If you have read much about panfish foraging habits the humans in this movie could easily relate to your average Amphipod, Mayfly larvae or small fish. In Part 1 of this two part article I covered off the basics in rods, reels and line selection for a few different ice fishing situations for panfish. For Part 2 of this series I will discuss bait selection for anglers targeting panfish under the ice. In this article I will focus on information Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, Black Crappie and White Crappie.
Panfish are opportunistic feeders. They do not work to chase down prey like their larger cousins, Smallmouth Bass and Largemouth Bass. Panfish species take are more subtle creatures when it comes to feeding. Panfish consume a wide variety of prey items across their known distribution For Lepomis species (Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, etc.) their main forage consists of aquatic invertebrates. For Pomoxis species (Black and White Crappie) are follow the same preference as their Lepomis species cousins. However, they will begin to target fishes as they grow. Once a Crappie reaches lengths exceeding 200 mm/8″. All panfish, large or small, will target aquatic invertebrates through most stages of their life because these are abundant and easy to catch.
How small is small?
As mentioned above, panfish species are opportunistic foragers. Over 80% of their diet in most waterbodies consists of aquatic invertebrates. Research has suggested that panfish will not move far for forage either. Preferring to forage close to quality hiding locations. Panfish preferred prey items can be summarized into four general groups: small invertebrates, macro-invertebrates, large invertebrates and fishes.
Group 1: Small Invertebrates
This group of forage items are not easily observed without magnification. However, these are readily available in most aquatic environments. Many of these organisms would be typically classified as Zooplankton (Cladocera, Copepoda and more). One member of this group, the Amphipod is a common prey in the diet of panfish. Especially in smaller lakes and reservoirs where larger invertebrate prey may not be as readily available.
Group 2: Macro-Invertebrates (< 20 mm/0.75″)
This group of prey items are more visible to panfish and anglers. This group is very attractive to panfish species because they are readily available and are larger than the previous group. This translates into a higher caloric content than the ‘zoo plankton’ sized prey. Common prey items in this group include Midges (Chironomidae), Caddisfly Larvae (Trichoptera) and Mayfly larvae (Ephemeroptera). It is not uncommon for anglers to find these organisms in the mouths or stomachs of panfish throughout the year, including under the ice.
Group 3: Large Invertebrates (> 20 mm/ 0.75″)
Common panfish forage items in this group include Dragonfly/Damselfly larvae (Odonata sp.), Caddisfly larvae (Trichoptera sp.) and some species of freshwater shrimp (Decapoda sp.). These large invertebrates are the best bargain for panfish while foraging. Their larger size equals higher caloric content and than some of the other more readily available smaller inverts. Many commercially available ‘micro’ ice fishing lures/jigs attempt to mimic these large invertebrates.
Group 4: Fishes (>20mm/0.75″)
The fishes that make up this forage group are typically those that are common in many panfish habitats. Fathead Minnows, Bluntnose Minnows and Northern Redbelly Dace are some species commonly available for ice anglers. When targeting panfish anglers need to be conscious of forage size when using baitfish. It is advisable to not use baitfish much larger than 50 mm (2″) when targeting panfish. Sure panfish may take larger prey items from time to time. Many die hard Crappie anglers will target larger Crappie with minnows exceeding 100 mm (4″).
Artificial Bait Selection
From these prey descriptions we can better gauge what our bait sizes should be when targeting panfish. There are hundreds of bait options available for panfish anglers. Berkley has one of the largest variety of baits available to anglers. This includes a large selection of bait. Using the above criteria, we can cover close to 70% of the typical panfish diet with artificial baits. I will discuss some of the ‘micro baits’ available from Berkley in both their PowerBait and Gulp Alive product lines.
Micro Panfish Baits (<20mm)
There are many sizes and shapes of baits giving panfish anglers an opporutnity to ‘match the hatch’ for preferred panfish prey items. From Berkley PowerBait panfish anglers should consider the Atomic line of micro baits. This new line of baits include the Atomic Dogbone, Atomic Wishbone, Atomic Fry and Atomic Mite. All of these Atomic baits are approximately 20 mm (0.75″) in length falling well within some of the preferred panfish forage preference. Many of these lures like the Atomic Wish Bone and Atomic Mite have great little appendages making them very good mimics of panfish forage. Lure weights in this line of baits ranges from a small 1/32 oz to a micro 1/80 oz.
A very versatile bait from Berkley that panfish just love is the Gulp Alive Fish Fry. This bait is available in two sizes, 25 mm (small) and 50 mm (large). What makes this bait so impressive is that it can mimic several of the natural preferred panfish prey items discussed early in this article. A small pair of cutting forceps or scissors is the only tool you need to make these baits go from good to great! This includes splitting the thin tail, reducing the length and more quick modifications. Other baits that should get some honourable mention from Berkley include Berkley PowerBait Nymph (25 mm), Gulp Alive Leech and Gulp Alive Minnow (25 mm). All of these can be great panfish baits if the situation is right.
Panfish is a group of fishes that holds a special place in fishing year. Being able to catch big panfish is just as challenging as catching 6 pound largemouth or 50″ muskies. I hope this article has provided anglers with a better understanding of prey preferences and bait selection so you can get the same enjoyment while chasing panfish under the ice this year.
In Part 3 of my Hard Life Panfishing series I will prepare some information on panfish location for Bluegill, Pumpkinseed, Black Crappie and White Crappies.
Yours in fishing,
As always, I want to thank my sponsors for their constant support and encouragement.