bluegill ice flies

The Basics of Using Ice Flies for Panfish

Ever come across a tricky panfish bite under the ice? When fish get picky, ice flies are often the best solution for those nasty bites below the ice. This article gives a basic introduction to picking ice flies.

Stuck this bull 'gill on a TUNGSTEN Slab Spike

Stuck this bull ‘gill on a TUNGSTEN Slab Spike

When picking an ice fly, there are three things that I consider. First, I think about what the fish is primarily feeding on, and how big that food source is. Panfish are opportunistic feeders, especially in the winter. They will feed on many things during the cold season. However, many of those food sources can be generalized into three categories: Nymphs and Larvae, Freshwater Shrimp, and Worms. As long as I have a couple from each category, I can match almost every bite.

Size is another key factor. Colder weather makes the fish have much smaller appetites. On those nasty days when your holes freeze over before you finish drilling them, a smaller fly is often the only way to entice a bite.

Finally, I consider triggers; does it have any? What are they? In the winter panfish have a much slower metabolism, so adding little triggers can help to entice the bite. During the cold months, panfish are not eager to chase an aggressive presentation. Triggers add little twitches of movement to a fly that is activated by minimal jigging, making triggers a crucial part of a fly. I love incorporating rubber legs and marabou into my flies. Rubber legs add beautiful movement even with the slightest twitch, and the marabou breathes under water. I also add a little flash to my flies. However, due to panfish’s lethargic nature during winter, adding too much flash will end up scaring the fish. Sometimes one extra trigger could mean the difference between being skunked and having a good day on the water.

The 'Gill Shrimp. the translucency of the ice perfectly mimics a fresh water shrimp.

The ‘Gill Shrimp. the translucency of the ice perfectly mimics a freshwater shrimp.

A Slab Spike is a perfect example of a nymph pattern.

A Slab Spike is a perfect example of a nymph pattern.

Now that you have picked your fly its time to fish it. I prefer that my flies get down fast, so I rig my flies as a dropper to either a tungsten ice fly or a tungsten jig. If fishing with two hooks is not an option, I will fall back to a good ol’ drop shot rig or a single tungsten fly. Panfish under the ice have a much slower metabolism than in the summer, so I lean towards a gentle pattern of micro twitches. If the fish are too slow for a gentle jigging pattern, I’ll switch to barely moving the fly every few seconds. Any triggers will come into play here as the slightest twitch will make the flies move and look even more buggy. I always consider how the fish are reacting to my flies and jigging pattern, and I adjust accordingly.

A beautiful end to a good day on the ice.

A beautiful end to a good day on the ice.

Remember fish are lethargic in the winter so their appetite won’t be as large and they will be less aggressive. So, a smaller, more mellow fly is sometimes key. Ice flies are my favorite way to fish in the winter, and the perfect way to fish any bite.

Tight Lines,

Noah

 

Want some hand-tied ice flies? Check out our shop!

 

 

 

Tying Ice Flies for Winter Panfish: The ‘Gill Shrimp and Triggers for Hardwater Slabs

Veteran ice fisherman have long known that scuds (or freshwater shrimp) are a favorite food for big panfish and trout under the ice. Over the past few seasons, I’ve been testing and tweaking a few patterns to match the hatch and create a good scud imitation. Crappies and bluegills under the ice have a much slower metabolism than their summer counterparts, so ice anglers need to utilize a few key triggers in their ice flies and lures to entice unaggressive, neutral fish into biting. These triggers hold true for not only ice flies, but all lures for hardwater panfish.

The ‘Gill Shrimp

The ‘Gill Shrimp (or “Bluegill Shrimp”) came about after refining a few patterns and adding materials and triggers to produce a convincing ice fly. I knew I wanted a bug that imitated the slightly curved position of a lethargic scud and had plenty of movement incorporated into the materials. I also really liked the oversized black bead chain eyes as the scud’s large eyes are a very noticable feature on the actual bug. After a few somewhat successful renditions, I finally settled on a version that utilized chickabou feathers and gray UV Ice Dub in a dubbing loop to produce a very life-like pattern with lots of inherent motion.

