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By now the small ponds and lakes in our area are frozen over, safe enough to make a day of ice-fishing a sensible spare-time option. After many a winter spent staring at flags that refuse to fly on trout and salmon waters, I’m happy now to set up on some obscure warmwater pond and take my chances with perch, bluegills, pickerel and other common warmwater species. Easy to catch, abundant and aggressive, these so-called panfish can liven up the most dismal of winter days and, when all is said and done, provide some great eating for anglers who know how to operate a razor-sharp filleting knife.
The basic requirements for successful January ice-fishing haven’t changed since the earliest year-round inhabitants of New England figured it out. All you need is something to cut a hole in the ice (once an axe, now an auger), something to hold the line and deliver the bait to the fish (once a spruce bough, now a sophisticated “trap” or tip-up), and a hook to hold the bait (once a thin, carved stick, now a computer-designed hook).
The modern demand for easy, quick and immediate has brought ice-fishing into the nuclear age, with traps that cost upwards of $50 each (you can have five of them in the water at one time when fishing for panfish), power augers ($300 and more) and a snowmobile and sled to haul it all onto the ice (not even sure what those cost these days). Obviously, the price per pound of that first pickerel will be difficult to justify, but sportsmen have a way of ignoring cost comparisons when it comes to their favorite outdoor pursuits. (This year, for example, four of us spent a week hunting moose with all the associated costs, plus totaled the truck on the way home – and didn’t get a moose! Quite the costly sight-seeing expedition!).
Anyway, the cost of getting started in ice-fishing is irrelevant to those who must do it, just as the expense of getting to the beach or the ski slopes doesn’t matter. Those who still consider thrift a virtue can use a chisel or hand auger to cut their holes, make their own traps out of scrap lumber and scrounge a spool of Littleway thread to use for line (and you have to be a veteran shoe-shopper to know what that is!). In the end the fish don’t care about anything except the presentation of the bait, which can be garden worms, cut bait, live shiners or even small pieces of salt pork or bacon. Pickerel prefer lively minnows, but the rest (perch, bluegills, horned pout, etc.) will eat what’s put in front of them.
Winter panfish are commonly found in shallow, weedy areas near shore, so getting to them is rarely a problem. Great fishing can be had in just a few feet of water. If you are familiar with a lake or pond simply head for the places where you saw weeds, stumps, logs and other shoreline debris last summer and start cutting some holes. Panfish are also prey fish, which means they need to hide from any larger fish that want to eat them. This is where drop-offs, points and bottom structure come into play. Find the right spot where panfish have plenty of food and cover and you will be able to fill a bucket with perch or bluegills on every outing. Expect to find most winter panfish in water that is 10 feet deep or less. Yellow perch do cruise around the lake at various depths but sooner or later they’ll swing by to trip your flags for a few furious minutes. Be ready for action by skimming your holes to keep them free of ice and having plenty of fresh bait on hand. Perch on a feeding frenzy can wipe out two-dozen shiners in just a few minutes, and if the school is large enough you’ll run out of bait before they run out of interest, something that rarely happens when fishing for trout or salmon.
To keep things interesting it’s legal to set up four tip-ups and then use a small jigging rod to present tiny lures at varying depths. The advantage of a jigging rod is that it allows the fisherman to discover the depth at which the fish are holding. When a perch or ‘gill is caught, simply drop the rest of the lines to the same depth and get ready for action. Keep jigging to monitor the movement of the fish (they may go higher or lower in the water column during the course of the day), and make the appropriate changes to your tip-ups. Most fish will be found close to the bottom or just above the weeds, so keep a few baits working at those depths throughout the day.
Don’t be afraid to pick up and try another spot if the fish decide not to cooperate. It is, after all, fishing, and the definition of the term suggests that it may be necessary to try a new “angle” now and then. When it comes to panfish it’s all about depth and cover, so stick to the weedy shallows and keep trying till you find them.
What I like about small pond fishing in winter is that there is rarely anyone else around, it’s quiet and peaceful on the ice and it’s all but assured that I’ll come home with enough tasty filets for an evening fish fry or chowder. The good thing about Maine’s panfish species is that there is no size or bag limit on them. I like my fish chowders to have at least as much meat in them as they do potatoes and onions – you shouldn’t have to hunt through the pot to find the main ingredient. Fortunately, perch, bluegills and pickerel pretty much taste the same so you can fillet them all, toss them into the stock to make a hearty, meaty chowder that will have you hankering for another day on the ice!
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