Go-To Jigs and Plastics for Panfish

Neil R. asks:

What are your go to jigs and plastics for panfish throughout the ice season?

Hi Neil – This is a tough question, as there are many baits I’ll use over the course of a winter in different situations.  Sometimes, it’s a matter of catching a few and seeing what they’re coughing up, or other times, my selection is based solely on size and color of the bait, especially when clarity is poor.  Still, I’m just like other anglers, where I have my own bias when it comes to tendencies and go-to’s.  I’ll detail a few that are clear winners no matter where I’ve gone.


·         Tungsten Tubby – 1/16 oz and 1/32 oz – Pair up sizes with confidence colors of your own, but no matter where I go, this is typically the #1 jig I use as the backbone of the presentation.  It hangs more at a 45 degree angle, yet dances horizontally much like a minnow.  The head-up and tail-down presentation works well, as I’ve seen many fish on underwater camera comfortable in approaching it from below. 


·         Waxy Jig – This bait gets little outward press, but is the best vertical presentation I show to panfish annually.  I love mixing it up and giving them a bait that hangs differently.  Those small details are often what helps you in turning a good day into a great day. 


·         Mustache Worm – I’ve been a huge fan of this design since its inception.  I run twin tails for crappies, and pull one off for most bluegill situations, but I can rig these things in incredible variations.  I prefer the bigger ones for gills and crappies both, and really appreciate the flexibility it gives any presentation.

·         Wax Tail – This is a great design when grubs are the order of the day.  Often, when friends are doing well on bait, I can do as well or better with this plastic, as it has the bulk needed on the hook shank with some attracting movement in the tail-section.  The biggest sizes on any jig are great for trophy crappies!

·         Nymph – This is a quality design for the big waters where mayfly’s are present.  Perch love these things, especially in the buggy colors, but also in the white and glow colors at night.  When you’re catching perch that are spitting up bugs all around the hole, this is a go-to.

Newbies with Promise

Here’s a few plastics I’ve run with some success thus far, but I’m going to be doing more testing on them this year. 

2017 VMC Tungsten Lineup – I’ve used the Probe Jig as a bloodworm imitator with some success for gills fishing it right on bottom, and I’m super intrigued with the Crayfish Jig for all kinds of applications, especially perch and even walleye.  This season will be another fun winter of experimenting to see what the new baits can do and how they stack up to time-honored and true favorites!


What is Trophic Status, and How Does It Affect Fishing?

David K. asks:

Hey Joel I was wondering what the differences are between a lakes trophic status and how that affects the fishery as far as being eutrophic, mesotrophic and so on and so forth.

Hi David – there’s some really great book resources to learn more on this, I’m thinking specifically from a Limnology course in my past.  Of course there are some online sources as well, and this was the first hit on Google.

Without getting too detailed regarding the science, and focusing more on the fishing and fishery aspect, remember these are general guidelines helpful for discussing similarities among lakes of similar type.  Consider trophic status as an indicator, among other things, of fertility.  Eutrophic lakes are highly fertile, often dominated by shallow weed growth, and thus extremely productive systems.  They can be prone to winterkill because of their shallow nature, and can also be warmer bodies of water in general.  Bass and panfish communities tend to be the dominant species groups here, but many more species can exist depending on other factors.  Oligotrophic lakes on the other end of the spectrum are rock-controlled, deep-water, and minimally fertile lakes.  You’ll find these in Canadian shield areas, with their gamefish species composition being often consisting of lake trout, pike, and walleye.  Mesotrophic lakes describe a very large swath in the middle, often with sand and gravel controlled middle-depth features.  A large host of species can live here.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources goes a bit further in regards to classifying their fisheries by specific chemical and physical characteristics.  They divide the lakes in Minnesota into 43 distinct classes that help serve to compare sampling averages and general population statistics among other lakes within the same class.  Spend any time in the MN DNR Lakefinder App, and you’ll discover that many of the same walleye lakes well-known to hold quality populations or trophy fish, often are of a handful of lake class numbers.  The same is true for other species throughout the state.  Without giving up too many secrets, I’ll leave it up to you to do the research to discover which ones are which, but these are just a few hints to finding similar lakes that produce compared to lakes of a known quantity. 


