Ice-fishing tournament tactics for more and bigger panfish
Fishing tournaments have long served as a leading source of innovation in fishing tackle and techniques. The design of tools ranging from boats and motors to rods and reels has been heavily influenced by the needs of tournament anglers pursuing bass, walleyes, muskies and other freshwater species. It’s likely, though, that ice-fishing tournaments have had a deeper impact on the gear and techniques used to catch sunfish, crappies and perch.
The Trap Attacks
Pioneering ice angler Dave Genz, of St. Cloud, Minn., began hosting Trap Attack tournaments in December 1984. The events were named after the Fish Trap, a portable flip-over ice-fishing shelter that Genz invented. The innovative design allowed anglers to stay mobile and comfortable in almost any kind of weather.
“At the time, ice fishing was still in the Stone Age,” Genz said. “Most fishermen either sat in a permanent ice house and fished the same spot all winter long, or they sat on a bucket when the weather was mild enough to allow them to fish outside. The goal of the Trap Attack events was to educate ice fishermen on new equipment and new fishing techniques.”
The first event was held on Pelican Lake near Orr, Minn., about 100 miles north of Duluth “Anglers were amazed with the gear,” Genz said. “Portable shelters to stay warm and electronics to ‘see’ fish beneath the ice. We take this stuff for granted today, but back then it was all new.
“When we returned the following year during the first weekend in January, the weather was brutally cold. We noticed, though, that most of the participants had portable shelters and electronics. That same pattern repeated at most of our events: locals would show up the first year with crude equipment, but when we returned the following year they all had the right stuff.”
Fishing techniques evolved as quickly as the gear. “The main thing we wanted to teach was that mobile anglers caught more fish,” Genz said. “Open-water anglers wouldn’t anchor the boat in one spot on a lake all day long if they weren’t catching fish, so why would you fish one or two holes in the ice during winter?”
Anglers fished on foot during the first several events, but the quest for mobility eventually had competitors driving trucks on the ice when conditions allowed. Soon after, anglers ditched their trucks for snowmobiles and ATVs, most of which were customized for ice fishing.
“Eventually we fished lakes all across the ice belt,” Genz said, “from the Dakotas to New York and as far south as Iowa and Illinois. Part of me was sad to see the series end, but the events served their purpose. We educated a lot of anglers about modern ice-fishing methods and equipment.”
The Ultimate Panfish League
Matt Johnson, of Ramsey, Minn., held the first Ultimate Panfish League event at Linwood Lake, about 40 miles north of the Twin Cities, in November 2002. Since then he has witnessed the continuing evolution of fishing tackle and techniques, and has seen the dramatic impact it’s had on the number and size of fish brought to the scale.
“When we first started fishing in 2002, anglers were hauling their portable fish houses out on the ice, either on foot or in the back of a truck,” Johnson said. “They would drill a few holes, setup their portable shelter and turn on a propane heater. Most teams fished one or two spots throughout the day. Not many fish were caught and limits were rare. Fishing tactics remained pretty crude until we transitioned from trucks to snowmobiles and ATVs.”
That’s when the anglers began learning how to be better tournament anglers. They relied on technical clothing rather than a fish house. They began using finesse plastics instead of livebait. And they replaced their lead jigs with tungsten lures that drop faster through the water column.
“But the biggest change,” Johnson said, "was moving from the deep basin areas where panfish suspend off of the the bottom to shallow areas with green weeds. The weedy cover can make a good presentation challenging -- which is why most competitors refer to it as combat fishing -- but the fish in those areas are usually actively feeding and they’re often larger.”
Practice fishing tactics have also evolved. “The best anglers don’t even wet a line during the practice day,” Johnson said. “They use underwater cameras not just to find fish, but to find the right fish -- the above-average specimens that mean the difference between catching a limit and winning the tournament.
“A few dedicated anglers even pre-fish for ice fishing tournaments all year long. They spend time in the summer surveying lakes with side-imaging sonar so they have a clear picture of the structure and cover that will likely hold fish during winter.”
The Minnesota Panfish Championship
Lawrence Luoma, of Big Lake, Minn., and his partner Tad Westermann, of Otsego, Minn., won the 2019 Minnesota State Panfish Championship on Chisago Lake in Chisago City. Luoma began fishing the UPL in 2009 before moving to the North American Ice Fishing Circuit. He has also competed internationally as a member of USA Ice Team.
“My fishing tackle and techniques have evolved a lot since I began fishing tournaments,” Luoma said. “I started with high-end graphite rods and top-of-the line spinning reels. At one event, I told a couple of anglers from Michigan that I was losing lots of fish -- mostly big fish. They showed me their gear and told me how they used it.
“They used inexpensive fiberglass noodle rods with the whippy tip cut off to provide better control of their jig. They taped on equally inexpensive nylon inline reels spooled with high-visibility 2- or 4-pound-test monofilament line. To detect light bites they watched their line as deep as they could see it underwater. Any movement they didn’t impart was a bite.”
The inline reel prevents line twist, which usually results in more bites. The soft-action fiberglass rod, meanwhile, maintains smooth and even pressure on hooked fish, which results in more fish on the ice.
Luoma usually brings five identical rod and reel combos on the ice along with a single box of 3- and 4-mm tungsten jigs and a bag of soft-plastic baits. He also totes along six batteries for his electric drill, which powers a 6-inch hand-auger bit made by Strikemaster. His Vexilar sonar unit is mounted directly to a bucket that he moves from hole to hole.
“At the Chisago tournament, we were targeting fish in 6 to 9 feet of water,” Luoma said. “We drilled 30 to 40 holes at each spot and moved quickly from hole to hole. Fish the jig high in the water column then swim it down toward the bottom. Repeat that same routine. If you don’t see any fish on your electronics, move to the next hole.
“I’ve learned so much from my fellow tournament anglers. Most of them are like an open book who gladly share what they know -- at least after the tournament is over.”
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