Panfish including crappies, sunfish and yellow perch may eat a variety of foods, but they often dine on tiny aquatic animals collectively called zooplankton.

Understanding a bit about these micro meals can help you put more panfish on ice.

Microscopic zooplankton are building blocks of the underwater food chain. They feed on single-cell plants known as phytoplankton, and in turn are consumed by small fish, including panfish. That a slab crappie or bull bluegill could sustain itself on such tiny fare may be hard to swallow, but zooplankton factor into panfish forage virtually all year—including the hardwater period.

In fact, where zooplankton such as Daphnia and copepods are abundant, you can often find panfish aplenty until the hungry schools of panzers graze down the forage base and move on to greener pastures.

Zooplankton tend to suspend in the water column, often in open water but also near some type of structure. Some varieties, like Daphnia, move higher in the water column in low-light periods and drop deeper during the daytime.

When we say zooplankton are small, we mean it. Copepods may stretch 1/10 of an inch, while Daphnia are closer in size to the head of a pin. Sharp-eyed panfish often rely on their sense of sight to pursue these pint-sized predators, though likely not from long distances. For example, researchers have found that crappies can see a 1/32-inch zooplankton from a distance of 5 inches.

Even though ice fishing lures are larger than zooplankton, many do a great job of imitating these tiny creatures—attracting and triggering panfish that are feeding on them.

Mimicking zooplankton movements can also be a big plus. When jigging a small panfish ice lure like a Lindy Toad, Ice Worm or Frostee, for example, consider that a Daphnia bobs slowly about like a tiny underwater cheeseburger. Copepods, meanwhile, are more adept at evasive darting maneuvers.

Even if you don’t know what kind of zooplankton panfish are feeding on, experimenting with different subtle jig strokes can help you dial in the right moves for whatever type of tiny prey is on the menu.