Early Ice Panfish Tips & Strategies

Early Ice Panfish Tips

You might be surprised to hear that early ice panfish isn’t always a slam-dunk.

Unlike walleyes, who are very active on early ice almost immediately, crappies and bluegill can be tentative for the first couple weeks of the ice fishing season.

This writeup is jam-packed with a bunch of useful advice from hardcore ice-head Will Pappenfus that will help you put more early ice panfish on the ice – buckle up!

This is a “choose your own adventure” – you can watch the video OR read the article below. Both have mostly identical information. 👍

Step #1 – You can’t catch ’em if you don’t know where they live!


The lakes icing over in winter creates a problem problem for the lake’s inhabitance. Oxygen production is severely dampened.

Most of those fish are going to dive into the weeds, making shallow cabbage beds anywhere from 7 feet to 12 feet an excellent option. The best time to catch a big one is going to be in the mornings and evenings.

The smaller fish disappear, and the bigger ones come out to play. They might be a little bit tougher to catch, but if you get one to bite, they are usually big ones. 

Fish love weeds, but the basin can also play a huge factor for early ice panfish.

Some lakes have great basin bites on early ice, while other lakes take some time for that bite to develop. There’s not always a magic formula – you need to go find out via trial-and-error.

(Btw, if you’re dealing with finicky crappies and bluegills, check out our Tough Bite Panfish writeup for more helpful info 👊)

If you are hunting panfish in the basin, I would check the shallower ones first, simply because the fish might not be pushed out into the deepest basins yet. That said, on many deeper lakes (max depth 40-50 feet), they might be in some of those deeper basins already. You simply need to drill and check it out with your electronics.

The best way to find them is grabbing a couple friends, a couple of augers and start drilling.

Take your electronics and start hopping around. You need to put in the work to find them. Don’t sit in one hole, hoping to jig one up. You need to cover water. If you are not marking any fish, don’t waste your time in that hole.

Basin Panfish on Livescope

This is especially true if you don’t have forward facing sonar (Livescope). It’s entirely possible the big school of panfish that you’re looking for is only 10 feet away from the hole you’re sitting in and if you don’t setup on-top of them, they aren’t going to come to you.

Typically, you will need to move around in 40-50 foot increments, covering large swaths of water to find these deepwater basin fish.

One thing that makes this process even more difficult is the fact that panfish can be skittish on early ice. Walking around on thinner ice can spook fish, especially in shallow water. But this can also be true in 25-30 feet of water. Auger noise will obviously get the fish’s attention, but even footsteps are enough to shut fish off and push them away. This means you need to strike a subtle balance between moving around, aggressively hunting and sitting still, moving slowly and patiently. Everyday is different, so you need to read the mood of the fish.

Shallow depths, clear water, fishing pressure and thin ice are all factors that can make fish skittish. When these factors are more exaggerated, the best course of action will be caution. This means drilling less holes and moving around less. A smart strategy is drilling our the desired areas ahead of time, creating all your noise and commotion right away, then going into stealth mode and letting the fish filter back into the area.

When the fish are extremely finicky, you’ll need to sit and wait them out in a small area to avoid spooking them. In these conditions, drilling five or six holes might push the fish hundreds of yards away. This is more likely to happen in shallow water, but it can still happen in deeper water clearwater locations.

If you want the best bang-for-your-buck, target lakes that have dirtier water, specifically targeting them when the sun is out. The bite usually slows down or dies during nighttime on lakes with less water clarity.


When it comes to presentation, there are a couple approaches that will serve you well.

First, you need a spoon. Tie up a slender vertical spoon like the Northland Forage Minnow or a small 1/16oz or 1/8oz Buck-Shot Spoon. Tip it with wax worms, at least enough to cover each point of your treble hook. If they are being picky, they will turn you down if they see one little red hook tine that’s uncovered by meat.

Small tungsten ice jigs work great, too.

Early Ice Panfish Lures

Ultimately, it’s up to the fish to tell you what they are willing to bite on any given day. Each day is different with various potential changes in weather patterns.

Most of the time, I am going to start with a spoon, simply because I want to get the bigger fish out of the school. If they are coming up and picking at it, then I am going to switch to those small tungsten jigs.

Anytime you use something a little bit bigger for early ice panfish – whether that’s a spoon or a panfish-sized rattle bait – you need to play to the aggressive nature of the fish. You can’t finesse them the same way you would if you were using a small tungsten jig.

You’ll need to play a the keep-away game to keep them engaged. You are trying to get them to chase it. You’re aim should be to get them to come up and crush it as hard as they can.