Where to Find Bluegills - Early Ice Weedbed Questions


Colby K. asks:

Joel, I love watching you fish in lakes up by the Bemidji area. I have a flasher, underwater camera and lakemaster, and like to target lakes people don't fish. What is the best way to utilize weeds to find bluegills? And if you find alive weeds do you like them near drop offs? Or what can I look for topographically for gills in December? Any help is great thank you!

Well Colby, those are some big topics, but I’ll do my best to give you my take on early season weeds and gills.  I think you’re wise to focus on these locations right out of the gate, as I’ve had some poor fishing in traditional spots and community winter panfish holes during the first few weeks of the season. 

As far as topo map locations, I think most of the spots I favor are pretty easy to find.  They typically involve some sort of inside turn pushing up from deep water into the shallows, especially where the shallows lead into another neckdown, lake, or other expansive flat and shallow water environment.  I’m a firm believer that these locations act as funnels, channeling fish movements through a pinch-down area and helping you to simply get more looks from more fish.  Other spots would include major points, or mid-lake humps that have weeds as well.

For better or worse however, the quality and species of the weeds can trump location, with good standing cabbage and/or coontail in the afore-mentioned locations being a premium.  Good weedbeds will hold a few fish in almost any location, just like good structural depth elements will.  Combining the two is what you’re after.

This job is made easier with a great underwater camera like the Recon, as a portable hand-held panfish camera is simply made for such scenarios.  Often, especially mid-day, panfish will hunker down tight to the weeds, so finding small pockets, hard edges, and their overall location within the weeds is of the utmost importance.  They do this in lakes with formidable predator populations, and you’ll likely catch a few bass and pike in the process.  That said, a few feet too far away, and you’d think there’s not a fish in the lake.  Small moves can pay huge dividends here, and don’t be afraid to drill plenty of holes. 

Of course, all lakes aren’t created equal when it comes to panfish in the weeds.  Some lakes simply don’t have the quality weedgrowth of the proper species at depth, and others have such large amounts of predators, that finding them in weeds is a difficult process.  In these situations, or with the lack of weedy success, don’t be afraid to push directly out from those areas into the 15-25 foot depths to see if they’re suspended near bottom.  I would consider these more typical midwinter locations, but don’t be afraid to try them if you’re not getting bit. 

I hope this shortens the search, and good luck!


Which Marcum? LX-7 or the New M5?


Josh K. asks:

Hey Joel. I'm switching to marcum this year and know you run them. I fish a lot in South Eastern ND for perch and walleye in usually less than 10' of water. I'm torn between the M5 and LX7. Van you give me some pros and cons of each. Always ran vex so looking for any info. Would be much appreciated. Thanks

Hi Josh - I think much of it depends on personal preference at that point, though I think there's a few ways to break them down. The LX-7 has the bigger screen, digital output, and nearly infinite levels of customization when looking at the graph as open-water scrolling mode, flasher display, and/or vertical display. There's alot of fish catching power in tuning in a unit to your own tendencies and preferences.  If you know you like a bigger screen, then for many people that's all it takes.  People have discussed the shallow water performance, and my experiences have been that when using proper depth range settings, you'll have no issues.    

In regards to the new Marcum M5, you've got something that looks much more similar to the Vexilar you're switching from, so that amount of familiarity is nice for a lot of anglers. If you really enjoy the circular style flasher display, have known and loved it for years, and don't see yourself using the other features of the LX-7, then I wouldn't hesitate to go M5.  It'll save you some money and you'll get an upgrade from your Vex.

Now here's the important part! - Whatever you do, go Lithium.  You can get either model on the new Lithium platform for not that much more money.  The increase in run-time, speedy charging, and more than 30% weight savings makes it a no-brainer for the serious hole hopper and ice-angler like yourself.  

It's been more than a decade since I've switched out for good on my electronics, but I'm looking to use the Lithium M5 as my primary unit this year instead of the trusty LX-5 I've always used.  

Get the Lithium LX-7, or the Lithium M5 and don't look back!


Are Big Walleyes Sterile, and Does Putting Them Back Help or Hurt the Population?

Bill W. Asks:

Just got back from a great trip to Lake of the Woods. Subject came up with lots of discussion. Are big walleyes sterile and does putting them back help or hurt the general population. One said a MN DNR conservation officer told them to take them home, as they don't breed and they compete with smaller walleyes.  What is the right choice?

Thanks for the question Bill – there’s a lot to chew on there.  We can start with a couple of fisheries-related truths, but the devil’s in the details and interpretations of these facts and what it means for you as an individual out there fishing is the key.

