The kind of water that is easy to overlook. Easy to drive by and assume that the diminutive size or depth isn’t worth the effort. From Nebraska to Illinois and far beyond, the same story seems worth repeating. Some of ice fishing’s best opportunities for panfish can sometimes be some very unassuming water.
Closer to the edge of the Ice Belt in places where safe ice can be fleeting for weeks, winterkill isn’t as much of a threat. Thus, in some cases, some of these lakes might only be five to six feet of water.
In the summer, these same lakes can often become very weed-choked and difficult to fish. The result is often big panfish that get spared harvest during much of the summer, not to mention some of these shallow environments are also often fertile.
Prime example is the Sandhill Lakes near Valentine, Nebraska. What makes some of these fisheries even more productive for ice anglers are motor restrictions or, in some cases, a lack of a boat ramp. These factors can combine to decrease pressure and harvest during the summer, which works in favor of the ice angler.
Lakes small enough to overlook can be found in Iowa, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Pennsylvania, New York, and beyond. Along the Interstate corridors, there are often small barrow pits.
Other prime locations are shallow dish-bowl lakes and ponds. In regions where there is just enough winter to make ice but not enough winter to build several feet of ice with a prolonged amount of snow for winterkill, the number of lakes that can potentially hold fish is exponentially higher.
The same lake in northern Minnesota would often winterkill, limiting the big fish potential. What is worth mentioning is that there are also some overlooked marsh and shallow panfish lakes in both Minnesota and Wisconsin, particularly those that are part of a flowage. Some moving water can keep five to six-foot ecosystems alive during the tougher winters.
Tough to access
In today’s world, where panfish get beat up on spawning beds, harvested throughout the open-water season, and again targeted through the ice, some of the most appealing water we encounter in our travels each winter are often very unassuming.
It bears repeating that much of this best ice has some type of factor that makes open-water angling difficult. The kind of water where we often find the best panfish aren’t the well-known lakes that attract the most attention.
The diamonds in the rough we look for is water that is small enough where no lake map exists for a GPS. The kind of water that you are required to fish from a kayak or perhaps shore and deal with weeds if you want to use a long rod in June.
Shallow dish-bowl lakes that are less than eight feet deep can be very unassuming, particularly when they are just a few acres, but regardless of size, these lakes fish much differently than many traditional lakes by design.
As a rule of thumb, these lakes fill in with heavy weed growth during the summer. There is no weed line as weeds can reach the surface across the entire lake during the summer. Come July, most of the fishing activity comes to a halt, and this allows bigger panfish to survive.
In the fall and winter, many of these weeds will break down and die. The weed clumps become more sporadic. What also seems universal with this lake type, no matter where we travel, is the amount of fish activity around the rim of the lake. The transition from the shoreline to the basin is often the only structure on the lake.
Very subtle structure in most cases, and these patterns are often extremely shallow. If there is a silver bullet in this type of environment, look for pencil reeds or even cattails frozen in the ice.
Remnant weed clumps over the basin off the shoreline can hold fish as well, particularly when winter wears on, and the key to finding fish away from the shoreline often means finding the tallest weeds, which can be as simple as walking around the ice until you can physically observe weeds frozen in the ice.
Fish the reeds
Last winter, I joined up with a team of pros from Nebraska to organize a fishing trip in places known only by the locals. In three feet of water on a lake that looked more like a duck hole than a big panfish hole, we tangle with bluegills big and nasty enough to break four-pound test when these fish wrapped around the pencil reeds.
The strategy was simple: look for pencil reeds frozen in the ice and get as close to the pencil reeds as possible. As we fished through locations, we were able to identify the travel routes these fish used as they moved through, and it seemed like a large majority of the fish were caught out of the same handful of holes. Classic reed fishing.
