Try Ice Flies for Late-summer Panfish

Pursuing panfish is one of my fishing passions—I love catching them, whether the fish of the day happens to be a chunky bluegill, crappie, pumpkinseed, rock bass or any of the other hand-sized fish. And keeping several of them for a fish fry is just an added bonus.

Late summer in Indiana and the Midwest can be a great time to target panfish, and a prime time to catch some real bragging-sized fish. Food is plentiful throughout the summer months. And you can be sure that the resident panfish took advantage of the smorgasbord then and are now eating everything they can while the warm weather lasts.

Big bluegills and sunfish will gobble aquatic insects like dragonfly nymphs, mosquito larvae and plenty of others. They won’t pass up on an easy meal like a lone grasshopper or other terrestrial insect struggling on the surface. Crappies tend to concentrate on minnows and small young-of-the-year fish like baby bluegills and baby perch, but they also love aquatic insects. The rock bass always seem to be hungry, and they will eat almost anything that moves, from minnows and crayfish to underwater nymphs and leeches.

Although the bigger panfish are still feeding heavily in September, they can afford to be picky. Since there is so much food available, they won’t necessarily grab the first thing that is dangled in front of them. Worms, bee moths and other live baits will certainly catch fish, but the larger, smarter fish will soon get wise to the baits that they have seen before.

So this is the perfect time to try something different; try baits that the fish have not seen before, at least not at this time of year. Try some ice fishing lures. I have been using ice flies and ice jigs for my summertime and late-summer panfish outings recently, and the results have been fantastic. In general, I stick with the larger ice fishing baits with hook sizes ranging from the #6 to #10. The 6 and 8 are my favorites, since big crappies and bruiser-sized rock bass have large mouths and hook up easier with larger lures.

Lightweight ice flies are absolutely dynamite baits for panfish, but they are especially good for bull bluegills and slab-sided crappies. Glow Spiders from JB Lures have been hot this summer, and my most productive color has been their White. The soft white hackle of this ice fly spreads out under water and makes the fly sink very slowly, just like a real aquatic insect. Big bluegills and crappies swim over to investigate the slowly sinking bug and they just can’t resist it. Add a live bee moth to the hook for some natural feel and flavor and they just inhale it.

I have also had good luck using Ants or Ice Ants ice jigs. These jigs are a bit heavier than the spiders, and some of the other ice flies, since they have a segmented body made of two tiny beads of lead, make it look like a large ant. These are painted a variety of colors and have white rubber legs that stick out from the side of the body. Ice Ants from HT Enterprises are great catchers, and JB Lures also makes an ant lure. The rubber legs on these ants gives them a more lifelike appearance and feels natural to the fish once they get them in their mouths.

Although bluegills, sunfish and crappies seem to be eager to hit these ice flies and jigs, they are not the only fish that are interested. Big rock bass love them too—I was fishing one particular spot this summer and had caught six, nice-sized rock bass. I was using a bee moth on a plain bait-keeper hook and suddenly I could not catch another rock bass. Baby bluegills were still willing to bite, but nothing else. I switched to a Glow Spider tipped with a bee moth and instantly caught two more big rock bass. They wanted something different. And whether it looked or sank differently in the water, the ice fly did the trick.

Of course, yellow perch are also willing to take ice jigs and ice flies during the open-water months. Don’t be surprised if you catch other fish besides panfish, as largemouths and smallmouths are not shy to hit these lures or even a stray walleye.

So, just because it’s still relatively warm outside and the ice fishing season is months away, don’t overlook using ice fishing lures for open-water panfish. Sometimes it’s the hottest ticket in town.