Although they are not the largest fish to swim the waters of the upper Midwest, bluegills and crappies are certainly two of the more popular species. Perhaps itís their scrappiness on light tackle, their abundance in many Wisconsin lakes and rivers, or the excellent table fare they provide; whatever the reasoning, these members of the panfish family are highly sought after through the ice by pros and novices alike.
While finding and catching bluegills and crappies is generally easier than with many other species inhabiting our waters, consistently finding and catching the largest bluegills and crappies in a system takes a great deal of patience, hard work, and skill. North American Ice Fishing Championship (NAIFC) tournament angler Joe Pikulski is an individual who gives giant panfish nightmares due to his skill and moxie with locating and coaxing slab Ďgills and crappies into biting.
According to Pikulski, "When we're working a tough school of bluegills or crappies, especially fish that have been hounded and pounded by other competitors, we've got a couple tricks that really seem to get fish to eat. Can't tell you all our tricks, but one of my favorite ways to trigger these fish-especially suspended crappies-is to keep my bait a foot or more above the top level of the school and give it a few big rod rips. I like to rip the jig really hard-move it a foot to a foot-and-a-half at a time. Or, hold the jig in place, then give it one big rip, then let it flutter back, settling in place well above their eyeballs.Ē
Joe continues, "More often than not, one of the bigger members of the school will rise right up on the MarCum and eat the bait. Most anglers will just dance and twitch their jigs lightly an inch or so from the top of the school. This works with some fish. Honestly, though, lots of times you need to really appeal to their predatory sense, especially the bigger individuals within a larger school. Let fish chase and hunt your bait. Do the opposite of what you've been trained to do. It's not always better to make it easy for panfish to grab your offering. Sometimes, even with pressured fish, the key to getting the bigger ones is to bite is to do some radical rip jigging maneuvers-even with tiny ice jigs.Ē
As for lure selection when targeting bluegills and crappies Pikulski offers, "Our go-to bait is a Fiskas tungsten 5mm Wolfram jig dressed with one of several varieties of Little Atom plastics.Ē Tungsten jigs, relatively new on the ice fishing scene, are heavier than lead thus allowing anglers to use much smaller hooks and jigheads Ė a huge advantage in ice fishing; as for Joe's favorite panfish plastic Ė simple, the Little Atom Jumbo Nuggie. "Often, we'll cut the head off the Nuggie and just thread the plastic tail onto the hook. We've probably done best with the Atomic Red Glow and green colors."
While plastics have gained in popularity in recent years with ice fishermen, many anglers still limit themselves to ice jigs tipped with live bait. According to Pikulski, "Occasionally, we'll still choose the meat section when we need to. When we're on super fussy 'gills, a waxworm tipped on a tiny jighead is still hard to beat. But with crappies, we feed 'em a one-hundred percent plastics diet. Their large jaws dictate that they feed differently than tiny mouthed bluegills. While 'gills often nip and peck, crappies engulf the entire package. For us, plastics are simply the efficient choice."
Ice conditions have improved drastically in recent weeks, and the panfish bite has been solid here in North-Central Wisconsin. Take a few tips from an ice pro and enjoy some success out on the ice! Iíll see you on the water...
Joel DeBoer is a Professional Musky Guide, Author, Internet Personality, Outdoor Educator, and Tournament Angler. He can be reached through his website at: http://www.wisconsinanglingadventures.com. Joel will be sharing hunting, fishing, and other outdoor-related information through the perspective of one of North-Central Wisconsin's most successful and accomplished guides.