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Ice Fishing for Panfish is Great Family Fun

By John Sauer

Just about every lake in North America holds generous schools of panfish that bite as aggressively through the ice as they do in summer. Here is how to find them and have a great day of family fun on the ice.

Ice Safety

Ice fishing is a lot of fun but it's important to understand that, especially early in winter, the ice can be unsafe to walk on. There are plenty of guidelines about how thick ice needs to be to walk or drive on. The following is from the Minnesota Department of Natural Resources:

4" - Ice fishing or other activities on foot
5" - 7" - Snowmobile or ATV
8" - 12" - Car or small pickup
12" - 15" - Medium truck

You can find these full guidelines at https://www.dnr.state.mn.us/safety/ice/thickness.html

Check ice reports in your local media or call your local sporting goods stores for an ice report before you go. Be safe, don’t be sorry.

Finding Fish

Panfish are widely located across all North America and are easy to find in the winter. They like shallow flats with weeds, brush piles and similar structure. You can identify many of these spots using online or printed topography maps. You can also drive to the lakes you want to fish and see where others are fishing. The spots closest to shore, and easiest for you and your family to access, will be panfish spots.

Your local sporting goods or bait stores are amazing resources for fishing information. Ask nicely and they will be able to tell you what is biting, where, and on what. From this valuable information you may find that you need to switch your target from panfish to ice fishing for walleye at the last minute. I do this every time I fish a new area and it has saved me hundreds of hours of time and hundreds of dollars in fishing tackle.

Making Holes

You can’t ice fish without making holes. To get it done an ice auger is the most expensive-but valuable piece of gear you will need. You may already own one but if not, a gas or battery powered auger will help you cut several holes quickly without the back-breaking effort of a manual auger. Some people use axes or ice chisels early in the season when the ice is less than a foot thick. You will also need a strainer to keep the holes clear of skim ice.

Ice Fishing Tackle: Simple is Best

For catching panfish you don’t need a lot of complicated gear. If you ice fish for other species, you already have most of what you need. The most basic ice fishing rods have non-freezing line on a simple reel or wrapped around dowels on the handle.

Terminal tackle options consist of tiny panfish jigs along with some form of bait either fished alone or under a bobber. Veteran ice anglers will have dozens of jigs in all sizes but a handful in 1/32 to 1/16 of an ounce will do the trick. Focus on bright colors such as neon chartreuse or orange. Ask a sales associate in the store you shop in for guidance.

Seating and Shelter

Bring some kind of seat for each person. A bucket makes a great seat and is perfect to carry around your fishing gear. Camp chairs also work. Everything can be transported to and from your fishing adventures on a small plastic sled.

If you have a portable ice fishing shelter [or access to an ice house] that’s even better. Your family can get out of the wind, sun or snow and stay warm. Many portable shelters fold up into a sled that you can put all your gear on for easier transport. These shelters set up quickly and can be kept shirtsleeve warm with a small propane heater.

On nice days though, nothing is better than sitting outside on the ice, catching fish under a bright blue sky.

Baiting up

For bluegills, pumpkinseed and other sunfish I like using a 1/32 oz. jig tipped with bait like a waxy or maggot. Fish these a foot or two off the bottom, gently jigging until you get a bite. Handline the fish to the surface. For black and white crappie, a 1/16 oz. or lighter jig with a small fathead or similar minnow works extremely well fished under a small bobber.

Give the jig a twitch every few moments and wait for the bobber to swirl away under the ice. Bobber watching is a great activity for kids as they have something in front of them to keep them engaged.

Caring for Your Catch

Practicing catch and release is always good but a lot of people eat sunfish because they are delicious. Keepers can be put in a bucket. It will be cold enough for them to freeze and stay fresh until you can clean them.

Always remember to check your local fishing regulations so you have the right licenses and don’t keep too many of what you catch. Above all, have fun. Take a break from the winter grind and get your family on the ice for a day of fishing. You just might start a new tradition and create many happy memories.

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