For nearly the past 20 years, I have made a concerted effort to try to find, and catch, open-water panfish in the middle of the winter, when almost everybody else had reclined to college basketball, outdoor shows or quiet, warm evenings in front of a cozy fireplace.
My initial efforts were sporadically successful with the occasional trip getting an “excellent” rating. Over time, I stumbled and fell, fought skim ice and cold rain and weathered through a variety of waters and conditions that taught me a lot. Although there have been times when I was legitimately miserable, I would have to say that, through it all, it was worth it.
Open water panfish in the winter is no “news flash,” as anglers in the slightly-more-southern reaches of the East Coast have enjoyed winter fishing success for several generations. With the invention of warmer, tougher outdoor apparel, winter fishing no longer has to be a chilling experience. However, as I attempt to age gracefully, I have discovered that my “preferred temperature range” is inching more and more to the 40- to 50-degree zone, perhaps higher. All of my “stuff” has led me to the conclusion that if I want to fish in the winter, I will have to pursue it on warmer days.
So, with all that, let’s say that we are having a relatively mild winter, where most lakes and ponds remain clear of ice cover, and the 40- to 50-degree days are frequent enough to make the effort not only comfortable, but successful. Our water temperatures have hovered around 39 to 44 degrees lately in most Mason-Dixon venues and, though cold, is not really a kiss of death to winter bluegills and crappies. These fish can remain high in the water column and very close to the shore depending on certain factors. Southerly winds can push slightly warmer surface water to any northern shoreline, which can retain additional heat from sunlight exposure during the winter. This increase of temperature, by even 3 or 4 degrees, can be enough to kick-start a good panfish bite.
Although most of the better panfish bites occur when there are above-average temperatures, stable, yet cold, conditions can also lead to quality catches. A couple of years ago, the weather really worked in our favor. We saw that a warm front was coming but that temperatures were only going to be 8-10 degrees above normal. With 37-degree water and warmer southerly winds a-comin’, things looked good for a panfish beatdown in one particular shallow cove I knew of at a local public lake.
But it was only a “one day” warm spell, which often happens in mid-winter. Armed with a supply of wax worms and meal worms as a tipping bait, we threaded them on 1/80th-ounce jigheads and suspended them 5 feet below sensitive bobbers, allowing them to drift with the wind. Not only was the first day of the year exceptional with over 80 fish caught, but the next three trips saw incredible numbers of panfish caught with a nice mix of bass, crappies, big golden shiners but mostly quality bluegills.
After a few nights that were colder than the previous weeks lows, the massive school of fish moved out of the area, perhaps favoring deeper haunts that had a more stable environment, namely temperature. Keep in mind that a warm rain can also kick off a good bite, especially where incoming creeks and runs enter a lake or a pond and can heighten the existing water temperatures. Additionally, take note of any bank or shoreline area that is exposed to hours of sunlight during the warmest part of the day, predictably from 10 a.m. until around 3 p.m. These types of areas can offer amazing fishing opportunities during the winter.
A few other notes would include keeping things light, as in using 4 and even 2-pound test monofilament to suspend micro-jigs from 1/64th to 1/124th of an ounce. Winter bluegills and crappies often develop a “zombie” mode where they swim lethargically about, taking advantage of food options only when they are literally right in front of their face. Play the wind and let it push your sensitive Thill or PlastiLite floats along gently. Often, working a bait actually implies too much motion and winter panfish reject its speed and motion. Don’t look for bobbers to plunge forcefully below the surface. Rather, bites are almost always simple movements like the float tipping to one side, twitching or even just holding steady in a gentle surface chop. I would say that 95% of my winter panfish catches never took a bobber under, so you have to know what to look for and be ready to set the hook when things don’t look right.
This year, the winter bite has been the best I have experienced in over 20 years of open-water fishing in the cold. Although the bluegill numbers are off, the bass and big crappie effort has been exceptional. No giant bass, but lots of 1.5 to 3-pounders with a couple of fours. Crappies seem to peak on the warmer, sunny and breezy conditions. On at least two occasions my son and I fished, with great success, when the ponds were halfway covered with skim-ice from frigid overnight lows.
Indeed, winter panfishing can be challenging, but rewarding as well. Bundle up and give it a shot this month at your favorite panfish pond or lake.