Fishing early ice is one of the best ways to put the odds of catching big “bull” bluegills in your favor. And while there are many factors to finding these giants during early ice, once you dial them in the action can be unbelievable.
We had a late start to early ice last year, as well as considerable snowfall right after the majority of the lakes had just locked up. While snow can be good for some lakes it’s bad for others. On clear-water lakes snow cover extends optimal low-light hours when fish feed. That can be a real plus.
This year we’ve been plagued with unseasonably warm weather—and little to no snow on the ice. In fact, it’s hard to remember a year where we haven’t been driving vehicles on the ice this late on the calendar. But where we’ve been able to fish, it’s been good—almost the complete opposite from last year's cold weather and massive snowfall. But that's good for us—“early ice” conditions may well extend into February this year. Game on!
The Green Stuff
When hunting early-ice ‘gills I always look for green weeds. Early in the year and even into the middle of the ice season weeds will continue to grow and stay green and produce oxygen. Provided that the light can still penetrate the ice and snow cover, the weeds will continue photosynthesizing and harbor lots of aquatic life, including fish.
I’ve found that inside corners and small protruding points along weedlines consistently produce solid bluegills. While the depth of these weedlines can vary significantly from lake to lake—from 2 to 20 feet of water—you simply need to locate the green stuff (where there’s oxygen), and start fishing just inside or outside the weedline. Eliminating water is the name of the game, just like fishing for any other species.
And wherever possible, key in on sand and mud bottoms. In these areas you’ll find bulls feeding on insects and their larvae. Find out what they’re feeding on and pattern to that. Check the stomachs of a couple fish that are destined for the frying pan.
Matching the hatch isn’t just for fly fishermen.
How To Fish For Bulls
Presentation is a key part of putting bulls on the end of your line. For me, that means keeping a versatile arsenal of ice rods on the ready so I don’t waste time switching baits.
Here are five tips I'm convinced will help YOU ice more big bull bluegills this season.
I always start by fishing small baits, gradually increasing in size. For example, I open the day with a 1/64-ounce jig and move larger and heavier until the fish tell me what they want. Remember, smaller isn’t necessarily better. Big bulls will often remain tight-lipped until you start sinking big baits—jigs as large as 1/4-ounce. I've run into this so many times I always keep a large jig on one of my sticks. The other bonus to fishing large is that you can easily eliminate a lot of the smaller fish, focusing purely on large bluegills.
2. Settle Down, Dead Stick
But there are times when going small is essential—like when fish show up on your electronics but won’t touch a bait. In that case, fish the smallest jigs you’ve got and settle down your jigging routine. Experiment with a slight jigging or popping motion and then stop for up to a minute or longer. Sometimes dead sticking is how they want it.
3. Stay Mobile
I can’t stress this enough. Staying mobile can mean the difference between icing a few fish and having a 100-plus fish day. If the active fish won't come to you, go to them. Drill multiple holes in a grid pattern to most effectively cover an area. Fish shallow, fish deep—get out of your comfort zone.
4. Try Chandeling
When fish are aggressive I've had a lot of success tipping all the hooks of a red-glow Lindy Techni-Glo Frostee jigging spoon
with two Eurolarvae each—a technique called “Chandeling.”
First, the flash of the bait combined with the multiple Eurolarvae hanging from each of the hooks is often too much for the fish to resist. Second, the weight of the presentation allows me to get back down into the strike zone faster after catching a fish. It's a killer combo on a lot of levels.
5. Slush It Up
When fishing early ice (especially shallow water), leave the majority of the slush in the holes you drill. Clean them out when you first drill them, but make sure to leave a good 2-3 inches of slush floating. Believe it or not, this slush will help prevent your holes from freezing until you get to fish them. More importantly, leaving a little bit of slush also keeps the light from penetrating through the ice. I know if someone were to install a sky light in my home while I was out I’d notice when I got home! I'd be on edge—probably wouldn't think about eating! And I might just move!
Personally, I leave most of the slush in my holes. All I need is room drop a jig. I even leave the slush in my fish house holes — of course, it doesn't usually last long when the room temp goes up from the stove and body heat.
90 In 10
While there's a learning curve involved with any kind of fishing, what early-ice success comes down to is trial and error. Keep these tips in mind and you will catch more big bluegills.
One of my favorite fishing quotes is “90% of the fish are in 10% of the water.” I don’t know who said it but it's true just about any time of the year. Our job? Find that 10%—and then get 'em to bite!
I wish you all a fun and safe ice fishing season! Good luck!
-- James Allen Hodgin Jr.