By Dan Johnson

Virtually every panfish angler has a favorite lure he reaches for first when it’s time to put fish on the ice. Whether it’s a tantalizing horizontal jig ready for tipping with supple plastic or a downsized teardrop ideal for dressing with dainty larvae, this personal confidence booster gets the nod while other baits wait in the box.

While there’s nothing wrong with being proficient at a signature presentation, ice fans wielding a variety of tactics catch more fish in a wider range of conditions—and those prepared to deploy a proven selection of lures in logical order truly set themselves up to enjoy panfish nirvana. Just ask Jeff Sundin. The longtime northern Minnesota guide leans on a three-step strategy to pluck plump panzers from a variety of lakes within a long cast of his Deer River home base.
Step 1
His attack plan opens with a reliable first strike.

“I start with something a little larger than necessary for most of the fish I expect to encounter,” he begins, explaining that a heavy lure lets him quickly assess the situation beneath the ice—in terms of the species present and its mood at the moment. As a result, the first rod he reaches for whether targeting bluegills, crappies or yellow perch is typically rigged with a spoon.

A 1/8-ounce or larger Lindy Frostee Jigging Spoon, tipped with at least one waxworm on each tine and one sideways across the treble, is a favorite where bluegills and crappies dominate. In areas prone to producing perch with the odd crappie mixed in, he opts for something dressed similarly but a few decibels louder, like a Rattl’n Flyer Spoon.

“In either case, drop the spoon about 2 to 3 feet above bottom and see if you can get fish to follow it up,” he advises, adding a cautionary note against overly animated jigging. “Softer strokes are best for panfish, so save the sharp lifts and other aggressive moves for when you’re targeting walleyes and pike. Simply wobbling the rod’s tip like you’re wagging your finger at somebody in warning is all it takes.”

While jigging, Sundin scrutinizes his sonar display, tracking incoming targets and adjusting the lure’s height and motion as needed to trigger a strike.

“The spoon presentation should produce four or five fish if you’re in a decent hole,” he said. “Perch are most likely to hit it, with crappies a close second. But it’s not all that unusual to catch sunfish on a spoon. You might not catch a limit of ’gills that way, but there’s nothing keeping you from tying on a Lindy Fat Boy or other horizontal jig once you discover you’re sitting over a school of sunfish.”
Step 2
“The second rod I reach for is set up with a small, bug-style jig,” says Sundin.

Relatively stocky heads like the Fat Boy and Lindy Bug are perennial producers, but the segmented Lindy Ice Worm, round-head Lindy Ice Jig and weight-forward Tungsten Toad also merit serious experimentation. And let’s not forget the banana-shaped Slick Jig, which Sundin often uses with a tiny Watsit Grub threaded on the hook.

Sundin goes to this second phase after he’s plucked a few fish from a hole and the action slows. Downsizing often allows him to pick up a few more fish.

Step 3
Phase three hinges on a size 4 or 6 Lindy Frostee Jig, tipped with a crappie minnow skin-hooked parallel to the spine to give the bait a horizontal attitude.

“This is my old standby, no matter what,” he admits.

If these three lines of attack fail to produce, it’s time to reel in and move on.

“Actually, if the very first fish that comes in to check out my initial drop is a sniffer, I consider pulling up stakes right away,” he offers. “And if you run into a mob of small yellow perch, down-sizing can make you pull your hair out.”

It’s worth noting that adaptation can be considered a fourth prong of Sundin’s panfish approach. Don’t be afraid to mix and match a variety of jigs, spoons, plastics and live bait to make something happen, he says.

Still, his tactical three-step process lies at the core of every panfish effort.

“Trying to be the proverbial jack of all trades can be a mistake,” he warns. “It’s better to master half a dozen techniques than do 80 things poorly. For the most part, I stay within my comfort zone and rarely struggle unless I try to get too fancy.”

Such sage advice from the seasoned iceman is sure to help you put more panfish on ice all winter.