Humans, especially today, tend to overcomplicate simple tasks. Take finding panfish through the ice for example. There is nothing complicated about filling a bucket with bluegills, crappies, or perch, during the winter months. Some days, it may take a few hours. Other days, far less. But it should happen—assuming you’re on a lake with a viable population of fish—and it shouldn’t take a whole lot of cranial gymnastics or high-end equipment to get it done.

Here’s is a stupid-easy ice-fishing formula that has worked for me everywhere I’ve used it. It’s not sophisticated, there are no secrets, and it’s not all that sexy, but it is effective.

1) Pair Down Your Ice Fishing Gear

You don’t need much to ice-fish. As with all things outdoors, you can bring an entire trailer full of garb. You can tote a lithium-powered auger with special blades, a camera with a big-screen TV, a pair of forward-looking sonar units to cover all angles, and a half-dozen flasher units to maximize your hole density. 

Or you can bring a single rod/reel combo spooled up with 2-pound test, a handful of basic tear-drop jigs (I will splurge on Tungsten because it’s more efficient and wastes less time), and a carton of wax worms or mousies. You’ll need an auger, to get through the ice. And a single flasher unit comes in handy, but you can fish without one—though I’m not sure why you’d want to. A flip-over shelter is nice, too, but the time-tested bucket turned upside down will suffice.

2) Assess The Situation

Ice fishing can draw a crowd. Once you’ve reached the lake’s access point, it will quickly become obvious where the fish might be. It will be revealed by a town of shanties, shelters, and bucket-sitters huddled in a small area. (If you’re the only one on the ice, you can move on to the next step.)

Ice fishermen grouped together in a big line.
Ice fishermen tend to bunch up. Get away from the crowd and you’ll catch more fish. wksbyks via Pixabay

This is useful information. But it is not the information you need. Take a stroll through that community on ice, and look for indications that the crew is actually catching fish—and don’t be too surprised if they aren’t. For whatever reason, a single shelter on a giant lake is like a beacon for all those who follow. Without fail, the next person to arrive will head for that shelter or shanty and start boring holes near it, even if there is no evidence that fish are being caught. Don’t make that mistake.

If fish are being caught, then it’s time to bore a hole. But don’t do so with the intention of setting up shop. The goal here is to get a depth reading. 

3) Check the Depth 

When it comes to icing a pile of panfish, the task requires nothing more than locating where the fish are. And that is not a difficult chore in the winter. In the summer, panfish are scattered all over a lake. Some will be shallow and spawning. Others will be deeper, near first green weeds of the year. Others will roam suspended over super-deep flats.

In winter, that is seldom the case. When the water gets frigid and the sun is blocked by a blanket of ice and snow, panfish get together and hang out. If fish are being caught along the first break line in 12 feet of water on the north shore, odds are very high you’ll find panfish along the first break in 12 feet of water on the south shore.

When you bore a hole in the cluster of anglers, you’ll want to check the depth, bottom composition, and any other tidbits you can glean from the area.

If no one else is fishing, you’re looking for the same information, you just need a starting point. I always start shallow and work deep. Shallow, of course, is a relative term. Typically, that means 10-12 feet of water near a break line. Each lake is different, but if you find that first dropoff, you’ll have a good place to start.

4) Separate Yourself From the Group

Now that you have an indication of depth, move away from the crowd. I like to get at least 100 yards or more away. Starting at that first break line (or the depth where others have been catching fish), use a flasher and assess activity. If you don’t have a flasher, see below. 

Start by drilling three holes about 20 yards apart along the break line you want to scope out. Then drop the transducer in and take a look. If you’re looking for bluegills or perch, you want to see fish that are a bit off the bottom. For crappies, they’ll be sitting a bit higher in the water column. If you see a flat bottom, move. It’s true there could be panfish holding tight to the bottom. But those fish are generally inactive and not what you want if your goal is to be in the action from the get-go. And that is the goal. There’s no reason to waste time on fish that require a lot of coaxing. If you’ve found the right depth, one of the three holes is likely to have fish marks that are off the bottom. 

Ice fisherman drilling a hole in the ice.
Once you’ve identified a good break line, drill three holes. chulmin1700 via Pixabay

If you don’t have a flasher it is a bit more time-consuming to find active fish. But you’re still going to drill a hole and check your depth with a weight. If you’re in the right depth range, then quickly bore two more holes, and move on to the next step. 

5) Check For Active, Feeding Fish

This is where impatience pays off. Remember, you’re not going to bother dropping a line until you find a hole with fish marks that are off the bottom. Generally speaking, those indicate fish that are active and feeding.

When you do see this, rig up a jig with a wax worm or mousie and drop it in. What you want to see are fish reacting to the bait as it falls. You want them coming up to it. If they do, you’re in business.

If you don’t have a flasher or sonar unit, you’re still going rig up and start fishing but you’ll be looking for actual bites. Don’t drop your bait all the way to the bottom. Keep it a foot or two above. If you get bit, you can assume you’re on active fish and it’s a hole worth spending some time in. If your bait gets to the bottom without a bite, move on.

Four perch on the ice.
You want to find fish that are actively feeding and suspended from the bottom. VesaL via Pixabay

Read Next: The 20 Best Ice Fishing Lures Ever

The Theory Behind it All 

Remember, you moved away from the cluster of anglers even though they may have been sitting on a pod of fish. Why? Competition. Your goal is to get on fish in a hurry and to not complicate things.

Fish that are seeing a bunch of lures in a small area are likely going to be more difficult to catch than fish that aren’t being pressured. It’s a common-sense approach that works. By using information from other anglers regarding a productive depth, you’ve simplified things greatly. And there almost certainly are other pods of fish in that depth range. A few holes is all it should take to find them.

If you’re fishing a lake you’ve never been on before and there are no other anglers, simply start punching holes. Find that first break line and begin your search. Drill a hole, drop in the flasher. If there are active fish marks, you’re in business. If there aren’t, move deeper. It really shouldn’t take more than 15 to 20 minutes to find the depth that’s holding active fish. Don’t spend time fishing in holes that aren’t showing fish. Start shallow. If the depth you’re in isn’t holding them, move deeper. It really is that easy.