Zeroing in on the Hard Water Panfish

Zeroing in on the Hard Water Panfish

Zeroing in on the Hard Water Panfish

by January 25, 2014


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We have all been faced with the challenge, a new body of water. Where do we start? During the winter months I love chasing Panfish. Hard water means searching for the largest Panfish I can find. Sure, I may spend some days in the spring chasing big Crappie or Bluegills but I prefer to target them under a canopy of hard water.  Over the past few years I have been spending more and more time exploring new lakes for my next “best spot”.  Long before I hit the ice I will spend lots of time planning my first recon mission to a new body of water.

In Southern Ontario many of the lakes I target for trophy Panfish are relatively small, often less than 100 acres. Sometimes these lakes seem more like puddles as they may only be 20 or 30 acres in size. The main fish I am targeting are Bluegill and Black Crappie. However, the occasional Pumpkinseed, White Crappie or Yellow Perch often drops by for a visit. They are always welcome of course. Many of the tactics I use for locating Panfish in small waters can be used in big waters also. These techniques are transferable across waterbodies. This system may prove useful wherever you are targeting Panfish through the ice.Zeroing in on hardwater panfish Header

Off the Ice Preparation

I will often research lakes before I visit them. I will not fish a lake before doing some research on its location, fish population and more. It is not in my nature to fish blind. I want to make the most of my time on the water. Now, I am not talking ‘dock talk’ or ‘web lurking’; trying to find some ‘secret info’ on a new lake. I have always taken an objective approach to my research.

My first step is to find out the location of the waterbody (County, Township). This may help me track down some stocking records or maybe stumble across a fisheries report on the internet. If you live in Ontario try using the Fish ON-line web tool prepared by the Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources ( This tool is designed to help anglers conduct research on fisheries in Ontario. Whether you are a weekend warrior or seasoned tournament pro, this website will provide you with some useful information on Ontario fisheries.

My second step is determining the type of lake. Is this lake a Reservoirs, Quarry Lakes, Kettle Lake or Canadian Shield Lake? All have unique attributes that will help me eliminate water and find fish quicker. Reservoirs contain predictable structure (creek channels, sweeping points, coves) and usually lots of woody cover (e.g. stumps, laydowns, trees). Quarry Lakes are relatively common and easily accessible. Quarry Lakes within active Quarry operations may not have public access. These waterbodies will have a various types of structure including points, humps and breaklines. Usually the main cover in quarry lakes is aquatic vegetation. Kettle Lakes and Canadian Shield Lakes are similar in nature. They were both created by glaciers changing the landscape. Shield Lakes are primarily shaped by ice carving/shaping the landscape. Kettle Lakes are unique in that they were formed when large ice deposits were left behind by receding glaciers. These large deposits of ice eventually melted and formed small isolated lakes. Both of these lake types are scattered across much of Ontario.

My third step is doing a little more map study on the lakes in question. Of course, it would be great if we could find bathymetric charts for all waterbodies. Unfortunately these are not usually available for small waterbodies. Our next mapping option is topographic maps. Topographic maps can tell us about the local topography including elevations, forest cover, and hydrology. All of these can help us locate productive water before our first visit.

Image 1: Kettle Lake Diagram

Image 1 - KettleLake1(jb)

Develop a Plan

Once you have compiled some basic research it is time to put a plan together. How are you going break a lake down? Especially without the luxury of a boat to quickly scan areas for cover (e.g weeds) or structure (e.g. substrate, drop offs). Many ice anglers will utilize the idea of ice trolling. Covering a lot of water with a series of holes to find fish, and then zeroing in on high percentage areas once fish are located. I like to drill a series of holes across the lake feature I have selected. On small lakes I will aim to drill 10 or 12 holes approximately 30 feet apart in a single line. On larger waterbodies I will expand this spacing from 30-ft to 50-ft or even 100-ft.

Execute the Plan

Once I have drill my initial line of holes I will begin searching each hole with my electronics. My initial choice is usually my Flasher. I use an FL 20 Flasher with a dual frequency (9°/19°) transducer. This transducer is designed to cover a wide range of depths/situations. I prefer to use the 19° in shallow water situations (<15-ft) and the 9° for deeper situations. Lure size and fish activity can play a role in my transducer choice.  For more information on transducer selection check the Vexilar website (Choosing a Transducer Beam Vexilar Website). If water clarity is good I will also use a camera. I have been using the Aqua Vu Mini Plus for two seasons now and love it. This little camera is great for recon under the ice. The camera fits in your pocket and is ready to go at all times. For more information on this camera visit the Aqua Vu website: (Aqua Vu Mini Link). If the weather is warm enough I will quickly check my holes with only my flasher, camera and a rod. If the weather is cold I may opt to check holes using my Fish Trap shelter.

