by Jeff Samsel

“Crappies here,” Jeff Sundin told me as he began drilling holes 100 yards or so from where we’d just caught bluegills. From atop the ice, everything looked the same. I knew Sundin knew what was beneath us, though, so I upsized my offering and tipped it with a minnow head, and it wasn’t long before I was pulling a pretty black crappie through the ice.

Panfish commonly swim together, and you commonly catch multiple species from the same spot. That said, different species have unique habitat preferences, and each has its own personality. Therefore, targeting a specific kind of panfish can help you catch more fish. We spoke with Sundin about yellow perch, sunfish and crappies, asking what makes each unique.

Yellow Perch
Through the first part of the ice season, yellow perch roam shallow flats, feeding on young-of-the-year perch minnows and other small fish. Sundin looks for a sand bottom and for clam beds, remnant green cabbage or low-lying grass stubble, generally in about 5 to 12 feet of water. Gravel can hold fish, but he considers that more important later in the winter. If he knows of an area where ciscos spawned before the ice formed, that’s a definite starting place to look for perch through the ice.

Perch use areas, more so than defined spots, and the schools move a lot. Consequently, you often have to cover some water to find fish.

“Because it’s so shallow and the fish move a lot, shooting through the ice doesn’t necessarily work that well for finding schools of early perch. You have to drill some holes and start fishing,” Sundin said.

Sundin typically starts with a Lindy Rattl’N Flyer Spoon because the sound draws the fish in to investigate and the bait’s look and action prompts strikes.

“Perch seem to like that flash and vibration. If I can draw them in with the spoon, I can usually get them to hit it.”
Sundin also pointed toward a 1/8- or ¼-ounce 360 Jig and to the new Perch Talker as good options for catching perch early in the season.

Bluegills and related sunfish tend to be deeper than perch but not as deep as crappie during early winter. Sundin looks for sunfish schools over marl bottoms because the clay/mud mix holds the bloodworms, insect larvae and small crustaceans that sunfish feed on the most.

Sundin favors a bottom that’s “kind of soft, but not as soft as mud, and kind of hard, but not as hard as sand.” He suggested looking on fisheries division websites, using an underwater camera or talking with other anglers to find the right kinds of bottom. Also, pay attention to electronics and how the bottom reads whenever you do find bluegill schools.

Green cabbage is another key for schools of bull bluegills. If snow coverage isn’t too heavy, a fair amount of cabbage often remains in good shape through early winter. The sunfish will hold along deep outside weed edges, usually in 8 to 12 feet of water.

Sundin normally starts fishing bluegill schools with a 1/16-ounce Glow Red Frostee Spoon, with the treble loaded with waxworms. That’s a fairly big sunfish offering, which is helpful for drawing in fish and firing up the school and for catching the larger fish. If he gets hit and doesn’t hook fish or if he only catches small fish, he keeps moving.

Once Sundin finds the right size class of sunfish and has caught the most aggressive ones, he typically downsizes slightly so he can continue to catch fish. Good smaller options include a Tungsten Toad for deeper water, a Lindy Bug or a Lindy Ice Worm. He likes the Ice Worm because he can tip it with various plastic tails or a waxworm to get different looks.
Crappies, more so than other panfish, like defined deep holes during the winter. It’s important to note, though, that they won’t necessarily be in the deepest part of a hole. During early winter, especially, they’re apt to be somewhere along the slope down into the hole.

If Sundin has nice, clear ice and there isn’t too much snow, he’ll typically do some shooting through the ice with his flasher to look for crappie schools. When he does pull out the auger, he always drills holes at a range of depths along the slope going down into the hole. Then he’ll work those holes systematically to try to find the fish.

“If you’re fishing a hole that breaks from 20 to 30 feet and you find fish along a little shelf in 24 feet of water, chances are very good that you’ll find fish at 24 feet all the way around the hole,” Sundin said.

Once he identifies the key depth, he’ll often drill several holes at that depth. He noted, though, that the key depth can change daily and that the crappie typically work their way down the slope as the season progresses.

Sundin’s favorite searching bait for crappies is the same Frostee Spoon he uses for sunfish. He typically tips it with a minnow head instead of a wad of waxworms, though. He also likes to tip a Frostee Jig with a whole, live minnow for a deadstick presentation.

“Last year I also did really well with the Foo Flyer,” Sundin said, noting that he always puts some kind of soft plastic tail or a minnow that unique jig, which darts around and covers a lot of territory when you jig it.

Sundin typically works his baits at least a couple of feet off the bottom for panfish, and that’s especially true for crappies, which commonly suspend several feet up in the water column. He always tries to stay high if there is a big school, because fishing down among them often produces fast action for small fish, while fishing above them will draw larger crappies up out of the school.

For Your Information
Although Jeff Sundin does not guide during the winter, he spends a lot of time on the ice and stays in touch with many fishermen and bait shop and resort operators to maintain daily fishing reports on his website,