WWYGD: Early-Ice Panfish

Finding plump pannies during the hard water season is as simple as finding them during soft water.

In his former life as a Minnesota County Sheriff—and before that as a Chicago beat cop—Grand Rapids, Minnesota-based fishing guide Tom Neustrom learned that doing your homework is the key to any investigation.

Although he’s no longer on the “serve and protect” program, the same skills come into play to locate fish and ensure his clients catch fish, no matter the conditions.

“I do a lot of late-fall open-water scouting, using Side Imaging to locate weed beds and other fish-holding cover. Then I motor over to and verify what I’m seeing and set waypoints. Come ice, I transfer the SD card to my 688 Humminbird ice unit,” says Neustrom.

For bluegills, Neustrom says nothing beats the edges of weeds and slight breaks. “If available, I like water between 12- and 16 feet off the edges of still-green cabbage. There’s just more food available for bluegills there.”

But he admits that the natural lakes of northern Minnesota are not indicative of all Ice Belt waters.

“In some of the shallow lakes across the Ice Belt you might be in 6 to 8 feet and 12 feet is ‘deep water.’ Still, off the edges of green weeds is a good start. If you don’t have the electronics, look for these areas visually before ice forms.”

Green weeds are ideal, but even better if you can find what he calls “pocket holes”—small areas void of weeds but surrounded by green weeds on all sides. “These spots are almost like donuts. Find a little hard bottom in the middle and you’re almost guaranteed bluegills. The fish hang in the weeds and if anything comes into the hole in the middle, they ambush it.”

Go Muddin’

Although anglers can find isolated crappies along the same weed edges, Neustrom heads deeper for crappies at first ice.

“In late fall we’re catching crappies that are suspended over mud bottom in depths between 20 and 40 feet, where they’re feeding on bloodworms and any kind of larvae that’s emerging out of the mud. I can actually see the stuff rising out of the mud on my electronics. The same thing continues up to the time we have about 8 inches of ice.”

Neustrom says where most anglers go wrong is presentation. Although minnows and are preferred crappie fare a lot of the year, when crappies go on a bug bite, best to match the hatch … literally.

“Sure, crappies are still opportunistic and will hit a minnow, but you’ll have a lot more success by sizing down in line test and fishing smaller tungsten jigs with micro-plastics like that resemble the critters crawling out of the mud.”

Curious about the preferred diet of the crappies you’re catching? Next time you keep a few for the table, slit open the stomachs and look at the contents. Minnows are pretty obvious; but if they’re full of what Neustrom calls a “chocolate pudding-like” substance, that’s a pretty good indication they’re eating larvae.

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