese and get mobile. Drilling holes spooks fish, so it’s best drill them all at once. The number of holes I drill depends on the size of the area and the number of other fisherman around. It’s usually the more the better, and it will quality become evident which holes are holding fish.

While I can’t see the fish using this method, I don’t fish blind. I use a Humminbird ICE-45 flasher to see what’s happening beneath the ice. The standard program is to drop the flasher transducer down and drop the ice jig down after it. It doesn’t take long to see if anything is coming up to investigate the jig. I won’t be able to tell the difference in size of the fish, so weeding through the small ones can be a challenge. I keep my jig just above the fish I’m marking to make them come up to get it. If they are stubborn eaters, working the jig higher as they follow can really get them into a frenzy and make them commit.

Eventually the fish will either move on or you’ll catch them all in this shallow water. So when you aren’t marking them or getting bites, keep moving.

As incredible as the first ice opportunities are, they’re also short-lived. The first few weeks of ice coverage are going to be best, and then the bite will begin to fade as oxygen levels and food availability decrease. Fish move on, feeding windows get shorter and attitudes change from aggressive to passive. All is not lost, as many of these fish just relocate to deeper water and are feeding again. As one phase of ice fishing season ends another one begins. It’s a long winter here in the North, so make the most of it.

Top image: A bluegill caught while hole hopping on a canal near Chelsea, Michigan. (Credit: Jeff Elliott)

About Jeff Elliott

Jeff Elliott is a 2014 Bassmaster Team championship qualifier. He has 75 tournament wins, including the 2012 Detroit Lions/Kevin VanDam Charity tournament. He is a seven-time points champion and a Bust'in Sticks TV show champion.

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