BEMIDJI, Minn. – Nothing beats a good panfish bite—numbers of midsized fish for the frying pan big fish for the release. We’re talking thick, hump-backed sunfish, sag-bellied perch, and dinnerplate crappies…
What’s the best way to tango with big, hardwater panfish? You need to alter your fish-catching system to accommodate for older, finicky fish. We talked with veteran Northland Fishing Tackle pro, Brian “Bro” Brosdahl, who was happy to share plus-sized panfish insights.
“Panfish feed primarily on insects and zooplankton in the winter,” offers Brosdahl. “That’s one of the reasons I designed the Northland Bro Bug Spoon; it looks like emerging larvae with its bulging eyes and thin, slender profile. It resembles a long bloodworm or hellgrammite coming out of the mud. Just add two spikes or waxies and you have the tail of the hellgrammite.” Pretty sweet DIY bait configuration.
Bro uses the smallest, 1/16-ounce size most of the time, but will size up to 1/8-ounce if the fish are really biting.
“Jumbo perch get excited if something hits bottom and makes puffs in the mud. It’s instinctual when they see that, thinking it’s a mayfly emerging—and the more puffs, the more excited they get. So, you want to drop the Bro Bug Spoon to the bottom, pound the mud, and wait for them to follow it. If you pull the bait up, pull it away super slow. They’ll come up and just crush it,” shares Bro.
In terms of locations, Bro targets most midwinter jumbo perch over muddy basins, as well as chara grass (skunkweed) flats and weed edges.
“With big ‘gills, if there’s not a lot of ice, they’ll bite any time. But if there’s a lot of snow and ice and it’s sun-covered, they get a lot more selective,” shares Bro. “That’s when I’m fishing higher in the water column. In 10 feet or less, fish halfway down. It’s so dark down there the bait silhouettes against the ice. I use a subtle swimming motion, just shaking the spikes or waxies on the treble hook. I’ll even shake the bait right below the ice and slowly drop it. But if I’m in 20 feet or less, I drop it down to 10 feet and then slowly drop it down to two feet from the bottom,” advises Bro.
Bro adds: “In lakes that have lots and lots of bluegills, the big ‘gills belly into the bottom so the challenge is getting the bait through the smaller ones to the trophies. In lakes with fewer fish, they come through in pods. You want to work the bait minimally and just let it silhouette against the ice. The big ‘gills will find it.”
To find big sunfish, Bro uses a combination of Humminbird MEGA 360 and MEGA Live, new, forward-looking technologies that are putting ice anglers on fish faster than ever before.
“On Humminbird MEGA 360, on the dark screen background of muddy basins, sunfish look like a bunch of rice spread out on the bottom,” notes Bro. “If they’re moving around, drill a bunch of holes and move around—but if you keep seeing them in a certain area, you want to move and intercept them.”
“On MEGA Live in forward mode you’ll see sunfish in an area and you can drill your way around them and tiptoe up to their location. In some lakes they’re spooky, in other lakes they aren’t. If there’s no snow, they’re extra spooky. If the barometric pressure and moon phase are right, sometimes you can’t do anything wrong,” offers Bro.
Bro looks for steadily-rising barometric pressure over a few days. On a falling barometer, bites are typically short, but if the pressure is really low, fishing can be tough.
“I bury my face in an Aqua-Vu when stalking big bluegills. The 822HD is like a tablet, and I can mount it anywhere. It’s not cumbersome and has a long-lasting, lithium battery. There are some days when the bite is so tough that I really rely on the camera to watch fish respond. They’ll come up and bump it, and if you try to set the hook, you’ll spook them. I don’t use a spring bobber or watch the rod tip—I just look at the Aqua-Vu screen,” offers Bro.
“I also like Forage Minnow Spoons in the smallest, 1/32-ounce size. I’ll chandelier maggots off the micro-treble,” adds Bro, loading the thing up.
In terms of line, Bro employs 2-pound test fluorocarbon most of the time, but will size up to 3-pound if there are bigger fish around. On clear water basins, Bro steps down to spidery 1-pound mono.
For cranking, Bro uses a variety of fly-style, in-line reels, which are good for keeping your line straight sans jig spin.
“If the fish are biting, you don’t need an in-line reel, but if the bite is tough, I do use ‘em. I also like longer rods when I’m out roaming, like the St. Croix CCI Tungsten Tamer and the Pan Dancer. If I’m in a fish-house, I use 26- to 32-inch rods.”
Bro utilizes $40 Daiwa QR750 reels that he fills an 1/8-inch from the top with backing and follow with his mainline. Bro uses a loop knot to attach his baits, which provides better action.
For aggressive, hole-hopping, Bro opts for the fast-fishing Northland Puppet Minnow in the smallest, 1/8-ounce-size, typically gold with a chandelier of red or white maggots on the treble.
In terms of brand-new products, Bro has been soaking the new Glass Buck-Shot Spoon endorsing the 1/32-ounce size or outsized crappies.
So, when do you fish what?
Bro starts with the Bro Bug Spoon and moves on to a Rigged Tungsten, which is essentially a Mud Bug/Impulse soft-plastic combo you don’t have to assemble with frosty fingers. And when he’s running and gunning, Bro has a Puppet Minnow tied on.
“And if the bite is really tough—which happens chasing trophy-sized pans—I downsize to a Rigged Tungsten Bloodworm or Mayfly tipped with one maggot or a threaded waxy. I also love the 1/16-ounce Forage Minnow Jig for tough bites. When you shimmy it, it’s constantly moving forward and will irritate fish that don’t want to bite,” says Bro.
In conclusion, based off Bro’s recommendations, plan to pre-rig four to six combos. You don’t want to be messing around with reties when a bite changes or encounter a new school of fish. Preparedness is next to godliness when stalking mega-panfish.
ABOUT Northland® Fishing Tackle
In 1975, a young Northwoods fishing guide named John Peterson started pouring jigs and tying tackle for his clients in a small remote cabin in northern Minnesota. The lures were innovative, made with high quality components, and most importantly, were catching fish when no other baits were working! Word spread like wildfire, the phone started ringing… and the Northland Fishing Tackle® brand was in hot demand! For 40 years now, John and the Northland® team have been designing, testing and perfecting an exclusive line of products that catch fish like no other brand on the market today. Manufactured in the heart of Minnesota’s finest fishing waters, Northland® is one of the country’s leading producers of premium quality jigs, live bait rigs, spinnerbaits and spoons for crappies, bluegills, perch, walleyes, bass, trout, northern pike and muskies.