By Jason Mitchell
Each winter, bluegills and crappies often suspend or move out over deep water basins on many bodies of water. 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 15 and 45 feet of water.
Most of these are typically soft-bottom basins, but points and other structure that protrude into these basins are often a harder bottom structure. The rock that intersects or protrudes into a basin is really an overlooked location for panfish, but 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 finding fish and eliminating dead water. By midwinter however, even basin fish can sometimes require finesse.
These schools of fish often suspend in a column and stack on top of each other. What this means is that you might have 10-15 feet of fish below you while somebody 10 yards away isn’t marking a fish.
Suspended basin fish are also typically moving. One minute you might have 10-15 feet of fish below you, and in a blink they’re gone.
Because these basin fish roam so much, there are basically two strategies you can use while on the ice. 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 so you can be much more mobile to contact roaming schools of fish.
The more aggressive approach can become even more effective if you can fish off of other anglers. Roam and explore holes, and when your buddy finds them, fish right next to him until you lose the fish. Then, team up to find the next pod of fish. What can also be surprising is how fish respond to fishing pressure. There are times when fish simply slide off 10 feet away, so don’t be afraid to drill a lot of holes, sometimes only 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 and picking off fish as they swim by. This more passive approach can also be just as effective, particularly during tougher bites or if you are alone. It 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 to “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, remember that over basins and open water the fish usually don’t have a problem finding you. Visibility is often excellent in these locations, and fish can typically see your presentation from several feet away.
When I am first breaking down a location, I often try to amplify that visibility 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 — https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=7S5eDLly9AQ. We used the CPT Pinhead Minnow Spoon and aggressively fished these spoons high in the water column with no bait. Flutter spoons, horizontal swim lures, such as 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?
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 bluegills and sunfish, chains can be flat out deadly when fish get finicky.
As a rule of thumb, many of these open-water basin bites get more difficult as the winter progresses. Chain droppers can be difference-makers and are often overlooked by many anglers.
When the doldrums hit, the first adjustment we often make is dropping down to lighter line. We do a majority of our heavy lifting with 3-pound Frost Mono for a big percentage of our panfish while ice fishing. That 3-pound mono is just the perfect diameter and it’s very versatile.
On tougher bites, however, try scaling down to 2-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-test, small-diameter lines.
Regardless of what reel you use, come midwinter you should change your line all the time. Don’t change the entire spool, just the top 50 feet.
Regarding small profile horizontal and vertical ice jigs for panfish, I prefer a lot of tungsten jigs when fishing these suspended fish. 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 such as 3- or 4-pound test. In fact, tungsten will often make 3-pound test feel like 2-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 teardrop-style tungsten jigs such as the CPT Half Ant.
Vertical jigs seem to offer a subtler 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 such as waxworms to keep catching fish after you start to wear out your welcome and the bite gets tougher.
Soft plastics such as the original Maki 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 Euro larvae and waxworms remain 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 plastics all day. If fish wont accelerate and barely budge a foot or less in the water column, expect the bite to be tough 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 prevalent on many fisheries. You can often see where these holes are located on many lakes by just looking for the cluster of anglers or permanent shacks. By midwinter, these fish can get picked over.
With that in mind, one final thought to wrap up with is to simply fish new ice. Push to the edges of community holes. Find locations that haven’t been recently fished. Even a 10-yard shift away from the commotion and harassment can be a big move. Look over topo maps for areas within the basin holding fish that just haven’t had as much pressure. Finding and catching these fish by midwinter is as much about getting away from the crowds as anything else.
About the Author: Jason Mitchell hosts the outdoor program Jason Mitchell Outdoors on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Midwest. Additional programming can be found on the Jason Mitchell Outdoors YouTube Channel.