I think a graphic showing typical walleye size distribution in lakes would be a good start.  As you can see, a chart of male and female walleye size distribution for the Winnebago, WI system reveals few surprises.  Females are generally larger, and for both sexes, the number of larger individuals becomes fewer and fewer.  This is due to a host of factors like angling pressure and desire to catch and keep larger fish, but even in completely un-fished systems the number and biomass of larger fish is far smaller than that of fish in any other class.   

2013 Lake Winnebago, WI walleye size (length) vs. amount distribution.

2013 Lake Winnebago, WI walleye size (length) vs. amount distribution.

As for spawning, big walleyes are far from sterile.  In fact, they produce more eggs than their smaller female counterparts by far.  However, in some systems, most notably Lake Erie, these larger walleye’s eggs have been studied for viability (number that hatch vs. number that are actually laid).  There and in other select systems with rapid growth rates, 20-24” or so fish have better egg viability, meaning that more of them hatch and go on to survive. 

Large fish (24”+) contain obviously successful genetics, many more eggs, and still produce an incredible number of walleye fry.  Therein lies the rub.  To fisheries managers considering that size distribution graph, mid-range fish as a group can be considered more valuable to the overall health of the fishery, so they aim to regulate take among this class of fish.  That’s not primarily because of their spawning success, it’s because this range of fish size represents the bulk of the spawning biomass for the entire system being that there are more 20-24” fish in the lake than any other size class.  In northern systems where walleyes grow much more slowly, those sizes are slid down the ruler a bit more.

In my opinion, anglers and even some fisheries managers have perverted these principles to arrive at the false notion that big walleyes are sterile, "dried-up", or that they simply don't contribute to the system in a meaningful way so you'd be well advised to keep them.  Some have even penned thoughts regarding walleyes that die of old age as “lost opportunities to anglers.”  I have read their arguments, done the scientific literature reviews from across the United States and Canada, and have seen the aftermath play out both personally and from afar.  Suffice to say, I disagree, and feel that the implications of selling this story only exacerbates several problems for both anglers AND fisheries managers.

First and foremost, the most unflinching facts are that no matter the system:

1.       Large walleyes are highly sought after

2.       Large walleyes are more rare than their smaller counterparts

3.       A walleye caught and killed cannot be caught again

4.       A walleye caught and killed cannot spawn, no matter how viable their eggs may be  

Which to me, supports the conclusion that ALL spawners should enjoy some form of protection beyond the ability of nature or stocking programs to completely and consistently replace fish removed from a population through natural or angler-driven mortality.  

I’m not a fish-worshiper either, in that I love taking fish for the pan, especially walleyes.  In most systems I fish in the Midwest, walleyes are the most intensively managed species, are regularly stocked, and present one of the most responsible species choices for harvesting some fillets from.  It's simply a matter of expectations and maintaining good fishing where it is already.  The larger point that’s missed here however is the last one in that no matter the system, spawners represent a future made not-so-certain by weather, bait, depredation, and a host of other environmental factors.  

The message relating to the thought of large fish don't matter or contribute to the overall health of the fishery is a dangerous one.  Large walleyes that die due to old age or natural causes are not a loss to the fishery, only in a small way are they a loss to those anglers that keep all fish.  Even with reduced fertility, they do produce offspring, and to toss them out and say they don't contribute is inaccurate.

While Lake Erie may very well be able to produce more overall fish per year, the vast majority of fisheries cannot once you account for both fishing and natural mortality.  It's inevitable that these theories spread and become applied to non-like fisheries, including the jump into other species like gills and pike where we know that large individuals are incredibly important to the overall population.  

In viewing the graph above you see that taking fish less than 20”es dramatically reduces the amount of females taken in general, though admittedly, targeting such a large percentage of males-only has created problems in some notable fisheries where both hook-and-line anglers and gill-netting takes place simultaneously.  Erie may present some additional challenges, in that fish less than 20”es can be difficult to come by because of how quickly those fish grow, but as discussed, the vast majority of the walleye world does not enjoy similar productivity.

Anecdotally, the fall-out becomes similar to what you heard Bill, and what I’ve seen purported in person and online.  Facts get twisted, statements are revised, and studies are used to endorse behavior that while at times legal, certainly doesn’t promote the future of good numbers of larger fish in all systems.  In today’s age of social media angling, large piles of bloodied fish on the ice or stringer shots of pale, warm walleyes not only fly in the face of the value of catch and release angling, it provides detriment to future generations of anglers that see these practices as generally acceptable.