  • Hook: #10-14 nymph or curved scud
  • Thread: Black 6/0 UNI
  • Tail: Natural gray chickbou and silver flashabou
  • Rib: X-fine silver wire
  • Body: Natural gray chickabou and gray UV Ice Dub in a dubbing loop, wrapped to eyes
  • Legs: X-small brown centipede

A Few Thoughts on Triggers

A few key triggers came into play when designing the ‘Gill Shrimp. Profile is one major element in producing a bug that panfish will recognize. Fail to imitate the natural profile of the insect, and panfish will be far more reluctant to take your offering. Crappies and bluegills see thousands of these bugs in their natural environment through their lifetime, so imitating the general shape and proportions of the natural is key to producing a bait that panfish will recognize as a food source. An especially effective tactic is designing patterns around the life cycle when bugs are most vulnerable, such as a mayfly emergence or crayfish molt. Just like a trout will key in on crippled mayflies or a bass will readily attack a wounded baitfish, panfish will eagerly grab a bait that imitates an easy snack. Though profile is important, it isn’t the all-controlling factor in producing an effective bug. As long as the ice fly matches the broad general profile of the insect, you can utilize other triggers to entice fish into biting instead of focusing on imitating the exact profile of the natural. By grouping your ice flies into three general profiles (bloodworms and larvae, nymphs, and scuds) you can imitate a variety of specific insects with one general pattern.

Hatching A Match. Another factor to consider when designing flies and selecting baits is transparency. Scuds naturally have a translucent grayish, olive, or tan color depending on the body of water, so the flashy Ice Dub and picked-out chickabou legs are a good choice for creating a translucent appearance. Micro tubing does a nice job imitating the somewhat mottled color pattern of a mayfly nymph, as the clear hollow tubing allows some light to sneak through and produces a two-toned effect. Find the transparency of the bug you’re imitating and select your materials accordingly.

gill shrimp ice fly panfish ice fishing

The eyes provide some serious bugginess

The large black eyes were the first component that I added to the ‘Gill Shrimp. The eyes on a scud are one of the more prominent features, providing a highly recognizable target for big panfish and trout to key in on when searching for scuds in the weedbeds. These identifiable elements such as the eyes on a scud or black spot on a shad can really get fish excited and push them into attack mode, so incorporating them into your ice flies and lures is an important part of triggering fish to strike.

A slab rainbow that fell for a 'Gill Shrimp (Photo credit: Kevin Jones from Idaho Pursuit)

A solid rainbow that fell for a ‘Gill Shrimp (Photo credit: Kevin Jones from Idaho Pursuit)

Movement and Bugginess. Movement is perhaps the most important element in designing productive ice flies, so adding materials that have lots of natural movement is vital to creating an enticing pattern. Mini rubber legs have long been one of my absolute favorite materials for tying ice flies. The extra small, supple appendages add tons of natural movement and to a pattern, which is just what I want when slab panfish aren’t in the mood for an aggressive jigging cadence. Great for enticing negative cold-front panfish, they quiver and twitch with the slightest twitch of the rod tip, an essential element when finessing a large bluegill or crappie. But here’s where things get interesting. While the ‘Gill Shrimp possesses rubber legs that protrude straight out from the sides of the body at a perpendicular angle, freshwater shrimp and scuds do not actually have legs that extend outward, but instead curl in toward their stomach. Even though scuds don’t have these outward legs, the extra movement adds a trigger that I think really makes the difference between a decent pattern and a deadly one. With this in mind, matching the exact characteristics of an insect isn’t nearly as important as creating a buggy fly, which brings us back to profile. While imitating the profile and characteristics of the natural bug is important, extra triggers such as rubber legs or chickabou allow you to imitate several general bugs with one pattern. Depending on presentation and the mood and location of the fish, an ice fly might be taken for a scud, aquatic worm, or mayfly larvae, as it provides features of several bugs that fish will recognize. Panfish encounter hundreds of varieties of insects and larvae, so imitating an exact bug isn’t nearly as important as incorporating triggers into your ice flies and lures that will excite slab bluegills and crappies.