While I am checking each hole I am noting the following:

1)      Step 1: Determine the depth of water in the hole. This is best accomplished with a flasher.

2)      Step 2: Determine if there is any cover in the hole (weeds, wood) and at what depth this cover is locate.

3)      Step 3: Drop a bait down the hole all the way to the bottom OR until the bait meets some cover (e.g. weeds). Work the bait relatively quickly through the water column. If there are any active fish in the vicinity they will usually make their presence known immediately.

4)      Step 4: If not fish is encountered the hold is considered unproductive and abandoned.

5)      Step 5: If I catch a fish quickly the process will be repeated in the same hole. If fish are observed on the screen but in-active I may drop a different bait (smaller or larger) to initiate a strike.

6)      Step 6: Try the next hole in the line.

Image 2 – Search Pattern 1

Image 2 - KettleLake1(jb)_Step1

This procedure is best done with 2 or more people. One person is operating the auger, others checking holes. If this is a solo mission it can take some time. However, speed and precision is your objective. Make it a point to cover as much ice as possible (cover, depths, structure). Don’t spend too much time waiting fish out. Moving fast and fishing fast will produce more Panfish than sitting still and waiting them out.

Once fish are located note the depth and cover (e.g. weeds), substrate (sand, soft) and structure (flat, drop off). Then it is time to replicate this by working along the same piece of cover (weed type/weed edge), bottom type or structure (fat, drop off). I will expand on my productive location with holes extending along the productive area. I may reduce my spacing to help keep my baits in productive areas.

Image 3 – Search Pattern 2

Image 3 - KettleLake1(jb)_Step2

 A GPS is Useful

I use a GPS for all of my ice fishing. The use of GPS with a mapping chip is very advantageous to the ice angler. It helps to find preferred depths and structure quickly. Where a GPS may help you more is on a waterbody without mapping. You can create your own map of the bottom using waypoints and labels. On any new waterbody a GPS not only helps you return to productive areas but can help eliminate unproductive areas. To reducing the learning curve on new water I use a hand held GPS for most of my reconnaissance. As a biologist I am often left marking more unproductive areas for fish than productive ones. It is important to document all waypoints, regardless if you catch a fish or not. This is because data from unproductive locations may prove useful on another day. Over the years I have used a variety of GPS Units but recently I have been using a Garmin Montana 600. This unit has a large, touch screen that is easy to navigate. It also has several other options including a barometer and lunar calculator I use also. On a recent trip I left home at the last minute to intercept fish at a key time. From my experience I find many fish species will begin to feed prior to an incoming storm. With the barometer dropping I made my way to a local lake.

Vexilar Flasher

A flasher such as this Vexilar makes pinpointing depths where fish are a lot easier.

Image 4 is a screen shot of a recent trip I made in Southwestern Ontario. I drilled a series of holes from shallow to deep. I used various icons to mark weeds (green) and no weeds (black).  I also marked the depths at all holes I checked. This only takes a few seconds on a GPS unit. It did not take many holes to find a sweet spot in 16 feet of water. I focused my efforts in this vicinity and it paid big dividends. I landed over 20 large Bluegill and 10 large Black Crappie in a few short hours! On this particular day the barometer dropped from 100.8 kpa to 100.4 kpa over a 2 hour period. This is typical of an approaching storm and the fish responded to this change. Talk about making efficient use of time! I have repeated this pattern and it has paid off time and time on many waterbodies for a variety of species, not just Panfish.

Image 4 – GPS Screen Shot

Image 4 - GPS Screen shot


  1. Fishing new bodies of water may seem challenging. Face the challenge head on.
  2. There are lots of resources that can help anglers reduce the learning curve.  Check the internet for resources, especially websites for your local Natural Resources or Fish & Game Department.
  3. Use your new knowledge to create a game plan and stick with it.
  4. Cover ice quickly and use electronics like flashers, cameras and GPS. Covering water not only finds fish but also eliminates unproductive areas.
  5. Note the weather conditions. Take time to document your day to repeat again if the same conditions present themselves.

Equipment Notes:

Rods: Fenwick Elite-Tech Ice Rods

Reels: Pfueger President  (Model 6920X),default,pd.html

Line: Berkley Micro Ice (2lb Test)




My Fish Pattern (
The Weather Network: (

Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources – Fish On Line Tool (

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