What value can be placed on a 1-pound bluegill or a 2-pound crappie? Not in dollars and cents, but in another sense. A 1-pound bluegill can't be bought, and if it could, it would represent part of a meal and little else, with no residual value.
A giant panfish has to be hunted, found, intercepted, and finessed. Something must trigger it to strike, the culmination of finely balanced tackle dancing at the end of exquisitely thin line. It has to be brought to the hole before it can wrap around a cabbage stalk or pop the line on a dead pull. It has to slide onto the ice before it can enlarge the hole in its face and throw the hook. What's that moment worth when it lies there, almost spent, resplendent in reflective hues of purple, pink, green and blue that can't be found in one package anywhere else in nature?
Before we unlock the door to the general location of such priceless experiences, consider one heartfelt suggestion: Let the heavyweights, the true bulls and slabs, go back down the hole within a few minutes-just enough time to take a few photos. If it weighs a pound or better, it doesn't belong in a bucket.
Panfish, so seemingly infinite in number in these world-class waters, tend to manifest gluttonous behavior in otherwise respectful folks, a fact that made acquiring information for this piece something akin to dentistry. Some of the common responses: "We can't sick the hounds on that lake." Or, "You know, I'd love to help you, but last year I saw the same people come here six weekends in a row and fill their buckets every day. It was wholesale slaughter."
These are top ice-fishing destinations for bulls and slabs that can handle busloads of people. Many lakes are good, but these are the Creme de la creme. Panfish factories. Put some time in on the waters listed here and expect either a few 1-pound ‘gills or several crappies to 13⁄4 pounds, or numbers of both in the 3/4-pound range. Some lakes can take the kind of pressure we're about to inflict on them, while others simply can't.
These are the Wailing Walls of the ice-fisherman's panfish kingdom, places to make a pilgrimage to now and then. A place to kneel by the hole and say thanks for the bounty, while releasing a trophy.
Top Ice Fishing Panfish Spots
Lake St. Clair, Michigan-Ontario-Lake St. Clair is world famous for daily double-digit catches of freshwater dragons (muskies). Its potential to produce a hundred or more bass in a day from 2 to 6 pounds places it high on our top-10 smallmouth list every year. But unknown to most ice fishermen, Detroit's backyard "pond" has for many years quietly produced some of the hottest fishing for bluegills and crappies anywhere on earth.
Jim Fofrich Jr., a walleye guide from Lake Erie, makes an annual pilgrimage to this holiest of hole-drilling Meccas. "Mitchell's Bay is a well-kept secret," he says. "For people who have never experienced slab crappies and bull bluegills through the ice, this is the panfishing experience of a lifetime."
Prime time is March, according to Fofrich. "Mitchell's Bay has an average depth of five feet, a sand-gravel bottom, and excellent weedgrowth. In March, panfish migrate back into the shallows. Just walk out about a quarter mile and start drilling holes at 5- to 8-foot depths. It's that easy."
Contact: Dennis Shaw, Bass Haven, 519/354-4242.
Lake of the Woods, Ontario-"This year we were astonished by the harvest," Pyzer says. "I've never seen this many people on the ice. I think over 100,000 pounds of crappies were harvested on Sabascong Bay, and most of those were over a pound, many just under 2 pounds."
Ice roads ran everywhere on Sabascong Bay from January on. Drive your truck out on roads wider than a Trans Canada highway and pick a spot. "A variety of year classes are moving through the system, so fishing should be good for another year or two."
Crappies suspend within six feet of bottom over 40-foot flats. Problem: "People harvest, and they cull up," Pyzer says. "Fish are sorted and the ones thrown back don't survive. Crappies lack the muscle to get back down. Keep the first 10 or 15 fish you catch and throw the rest back. Otherwise, you're killing two or three times your limit by sorting through fish."
Pyzer says this fishery has no peak time. "It's always peak. Most amazing fishery on earth. But later in the season is when I like it best; so nice to ice fish at 60°F. It's like going to the beach in March and April. But, crappies bite all winter. Numbers are there; it's possible to get over 100 crappies a day on many days all winter long."
Contact: Randy Hanson, Hanson's Resort, (caters to the crappie crowd) 807/484-2556.
The Grasslands, South Dakota-Nestled in a large tract of government land between Pierre and I-90, hundreds of stock dams have created lakes and ponds, from a few acres to over 30, scattered across the landscape. Most have a little of everything, from big bass to big bluegills and numbers of crappies, but they're not all good, so research is required.
In winter, start fishing the deepest water closest to the dam. Then move shallower from there and find the drop-off. Different ponds produce different size profiles of fish. Takes some hunting, but 10 or more of these ponds can be fished in a day. Bluegills in the 1-pound range dwell in lakes less pressured, with good numbers of crappies in some ponds, but not exceptionally big-some, however, are over a pound. It's a wild, remote area.
"It takes GPS to find your way out of there," according to Dennis Unkenholz, head of fisheries for the South Dakota Game, Fish and Parks Department. "If you like small stock-dam fishing, these ponds are predictable. A lot of private dams in the area offer phenomenal panfishing, too, if you get to know the landowners."
Contacts: Carl's Bait Shop, 605/223-9453; Steamboat Bait Shop, 605/224-6572.
Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, Valentine Nebraska-If Dave Genz had to choose one trophy spot for truly giant bluegills, this is it. "I've weighed and photographed two ‘gills over 21⁄2 pounds at Valentine," he says. "Don't expect limits of lunkers, but folks who put some time in could pop the biggest bull of their lives."
Lakes in this refuge are big and shallow, averaging about 5 feet deep throughout, with lots of reeds sticking up through the ice. Drill lots of holes in clumps of reeds out in the open. Find green cabbage in the same areas. At first-ice, the spots with cabbage and reeds are good. As cabbage dies back (midseason), look for remaining green weeds around the reeds.
Pike, bass, and perch are bonus species, and all are decent-size fish. Pike over 30 inches have to be released, "which is great for bluegills," Genz adds. "We need those bigger pike to keep the ‘gill populations down. So many big bluegill lakes are ruined by anglers removing all the big predators and the big bulls at the same time, leaving a lake full of stunted fish that won't recover."
Given the shallow nature of these lakes and the milder climate of Nebraska, first-ice can be as early as Thanksgiving or as late as New Years. Key lakes in the refuge are Pelican and Hackberry, but don't overlook smaller bodies of water.
Contact: Little Outlaw Marine, Valentine, 402/376-1867.
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