I WAS feeding line down an ice hole in 26 feet of water, a nasty wind biting at wet hands as it became far too apparent the lead sinker was too small for this depth of water.

Stubbornly, there was no turning back now as I patiently waited for the line marker to appear, signaling that the descent of the hook and minnow was nearly complete.

And then it happened, the line stopped going down the hole, and I immediately reeled up the slack and set the hook. Fish on!

The head-chugs on the tip of my medium-weight jig pole were violent enough to suggest it was a big crappie that had come off the bottom to meet my slowly falling bait. And sure enough, I pulled up a thick-bodied crappie of 12 inches — a mighty slab of a panfish.

As mild weather continued into mid-January in uncharacteristic fashion, it was impacting every winter sport we’ve got — but not all in a bad way.

Ice fishing hasn’t taken the hit that snowmobiling and cross-country skiing experienced since the holidays, for light snow totals have no bearing on a sport that relies simply on enough cold weather to freeze up the lakes.

Not only have conditions been ideal with solid ice depths and little or no slush on the lakes, it was so mild last week that the scribbler was tempted to do some panfishing instead of the normal tip-up fishing for northerns and walleyes.

For more than three decades, the boys from the News-Review have scheduled some sort of weekday outing prior to the World Championship Snowmobile Derby — knowing that the weekend would entail long hours and allow zero time for angling.

Joining me on the two-hour adventure was Editor Gary Ridderbusch. The plan was a trip to a lake we used to catch some crappies on but haven’t fished for years, just to check it out.

We drilled numerous holes, checked depths and did some fishing in two or three locations next to a deep hole. But we couldn’t muster a bite in the first hour.

The theory is that panfish, especially crappies, gravitate to the deepest part of the lakes during the winter months. And they say it’s even better if there is a nearby piece of structure, like an underwater rock bar, sand point or some other unique feature next to the hole.

The depth ranged anywhere from 24 to 35 feet. It was just a fast drop-off next to a shoreline, the spot lacking any unique structure for holding fish.

So we made a drastic change and moved to the opposite side of the hole, even though the contours didn’t show any fast drop-offs and weren’t all that promising. It was more like a deep mud flat. We figured it was an experiment, so why not check out as much territory as possible.

And wouldn’t you know it, that the very first hole we drilled some 100 yards from the previous spot was holding a bunch of nice crappies.

After that first 12-inch crappie hit while the bait was still falling, we were suddenly into action that was fast and furious. We couldn’t get the bait down the holes fast enough.

After catching about a dozen fish, the action slowed. The school of fish had moved on. So we drilled a big circle of holes around the area, hoping we might discover their direction of travel on this monster mud flat.

And again, as luck would have it, the first two holes we checked some 15 yards to the north were holding crappies. We had stumbled into them again, catching three or four dandy fish before the nomadic school left us behind.

We were using tiny gold treble hooks, down to size 14, for they offer both flash above the minnow and some extra hook-setting advantage over a single hook.

But I’m thinking any bait would have been effective, because these fish were far from being finicky. They were slamming baits. They were rising up four to five feet and meeting baits as they slowly fell toward the bottom.

Crappies are easier than most fish to locate, but also more challenging, because they suspend off the bottom far higher than most perch or walleye will go. If the depth of your bait or jig ends up below them, your chances of getting any fish are not good.

They are also a very nomadic species that covers a lot of territory in a given day, so don’t expect groups and schools of these fish to hang around a long time in one location. One exception to that is when you are fishing a crib or other structure that they might be using for cover.

Crappies are a prized panfish for the frying pan or deep fryer because their flesh is white, slightly oily and very tasty — with most saying they have more flavor than a walleye fillet. Those larger, thicker fillets add up much faster than bluegills or perch, which is why I call them the king of panfish.

While they love minnows the year-round, crappies will hit a wax worm on a jig, jigging spoons and all types of plastic baits. They are suckers for a slowly falling bait, and you’ll see anglers lifting and dropping their rod tips ever so slowly to entice crappies on a slow-bite day.

We were thinking next time we might try one of those tungsten-weighted jigs in that deep water, just to get the baits down faster. Then again, maybe the slow-falling minnow and hook with a light sinker is more enticing.

If you’re thinking about getting out ice fishing or trying it for a first time, conditions are ideal right now with the relatively light snow cover.

For the fair weather anglers, there are pop-up tents and heaters that make a day on the ice quite comfortable these days.

But you can’t catch them sitting in the easy chair. You’ve got to get outdoors.