When I’m only seeing one or two fish on the screen, I’m going to slowly jig it right above them. But if you’re sitting on top of a larger school, you’ll want to fish higher in the water column, making them chase and forcing that big panfish to come up and crush it.


There are a couple of reasons you might consider using a spoon for early ice panfish.

#1 is drop speed.

Spoons drop a lot more quickly than a small lead or tungsten panfish jig. This is important because when you are fishing in deep water or moderate depths, you have a lot of water to cover. A spoon will get down 10 or 15+ feet a lot quicker than a smaller, lighter jig.

Faster drop speeds = Covering more holes

☝️ That is an important equation when you’re trying to find early ice panfish.

Sometimes it’s a numbers game. Fish as many holes as you can, and that’s where the efficiency of a spoon really shines.

#2 is a spoon’s ability to call fish into your hole from a distance.

Many spoons – like the Buck-Shot spoons – have internal rattle systems that create sound.

Additionally, all spoons have split rings down by the bottom treble hook.

Whether it is the internal rattles or the split rings, these baits will make sounds that call fish in from a distance. Also, the larger profile of a spoon is easier for panfish to see. This is especially true and important when you are fishing in clear water situations where you don’t want to move around quite as much for fear of spooking the fish.


We’ve talked about it at length already, but the biggest mistake I see anglers making on early ice is making too much noise, and spooking the fish as a result.

Drilling holes, walking around, playing music, talking with buddies, even shuffling your feet.

Sometimes the best course of action is drilling a few holes, and setting up camp for a while waiting for the fish to come to you. This is especially effective in places where you know the fish live and cycle through.


Will Pappenfus has had a ton of success finding red-hot panfish bites on lakes that are off the beaten path. Here’s a simple recipe for finding hidden gems that might hold big panfish:

The best thing is to stay small.

Will likes fishing as many small lakes as he can, because it doesn’t take very long to drill these lakes out and figure out what’s in there. It also doesn’t take a lot of travel time across the lake to get to the good areas. Lastly, it seems like these smaller lakes are the ones that hold some of the biggest panfish.

Small Panfish Lake

The beauty of fishing these smaller lakes is you can cover multiple lakes in a day. But if that’s your plan, then make sure you are picking lakes that are different from one another. You might check a lake that is shallow and muddy, and then continue your hunt on a lake that is clear and deep.

Maybe you start on a lake that has a more basin oriented bite, then you can try a lake with a lot of good cabbage weeds.

Trying different lakes with different habitats is important, because on some days, the fish might be more active in this type of lake and not as active in this type of lake.


One of the negatives to fishing these smaller lakes is that they are often extremely vulnerable to over-harvest. It’s not difficult for anglers to wipe out the panfish population by keeping most of the larger fish inside that lake. It can take years and years for to regenerate these panfish population, and in some cases, the populations may never recover.

If you live somewhere where there are a lot of anglers and the fishing pressure and harvesting pressure is high, you might consider focusing your efforts on larger lakes that are less vulnerable to over-harvest.

That said, it’s important to make sure there is enough safe ice. Bigger lakes usually have deeper water and freeze more slowly in early winter.

The great thing about big lakes is it is a lot more difficult for groups of anglers to catch and harvest ALL the big fish within these fisheries. There are a lot of good places for fish to hide in lakes like these and too much water for anglers to cover to find and target the majority of these schools.

If you are having a tough time finding the diamond in the rough with those smaller little panfish lakes, don’t rule out the bigger lakes. It’s going to take longer to find the fish, but once you do, you’ll find a much more sustainable population of fish to target. It can sometimes take a few days of drilling and looking around different structure areas or giant weed flats, but once you find the fish, it can be extremely rewarding.


Forget the fish, the #1 most important detail for early ice is getting home safely at the end of the trip.

Always, always, ALWAYS wear ice picks around your neck. Have them ready-to-go incase you break through the ice. Wet ice is very slippery and it’s difficult to pull yourself to safety without picks.

Five good inches of ice is quite safe for walking, BUT ice thickness is never consistent enough to be completely safe on early ice.

Use a spud bar (chisel) to check the ice on your way out. The more you use one of these tools, the more you’ll learn how to check and inspect ice quickly.

Don’t be afraid to bring a life jacket. Nobody is going to make fun of you for wearing a life jacket on early ice.

The the proper precautions and you can catch a mess of bluegills and crappies on early ice this year!


Even if you follow the tips listed above, you will inevitably run into days when the fishing is just plain TOUGH! Panfish can become very negative during certain conditions – that’s when you need to bust out your tough bite arsenal. Read my next article to catch more panfish, even when they’re being tight-lipped….

How to Ice Fish Panfish During a Tough Bite

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