You may also want to read: 10 Ice Fishing Fundamentals
Water clarity concerns
Shallow water can present several nuances depending on the ecosystem and water clarity. In Nebraska, we encountered slightly stained water under a foot of somewhat dirty ice. The fish had no issue traveling under a Fish Trap or boots on the ice. We have encountered other lakes and ponds where shallow, clear water combined with clear ice required some serious adjustments.
What can be amazing at times is just how visible our presence can be from below, from a fish’s perspective. When filming underwater footage below the ice with a GoPro camera, there are often times when we can look up with the camera and see a sled, see our boots, see people walking and in shallow water under the right conditions, getting close to fish can be a lot more difficult in shallow water.
In these conditions, ice anglers must adjust to being successful, and we have seen these factors play out in southern Wisconsin and northern Illinois in the past. These conditions take a different mentality where we often have to sit over a hole for a longer period of time.
The fish often scatter as you approach and drill a hole but slowly filter back in if you sit still. Find the right weed clump and hunker down without moving your feet. In some cases, we have seen where fish wouldn’t come under a shelter, so we were required to fish outside.
In this scenario, longer rods really shine as you can fish further away from your hole. A person sitting right on top of a hole with an eighteen-inch rod would catch three fish, while a person nearby with a four to five-foot rod standing off the hole would catch thirty.
Small water, nice fish
Borrow pits and gravel pits are another solid option for anglers, and this water is often right under our nose with some surprising potential. While often tiny in size, these small gems can fish like much bigger water in that they often have deep water and structure-like points, holes, and bars that typically come off the shoreline.
We have fished some pits so small that you could cast across them. Typically, the water is relatively clear, and these pits often have good weed growth coming off the shorelines for a varying distance.
While there is often structure, everything is in miniature in that a point might only come out ten feet from the shoreline, but that is often all that is required to hold fish.
We found several crappies over 12 inches on a tiny pond as the hum of semi-trucks and cars groaned in the backdrop on a busy highway. Who knows how many ice anglers drive by such locations every winter on the way to more traditional, well-known fisheries?
Across our travels on a lot of different small, unassuming bodies of water that often don’t get a second glance by many ice anglers across several states, several tried and true patterns emerge that often hold fish.
On shallow water ponds, lakes, and flowages that are a handful of feet, any trough, dip, or channel that is even a food deeper will often hold a lot of fish in the winter.
Often these little dips and troughs form a subtle hole where the weeds thin or stop. If there is no change in depth, look for the tallest weeds. In some cases, as stated previously, this is as simple as physically seeing weed stalks and stems frozen in the ice.
Other lakes require an underwater camera if visibility exists. On tiny lakes where there is very stained water and little to no weed growth, focus on the shoreline around the rim. If pencil reeds, flooded timber, or cattails are present, fish it.
Because of the small size of some of these lakes, the size structure of panfish can be fickle in that it is easy for small, obscure lakes to be full of stunted panfish.
We will sometimes witness prime ponds full of big bluegill or crappie become ruined and full of stunted fish after just a winter or two if fish harvest on big fish becomes heavy.
To cut down the chase, many of the better spots have bass or sometimes pike populations that keep panfish from stunting. If you encounter large numbers of small bass or catch a few larger bass, that is usually a good sign. Keep hunting.
If you encounter clouds of four-inch bluegills in every hole, that is usually a bad sign—not to say that big panfish can’t be present in such an ecosystem, but these types of locations don’t have a lot of real estate for a diverse biostructure of fish.
These types of locations are either really good or simply full of undesirable small fish with no in-between. As a result, you have to do some exploration and put in some time to find the diamonds in the rough. What can always be amazing is just how good of fishing and just how big of panfish we can catch out of water that most people drive by.
Across a wide region, some of the best locations to catch big panfish through the ice in today’s world are locations that just look too small, too shallow to hold any fish.
This winter, make a point to familiarize yourself with these opportunities. Many of these locations might be private where permission is required, but a surprising number of opportunities offer some type of public access. Whether private or public, this type of water remains one of the best-kept secrets on the ice.
Article submitted by Trent Embry.
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