Published February 2005

The shank of winter is a hard time for most outdoorsmen.  Hunting is essentially over, river and stream fishing is scarce, and the outdoor shows are few and far between.  So, what can you do over the next weeks before the weather breaks and lawn grass starts to green up?  You head for a favorite farm pond and catch a mess of ice water bluegills. 

If there’s good ice, head for that pond.  If it’s thin, go anyway, and if there’s no ice at all, don’t change your plans.  Bluegills (and bass) will bite all 12 months of each year, and ice or a lack of it makes no difference at all.  But there’s one thing to keep in mind at this time of year when it comes time to search for a loose school or concentration of panfish.  It’s been a long winter and many ponds have been snow covered at least off and on for weeks.  When sunlight doesn’t penetrate, the algae and other small plants can’t make oxygen, so oxygen levels in the pond diminish. 

If the pond is weedy, it’s worse, because winter dead plants are attacked by decay bacteria and use up even more oxygen.  The bottom line is that too often the deepest part of a pond becomes oxygen deficient, and fish have to move up to above the thermocline or into shallower parts of the little lake.  Which means in turn that the fish you were catching in the deepest part early in the winter are now probably elsewhere.

So, if you find good ice cover, start as usual.  Bore a couple of holes in the ponds deepest part, bait up a couple of spoons or tiny jigs with waxworms, and try your luck.  But adjust one rod to work its offering just above bottom and the other rod to fish several feet up.  If nothing happens in a half hour, move to the mid-part of the pond, maybe where water is just 5-6 feet deep and try again, and if the bobber doesn’t start bouncing, move a little shallower yet.

I  remember one winter when snow stayed long and good ice, too, and I must have drilled 20 holes with my auger on that first of March day before I found fish.  It was a weedy lake and oxygen was so low, the fish had gathered in just two feet of water near shore.  I sat there on my little stool and actually watched big bluegill suck in my waxworms.  That was a red letter trip. 

What about ice too thin to walk on?  Several years ago I visited a pond that had only an inch or so of ice, but also had a nice iron 10 foot pram sitting on shore.  I was pretty desperate, and also prepared with 50 feet of sturdy rope which I tied alternately to a shoreline tree and the stern of the boat.    The time was just this season of year and I was desperate enough to use the oars to break that thin ice and safely paddle out 30 feet or so.  Then I cleared a fishing space, caught at least 30 nice bluegill and two bass, fished in comfort, and finally roped my way back to shore.  The rope probably wasn’t necessary, but it did make for a fast trip to dry land.

No ice at all?  Do just the same, using the same rigs and bait with longer rods.  If they’re still deep, you might want to use a slip floater on one rod, or a floating Lindy rig with sinker.  Then on the other fish as usual, starting about five feet down and setting the float gradually shallower.  Bites can be slow and deliberate in ice water, but they’ll come eventually as you find the concentrations, and you should go home with a bucket full of the years best eating.

Here’s a final thought.  Once again, largemouth bass will bite as well in cold water as in warm, though you should use smaller offerings.  I rarely keep summer bass caught in farm ponds, but I’ve taken as high as eight, some of them dandies, on winter trips, and kept just one or two in the 1 1/2 pound range because they’re almost as good as bluegills then.  Use slightly larger ice spoons, something 3/4 to one inch long in the usual bright colors of red, yellow, and chartreuse, bait with a couple of waxworms instead of one, and jig gently here and there.  The fight of even a four pound bass will be sluggish indeed, but right now it’s the only game in town.

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