By Tom Pettengill, DWR Sport Fisheries Coordinator
Each fall I start to get excited about the coming of ice fishing. I grew up in Michigan fishing for panfish and walleyes through the ice every winter. The way the weather is cooling off and water temperatures are dropping, it won't be long and there'll be ice.
A number of Utah's reservoirs have great populations of panfish ready to be caught. Anglers should be preparing now for what maybe one of the best ice fishing seasons we have seen in a long time.
Yellow perch are the most abundant panfish in Utah but there are places with good numbers of bluegill and black crappie. Hyrum, Fish Lake, Pineview, Rockport and Yuba (10 perch limit) will all be good locations for yellow perch. Hyrum and Pineview also have bluegills and Pineview has an excellent population of black crappie. Pineview and Yuba are producing lots of perch up to 10 inches but larger perch aren't uncommon. The last two winters Rockport has produced excellent catches of 10س perch. Crappies, 10-11 inches and 3/4 of a pound have been caught this fall at Pineview.
Be prepared to fish deeper for panfish in the winter than you do during the spring and summer. As the water cools in the fall panfish move deeper. Winter panfish are found anywhere from 10 - 50 feet deep. Bluegills are usually the shallowest. They are typically caught in 10 - 25 feet of water. Crappies and perch will generally be in the 20 to 50 foot range. One exception is that crappies may come up within a few feet under the ice at night. Bluegills and yellow perch are usually caught close to the bottom. At times yellow perch are traveling so tight to the bottom they are difficult to see on fish finders. Sometimes only the width of the bottom line will change slightly as small schools or individuals move through tight to the bottom.
A fish finder with a "zoom" feature will help expose those bottom huggers. This association with the bottom makes these two species easier to catch because you can ignore the rest of the water column and fish within a few inches of the bottom.
Bluegills can be very depth specific. Two inches up or down in your bait placement can mean the difference between catching bluegills or not catching them. They also have the smallest mouths and seem to want the smallest baits.
Black crappies are a different animal. Like trout, they can be found anywhere from a few feet under the ice all the way to the bottom. One trip they might be mixed in with perch right on the bottom and the next time suspended at 25 feet in 50 feet of water. A good fish finder is really useful for identifying the depth and location of crappies. Remember with all fish to place your bait at or slightly above the depth they are traveling at. Fish generally don't look down for food.
Fishing equipment for catching panfish is pretty simple. A small rod and reel capable of holding 100 feet of 2-4 pound test line, some small bobbers, an assortment of ice flies and some bait are all you need. Panfish are not big; most are less than 10 inches and weigh less than a pound. Being able to use very light line has several advantages. Light line is a lot more flexible in cold weather and will take tiny ice flies down to the bottom faster than heavier line. You can fish one or two tiny ice flies in 30 - 50 feet of water without any additional weight. One other very important advantage to light line is that when jigging or lifting and dropping your ice flies they can actually flutter and have more action. This will result in more strikes. Using light line with very little weight will allow you to use very small bobbers to detect those light, finicky bites.
Remember, in the winter with colder water temperatures a fish's metabolism is slower, they aren't as aggressive as they are in the summer and they are also more likely to take smaller baits. I like to use two ice flies. One on a dropper off the main line. This has several advantages for isolating what the fish want and what depth. You can use two different colors, or two different styles of ice flies. You can tip each ice fly with a different bait. This experimentation can help you zero in on what the fish really want that day. I usually have the bottom ice fly 2-4 inches off the bottom and the one on the dropper 8 - 10 inches above that.
Always tip your ice flies with a piece of bait. A piece of perch (where it is legal) wax worms, meal worms or a piece of night crawler all work well. There are also a number of artificial baits that work well at times. My personal favorites are either a small piece of perch meat or wax worms. Aggressive, actively feeding fish will also hit larger lures like small spoons and minnow imitations. Experiment and have fun.
If you haven't fished a lake before, look to see where other anglers are fishing or have been fishing (tracks in snow and old holes cut in ice). Around these old holes look for signs that people may have been catching fish. Does it look like several people fished in a fairly small area? Does it look like those people fished in one area for a long time (snow really trampled down, some pieces of bait on the ice, etc.)? Are there any signs that they caught fish (marks where fish laid on the ice, blood, etc.)?
If there are people out fishing go out near them, not too close, and fish the same area. Talk to those anglers or watch them to see if the fish are biting. If you try the area for 15 - 20 minutes and you are not getting any fish then move. Sometimes a few feet will make a big difference. If no one else is catching any fish it may be worth moving 50 - 100 yards or going to a completely different area of the lake. Try moving deeper or shallower in 5-10 foot increments.
Don't just let your lines down and put your rod on a bucket and wait. Every minute or two lift your bait up about a foot and let it fall back or jig it slightly. This movement will catch a fish's eye and get it to come over for a closer look. It's a rare day when moving the bait scares the fish away. Just remember the water is colder and fish are not as aggressive as they are during the summer. Slow down. More often than not, moving your bait a little will get fish to hit.
Experiment with how you move or jig your bait and remember what you were doing when you got a bite so you can repeat it. One thing might work one day and something else the next. Are the fish always caught on the bottom hook or on the top? Did they hit the red ice fly or the yellow one? All of these variations may help you adjust to what they really want.
With the fish being deeper it makes it harder to release fish and have them survive. If you are fishing deeper than about 25 feet most of the fish you catch are likely to have enlarged swim bladders and their stomachs may be pushed into their throats when you bring them out of the hole. It is very difficult for these fish to survive when released. If your fishing deeper than 25 feet you should plan on keeping everything you catch.
If you are mainly catching small perch with a few keepers mixed in I would suggest you either change to larger ice flies or larger baits so that not as many little fish get hooked. If you can't go to a larger bait then I'd suggest you move and try to find a location where you are just catching fish you want to keep.
A 10-inch perch is probably 4 - 5 years old. If everyone kills the little ones there won't be the bigger one's we all want next year. Typically panfish school by size. Also the size of the schools gets smaller as the size of the panfish increases. Older fish typically travel in smaller groups. Yellow perch typically school by sex as well. If you are catching the larger perch they are predominantly females. Perch over 8 inches will eat other fish. So if you are catching small perch there probably aren't many large ones in the area.
Ice will be here before we know it. Don't just sit home this winter dreaming of spring. There is some great fishing to be had right now. When the perch are really biting take the kids along. A school of perch under the hole biting as fast as you can get your lure down will keep the kids attention and they'll learn to love fishing.