So what's a walleye angler to do?  My boat rule for almost all of the waters I fish throughout the Midwest is that 20” and larger eyes go back, and most times that drops down to 18” fish if we have other species or an abundance of smaller fish.  Reasonable exceptions are legal in most states, including a trophy fish or two being allowed per angler.  However, this is a far cry from “we should be taking only larger fish, or all larger fish.”

We value them because of their size and because they are rare, and many of us are willing to spend much larger amounts of money to target walleyes in areas where large fish are less rare.  To preserve those opportunities and with luck even foster or promote them, I see little reason (scientific or otherwise) to harvest increasing numbers of large walleyes outside of the occasional trophy.  


Why Would I Buy a Marcum LX-5 Now?

Ben Datres asks:

Hey Joel, I've heard some talk on In-Depth Outdoors about a new line of Marcums coming out, possibly all digital like the humingbirds? I know you can't tell me those details but marcum has the lx5i at a crazy good discontinued price. I'm strongly thinking of getting one now unless you think its worth waiting for the new line of flashers? I've had a showdown troller 2 for the last 4 years so it would be a huge upgrade.

I've had a chance to play with the updated flasher, and I'm excited for what it'll bring to the table.  That said, at 40% off, the Marcum LX5i that I currently use is too great an opportunity to pass up!  The Marcum LX-5 in all its original glory has been revised a few times, but keeps getting better and better.  While I'd hate for you to miss out on what's up and coming, I know full-well that many people are interested in the price point that this tried and true flasher is now offered at.  

Regarding flashers, especially on price buys like this, my thoughts have always been that you can purchase and always re-sell on the used market once ice hits once you're ready to upgrade.  That used market is incredibly strong, especially in November.  

Enjoy your purchase, I know I'll be keeping mine around for sentimental reasons if for nothing else.  That unit has put some beasts on the ice!


Reverse Spooling for Leadcore

Nate H. asks:

I just bought a few walleye rods/reels for leadcore, how should I spool them up?

Pulling leadcore is really painless as long as you get the rigging right from the start.  For that reason, I recommend buying your leadcore setups in pairs, with the same reels that will hold the same amount of line.  Linecounter values differ depending on how full the spools are, so it's best to do two in tandem.

Backing of some sort is usually preferred, should you get snagged or hook into a big fish, you'll have some extra line on the spool to handle it.  I like to use high-visibility Sufix Elite in 17-20# test to fill up bigger leadcore spools.  The problem is knowing how much to put on!  

A little trick I learned a few years ago was to start with two empty baitcasting line-counter reels, and start spooling up the first one BACKWARDS.  Crank on the number of colors of leadcore you're going to run (I recommend a full-core, or 10-colors) if you're trying this for the first time, then attach your backing line via a braid-to-mono knot like the Uni-to-Uni or Albright Special.  Then crank on as much backing as is necessary to fill the reel about 1/8" from the lip of the spool.

Now, take your other empty reel, ZERO-OUT THE LINECOUNTER, and tie the tag end of the backing from the full-reel onto the empty one.   Begin cranking line onto the empty reel until you reach the leadcore.  Note the line-counter value at the knot where your backing meets your leadcore, and you've got the amount of backing to put on the next reel before tying on your leadcore to that spool.  This reverse spooling technique ensures the same amount of backing on each spool, and that you can compare line-counter values when referring to what distance (and resultant depth) the fish are preferring.

If you're really intimidated by this step, don't be afraid to let store associates from any reputable tackle shop or big-box do this part for you.  Don't let it scare you away from running leadcore, as it's a really valuable technique from now heading into the mid-late summer.


Big Gills - What Should I Keep?

I was fishing with friends over opener, and got a few questions about keeping panfish during the spawn:

I thought you said that fish were vulnerable during this time period, and we shouldn't keep any?  What's OK to keep then and what's not?

It's a great question, and I'll admit that there's plenty of grey-area in assigning a subjective "this is good" or "this is bad" when talking about keeping fish.  It's also true that panfish can be vulnerable this time of the year as they congregate in large number around shallow bullrushes, docks, or other spawning areas.  Keep in mind however, that when I say "vulnerable," I mean vulnerable to overharvest, meaning that you can still enjoy fishing for them and even take a few for the pan.    

