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Ice Fishing for Bluegill and Sunfish: Tips and Techniques

Written by: Pete D
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There’s something about catching panfish on ultralight tackle that gets in your blood, and there’s no reason to end that excitement once winter’s grip takes hold.

Bluegill and sunfish are among the most popular ice fishing targets. Plentiful, easy to entice into a bite, and simple to pull through a small hole in the ice, they’re just ideal for a day of fun when the thermometer’s plunging.

But if you’re new to ice fishing, or new to panfish, you might need some tips to get started. And even if you're an old hand on the hard water, we might have a few tips that’ll increase your catch.

Keep reading to find out more about ice fishing for bluegill and sunfish!

You'll find great tips for ice fishing walleye below. If you want specific information for other species follow these links:

Ice Fishing Bluegill and Sunfish: Location

ice fishing sunfish

Homework

One thing that really sets the pros apart from the weekend anglers is homework.

A seasoned pro won't guess where the bluegill and sunfish will be; he’ll know it. And the only way to gain that knowledge is to spend time in the spring, summer, and fall marking likely spots with your fishfinder and GPS.

In short, the more time you spend marking the locations you know will attract winter bluegill and sunfish, the more of them you’ll catch.

Where to find them

Early ice

Bluegill and sunfish start their winters in shallow water, typically in shallow bays and coves, and near the mouths of creeks and other inflows. 

Look for plenty of live vegetation in these spots before the ice starts to form, and mark the location of the weed beds. That’s where they’ll find the tiny creatures they feed on, and it provides them some protection from predators like bass, pike, and muskie.

They’ll remain in these shallow areas until the temperatures drop and the real cold comes on, and then, they’ll be forced into deeper water by the confluence of temperature and the death of those weeds.

ice fishing bluegill

Not only will oxygen levels bottom out in the shallows once the weeds die, but the prey they were feeding on will also be exhausted.

Exactly when this happens is a question of your local weather patterns, but when you start striking out shallow, you know it’s time to move on.

Mid-winter

Experienced anglers and wildlife biologists can tell you that at some point in the winter, the warmer water is actually down deep, far from the frigid air above.

Bluegill and sunfish will retreat to deeper water, often 30 to 40 feet if they can find it, and they’ll be looking for muddy, soft bottoms that hold insect larvae. 

But this is where that homework you should have done will really pay off.

There’s a lot more to a flat than an unbroken straight line. And as Brian “Bro” Brosdahl explains, “People often wonder why panfish are in certain spots. When fishing flats there’s always more to the story, and it’s usually an edge of some kind, a slight change in bottom type.” 

If you’ve pre-located these small humps, ridges, and depressions, you’ll know where the bluegill and sunfish will congregate because they’re attracted to anything that breaks the monotony of that flat.

Late ice

As winter loosens its hold, bluegill and sunfish will move back toward the shallows, looking for renewed vegetation and influxes of water that carries prey items into the main body of water. 

It’s critical to know where to find gently sloping points, early spring weed beds, and every place water flows into your lake as spring nears.

Ice Fishing Bluegill and Sunfish: Bait and Lures

Many ice anglers cut their teeth on live bait like maggots and wax worms, and there’s no question that they still work. But there’s also no question they’re a pain to work with compared to micro-artificials, and many - maybe even most - serious fishermen have made the switch to micro-jigs and soft plastics of all kinds.

ice fishing bluegill and sunfish with waxworms

Waxworms are the go-to live bait for winter bluegill and sunfish.

For instance, rather than wax worms, plenty of anglers tip their hooks with Berkley PowerBait Power Honey Worms.

Berkley PowerBait Power Honey Worm Soft Bait - Natural - 1in | 3cm - Panfish

Amazon 

Or try rigging a tiny jig head with a Fishin Addict Nano-Cray. And a 2” Berkley PowerBait Power Grub is simply deadly when the bluegill and sunfish are down deep, where nothing but black is going to be visible. More on ice fishing lures and ice fishing bait

FISHIN ADDICT Nano-Cray 40mm (1.5'') Crayfish Bug Micro Fishing Lure Soft Plastic - 10 Pack (Cherry COLA)

Amazon 

Berkley PowerBait Power Grubs,Black,2' (20 Count)

Amazon 

Ice Fishing Bluegill and Sunfish: Technique

No question about it, jigging is the dominant hard water technique for bluegill and sunfish, and most ice fishing rods are designed for a “pencil grip” that lets you gently twitch your rod tip to subtly set your bait or lure dancing.

Keep in mind that the combination of low oxygen and cold water will leave fish sluggish and looking for an easy meal. You need to make your bait or lure stand out but also mimic an easy meal that won’t require much from a torpid fish.

You can also “pulse” your bait or lure, raising it slowly with a more dramatic movement of your rod and letting it sink again. This can attract bites on both the rise and the fall, but it needs to be done gently and with real finesse.

Finally, you can “dead stick,” just leaving your bait to attract attention on its own. This works, too, especially when the fish are spooked and wary or especially torpid.

Final Thoughts

Ice fishing for bluegill and sunfish is a winter right of passage in many parts of the county, and it’s an exhilarating way to spend a day on the ice, no question about it.

If you do your homework before the ice forms, learn your lake or pond’s secrets, and use the right micro-baits and techniques, you’re sure to be the envy of your fishing buddies.

We hope you’ve learned something from this article, and as always, we’d love to hear from you.

Please leave a message below!

About The Author
Pete D
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. When he’s not out on the water, you can find him reading his favorite books, and spending time with his family.
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