Pan ‘O Gold In the Cold

Bret Amundson with a lucky catch.  10.5" bluegill.
Bret Amundson with a lucky catch. 10.5″ bluegill.

I’m usually not a big pan fish guy.   In all honesty, I wasn’t much of an ice fishing guy up until about 5 years ago.   I always looked at sunfish and bluegills as those fish you catch off the dock with the kids.  Then I caught one the size of a frying pan.   Uh-ho.

Crappies however, have been a favorite target in the spring, but once the bass and walleye seasons opened, they were pretty much relegated to afterthoughts.   Since I moved next door to Lac qui Parle Lake in western Minnesota, everything changed.   I knew the lake had big walleye in it and we’ve spent time coaxing nice eaters through the hole, but the crappie fishing has been unbelievable.  With a healthy dose of 10″ – 12″ fish along those in the 13″-14″ range too.    It’s tough to beat catching a limit of delicious crappies with the bonus walleye thrown in.

Bret and his lab, Mika, with a 16" walleye and a 12.5" crappie.
Bret and his lab, Mika, with a 16″ walleye and a 12.5″ crappie.

We’ve been finding big crappies in 10 feet of water, jigging crappie minnows near the bottom. While a few on the bottom can be tricked, it’s really the fish that come through suspended around 5-7 feet that are the active fish.  Just about every suspender that we come across comes out of the ice.   That’s fun.

Make sure you have electronics of course, or you’ll never see them.

Mika sez "This ice fishing thing is hard work."
Mika sez “This ice fishing thing is hard work.”

Small spoons, tipped with minnow heads have been my go-to presentation, but full crappie minnows hooked through the head have produced as well.  Rattle reels with plain hooks and fatheads hooked through the back have caught fish too.  It seems that when these fish turn on, you could duck tape a rock to a railroad tie and they’d bite on it.

Most of the time, I’m fishing in a t-shirt too inside a heated sleeper house from the Watson Hunting Camp (available for rental) and the way the weather has been lately, I won’t complain about it.  But the other day before the wind picked up, Tony Crotty and I actually did some hole poppin’ in -20 weather.   Our brains may have been a bit frozen.

Tony Crotty with a couple 12" crappies
Tony Crotty with a couple 12″ crappies

Crotty came across a hole that lit his flasher up like a Christmas tree.   We were fishing in 7 feet of water and in a new location that we hadn’t been to before.  Every fish showed interest, but nothing would take the bait.  Finally I dropped my camera down and saw what fish were giving him fits: Bluegills!  Up and down the water column, brightly colored ‘gills were floating back and forth, some coming right up to the camera to give it a closer inspection.   Had I remembered a memory card in my LX9, I’d have some footage for you.   Crotty and I looked at each other, shrugged and decided to give it a try.  We flipped over our portable, set up camp and tied on the smallest jigs we had.

The bite was too light for the flasher, so I dropped my camera down once again and “sight” fished.  I’d wait for my tiny jig and artificial wax worm to disappear into a sluggish, but hungry bluegill.  Each time, I got anxious, pulled too quickly and missed the fish.  At one point I had a looker come and give ‘er a sniff, then back away, then come back in again.  5 minutes this went on, until finally, out of the depths behind him, creeping like a stalker walking down a dark alley, came the monster.  It happened as if in slow-motion.  He snuck right in front of his buddy as the Jaws theme played in my head.  His mouth opened and inhaled my jig.  Before he could have a second thought, I set that hook into his upper jaw.

1214 - bluegill bret-4

It’s hard to tell how big a fish is on the camera, but when your rod doubles over and you get that tell-tale shake, you start to get a little excited.  It wasn’t until I saw him squeeze through our 8″ hole that I, for the first time since I was 6, had my heart racing over a bluegill.  I had heard that you’ll find them that big here, but it wasn’t until I had it in my hand that I could see the allure.  Some guys will let big ones like this go, as they would a big walleye, and some guys appreciate the crappie-like filet you’ll get off a fish like this.   Either way, they are fun.

That's a healthy fish!  Caught by Richard Atchison
That’s a healthy fish! Caught by Richard Atchison

Don’t let the cold weather keep you off the ice.  Of course, take precautions by dressing warm, packing extra propane tanks for the heater, or rent a heated hard-wall house.   Don’t always think about walleyes first either, if you can get into a hot crappie bite like we did (and still are), you’ll forget all about everything else.


  1. It sounds like the crappie bite has been spectacular everywhere! I read someone in Michigan caught a bunch this weekend, and that’s pretty much all we caught on Saturday. Big ones, too. 10+ inches, on crappie minnows hooked through the back on tip ups.

    As a side note, I am totally jealous of that heated sleeper! For some of the overnight Fisherees we go to, I contemplate stuffing my cot into our pop up shanty.

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