It’s setting up to be a typical winter along the Lake Michigan shoreline — local lakes have 2 inches of ice and 3 inches of slush, which will freeze and thaw into a sheet of white ice that is functional, but not ideal for ice anglers and their travel.
Luckily, the fish don’t care.
The first-ice bite for bluegills is fast and furious. Find the fish and you can catch the fish. They don’t display the finicky behavior of February.
What follows are some tips for first-ice bluegills.
Take a spud and be wary of all ice right now. Although there are snowmobiles on Houghton Lake, we are not in that region. Our temperatures are much warmer, and our ice is still very suspect. Even when approaching other groups on the ice, be careful in picking your path and use your spud to check the ice as you walk.
Most safety resources say 5 or 6 inches of ice for snowmobile and ATV travel. Those numbers are for hard, clear ice, which we will not likely have. Use caution.
The first piece of equipment you’ll want is a way to make a hole in the ice. If you’ve read this far, you’ve probably got a spud. If not, you need one for travel, but it can also be good enough to pop holes in the early ice. It can also be used to open existing holes in thicker ice.
Next up is an auger. A 4-inch hand auger is a sweet little device for popping a bunch of holes in a hurry and it’s tailor-made for panfish. If you want to speed things up more, buy an adapter at your local tackle shop and put the auger on the end of your electric drill. A 6-inch hand auger is still a pretty fast drill, but putting it on your cordless drill will let you quickly scout an area. I always bring two well-charged lithium-ion batteries along when I’m using my electric drill with my auger. One tip: buy spare blades for your augers now, rather than trying at the end of the season.
You’ll want a strainer or scoop for your ice holes. Getting the slush out lets you fish more easily and lets you detect strikes better.
Finally, you’ll need a rod. The length and stiffness of the rod are not super-important, but having a spring-bobber is. Bluegills have a very light bite and the best way to detect that is to use a spring bobber.
Similarly, a reel is not super-important for early-ice bluegills on most of our lakes. The fish will be in less than 20 feet of water, so you’re not going to have a lot of line out. Your line should be 2-pound-test at most. Fluorocarbon line is preferable, but not necessary.
Jigs come in all shapes, sizes and colors. I prefer to have some yellows, some oranges and some metallic jigs in both banana style and tungsten. You can also pick up some teardrop style jigs. Banana jigs look like you might guess and are typically made of lead. They fall faster than a teardrop, but slower than a tungsten and they are a good, inexpensive way to learn to ice fish. Buy a bunch in a variety of colors and you’ll be in business.
Having said that, when fish are finicky, you’ll need more than one style of jig. Some days the fish will want a jig that hangs vertically like a banana jig. Some days they will want one that’s horizontal like a tungsten. Some days, they will want one that flutters down slowly like a teardrop. It’s important to have all three.
Why are tungsten jigs popular? They allow a heavier jighead in a small package. This lets you drop your lure down more quickly when the bite is on. They also let you drop fast enough to get through the little potato-chip bluegills at the top of the school and down to the lunkers at the bottom of the school. A word of advice about tungsten, though: don’t keep using them when there are bass in the area. Three lost jigs adds up pretty fast. Put one something cheaper until the bass bite calms down or you find the panfish again.
Regardless of which jig type you choose, always check the hook points and give them a little touch-up with a stone or a file before you put them in the water.
There are two main types of bait for bluegills: waxworms and spikes. Waxworms are bigger and tend to have a better action when you jig. Spikes are compact but stay alive on the hook and wiggle independent of your jigging motion. Spikes can also be hooked through a small scent sac that can be found by giving them a light squeeze. Most anglers put two or three spikes, sometimes in multiple colors, on the hook at once.
I’m partial to spikes, but on the days they want waxworms, you’d better have those because they won’t even look at a spike.
Plastic trailers work great for panfish and first-ice is a good time to try them. You can buy them in various sizes that approximate live baits or you can buy weird-looking things that just work. If you run out of bait or have the wrong bait, make sure you have a pocketful of plastic trailers you can try on your panfish jigs.
First lesson, take your jig, put it in the hole and lower your line to the bottom. Then reel up a couple inches of line. If you have a line keeper on your reel or a peg on your Schooley’s-style reel, this is a good time to set the depth.
Often, just the simple act of dropping a jig to bottom and lifting it up out of the sandgrass will be enough to trigger a bite. If not, a little wiggle of the rod tip can trigger a bite. If those simple acts don’t work, find a cadence and jig repeatedly, varying your depth, until you find what works.
Why am I mentioning electronics way down here? Because for first-ice panfish, they are not strictly necessary. Just getting in the right area and jigging will get you some fish during first ice. As the winter wears on, you will want electronics for finding new areas and finding fish. Just a simple flasher transducer dropped in a hole and swung back and forth will tell you if there are weeds and panfish around.
Once you’ve found the fish, you can watch their reaction to your lure live on screen and adjust your technique as necessary. Cameras are also great for this, but like trail cameras for deer, you can overdo it and spook your quarry with overuse.