For some, this is a question simply of legality, in that if it's permissible by law to catch 10 fish from a lake per person, and no one is exceeding daily or possession limits, then we shouldn't concern ourselves with further details.  That's certainly the simplest interpretation, and one that can't get you into any trouble, but often falls short of protecting the resource in a manner consistent with what we'd hope to see there in the future.  

Still, rather than thinking about this in terms of the law, or even good vs. bad, I like to look at it as what's sustainable - so as to promote the same or better fishing quality in immediate and further years.  While the dangers of playing armchair fisheries biologist abound, simple facts and heaping piles of documented fisheries (and anecdotal) evidence suggest that in small waters, highly pressured areas, and lakes with small panfish populations to begin with, one-size-fits-all limits can't begin to arrive at a take that's sustainable.  Numerous published findings suggest that the failure to adhere to such goals result in the removal of the largest individuals in the system, thus reducing the genetic ability of bluegills especially to continue to produce large individuals in these waters.  Plainly spoken, take the majority of the big ones out, and you'll never see big ones there again.  It's not a matter of allowing future generations of gills the time it takes to grow large after severe over-harvest, it simply means that there's no more genetic large-fish stock left then to ever get there again.    

Here's a 10" plus gill that's also a male.  Note the dark colors, large ear tab, with blue accents around his gill plates.  This fish not only presents a giant of his species that would be great for any angler to catch again, his release during the bluegill spawn is vital to keeping big bluegills present in this lake.  

Here's a 10" plus gill that's also a male.  Note the dark colors, large ear tab, with blue accents around his gill plates.  This fish not only presents a giant of his species that would be great for any angler to catch again, his release during the bluegill spawn is vital to keeping big bluegills present in this lake.


While the research is clear, and my years of chasing big gills across the map have seen countless gems abused and now a shadow of their former glory, what's not clear is how best to carry yourself as an angler that likes to eat fish!

Here's a great eater.  It's a female just shy of 9"es.

Here's a great eater.  It's a female just shy of 9"es.

Make no mistake about it, I'm not one for fish-worship, though my panfish-preaching tends to be loud and proud.  It may seem to the contrary, but I love meals of fish and often take the chance to eat panfish fresh when I can.  We can have our fish and eat them too, but it's a matter of self-restraint and knowing what to keep, when.

I've written frequently about limiting constant catch and kill return trips to the same body of water, having a plan going into it so you know when to start releasing fish, and teaching kids along the way so as to promote generational changes from angler to angler.  Still, one of the more important things you can do is measure your fish, and know what sex they are.  

9" plus gills in most waters are rare no matter where they are caught, with true 10" fish being a trophy bluegill.  It's hard, even for pros to "eyeball" the size of a gill, so use a bump board and release fish over that 9" mark.  Gills are notoriously over-judged in terms of their size, so take the time to learn what a true-10 looks like, you'll be surprised how big a fish needs to be in order to get to this mark.  If 8" fish are abundant, consider releasing everything larger than that, as even 8" fish in many lakes are a rarity.  

Here's a big pre-spawn female still full of eggs.  Consider releasing due to her size above anything else.

Here's a big pre-spawn female still full of eggs.  Consider releasing due to her size above anything else.

As far as which sex to release, male fish especially during this time of year are crucial to nesting success and continuation of larger individuals in the species.  These are the painted-up, dark blue, red, and brilliant purple gills we see up shallow in stacked, tire-sized depressions they are protecting.  They have large ear tabs, a brutish looking appearance, and truly represent the term "bulls" when you see the larger ones.  Their presence prevents smaller cuckold males from invading nests, and promoting inferior genetics among bluegills in that particular body of water.  Females are often bright yellow or more pale in appearance, and will contain large egg sacs before spawning.  Especially females smaller than 8-9"es present an opportunity to keep a few for a meal, and release the rest.

As of last year, 5 gills at 7"es each fed my young family of 4 a great meal of fish tacos with sides.  That was a surprise even to myself, as fish can go a long way when paired with other items.  Appreciate the fishing, and by no means let this detract from you keeping fish to eat.  It's one of the great joys of fishing!  Just do your part to impose a more responsible self-limit when the current regulations may not adequately protect the resource.  This is especially true during the spawn where all the biggest and most vulnerable males in the lake are concentrated on beds.




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