So there are a few thoughts on tying ice flies and triggers for winter panfish. The ‘Gill Shrimp and Slab Spike, which were designed with these triggers in mind, have been solid producers for me (if you don’t tie, you can grab a few hand-tied ‘Gill Shrimp and Slab Spike ice flies here). Using these natural triggers to your advantage when tying ice flies and selecting lures for hardwater panfish will lead to more fish on the ice, especially during tough cold-front situations.

Also check out our post on tying ice flies for more thoughts on designing and tying productive patterns.

Tight lines and good luck on the ice!

Conner

Tying Ice Flies for Winter Panfish

Tight lining has taken the panfish ice fishing scene by storm in the past few years, and for good reason. This highly productive technique utilizes ultra-quick sinking tungsten jigs in combination with realistic, imitative ice flies on the same line. I’ve been tying, testing, and tweaking the design of a few ice flies over the past two seasons with great results on the ice. Here are two of my most productive patterns for hardwater panfish.

Slab Spike

Hook: #12-16 heavy wire nymph hook
Bead:5/32″ brass bead
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Natural gray chickabou with one to two strands of gold flashabou on either side
Body: Brown micro tubing
Legs: Brown x-small or micro barred rubber legs
Thorax: Dubbing blend of your natural dubbing (hare’s ear, squirrel, etc.) and gray or olive UV Ice Dub
Get some hand-tied Slab Spikes in our shop!
The 'Gill Shrimp. the translucency of the ice perfectly mimics a fresh water shrimp.

The ‘Gill Shrimp. the translucency of the ice perfectly mimics a fresh water shrimp.

Hook: #12-16 heavy wire nymph hook
Bead/Eyes: 5/32″ brass bead or x-small black bead chain eyes
Thread: Black 8/0
Tail: Gray marabou with two or three strands of root beer Krystal flash
Body: Hare’s ear, gray UV Ice Dub, and gray/cream antron mix dubbing, picked out
Rib: Fine copper gold wire
Legs: Medium rubber

 

Spikes (mayfly nymphs) and scuds are a favorite food source for winter panfish. The Slab Spike, with its segmented body, rubber legs, and seductive chickabou tail, closely imitates a small mayfly nymph. The ‘Gill Shrimp is a good match for freshwater shrimp that live among the weed beds.

For me, the key trigger in ice flies is movement. Marabou, fur, dubbing, and feathers are all great ways to add movement to your flies, but my favorite materials are chickabou and small rubber legs. Chickabou is almost like a marabou feather, but it comes off the back of a chicken and has finer fibers that breathe, twitch, and quiver convincingly with the slightest lift of the rod tip. Another important factor to think about when tying ice flies is durability. Removing deeply inhaled bugs with pliers is the death of many small ice flies, so while a body material like pheasant tail might catch fish just fine, it won’t hold up as well as micro tubing and dubbing.

Pile of bluegills to 8″ on Gull Lake that fell for a #14 Slab Spike in an afternoon of fishing.

Winter panfish have a much slower metabolism than summer fish do, so that means they will be less aggressive and not as willing to attack a large, gaudy fly. Small sizes from #12 at the very largest down to a #16 is in order, and a sparsely tied fly with a skinny body will help with profile and sink rates. Again, micro tubing, dubbing, and thread bodies are my favorites for bodies. Flash is an essential ingredient to a good pattern, but use it sparingly. Too much flash or a large, overdressed fly can quickly put off big panfish. I usually tie my flies with a gold bead and one or two strands of flashabou on each side of the tail.

Ice flies are great for turning negative, cold front slabs into biters. I’ve watched many fish on my underwater camera shy away from the big, juicy waxie-tipped jig, then slowly tilt up and inhale the ice fly. Slab bluegills and crappies can get pretty finicky under the ice, and ice flies are sometimes the only way to hook mid-winter panfish.

Get some hand-tied Slab Spikes in our store.

Tight Lines,

Conner

 

3 Brothers Flies © 2014 Frontier Theme