Small Panfish Baits
The race is on to see who can make the tiniest jigs and bits of soft bait you will be willing to buy—or that you will be able to see without a magnifying glass. Whichever comes first.
Nobody would care how tiny these jigs and plastics became if they didn’t work. They certainly do work. Fishermen who scoff at the tiny stuff probably don’t give much thought to panfish vision. Bluegills can see things we call microscopic, so the lenses nature provides them are superior to ours at focusing on tiny objects.
Locked under the ice, the aquatic world becomes more sterile. Not to say it is sterile. Far from it. But procreation and growth, for most things, takes place when the influence of sunlight is much greater. Minnows and insects mostly hatch in spring and summer. During those times of year, panfish are growing and eating the largest items they target all year. During winter, panfish growth is reduced, while the items they feed upon are smaller and in many cases less abundant.
As we’ve often pointed out, plankton become critical for panfish under the ice. Studies from various states have shown that the biggest bluegills tend to occur in lakes or backwaters inhabited by atypically large zooplankters, and the resting levels plankton settle into often correspond to depths bluegills use in winter.
When panfish are geared for hunting plankton, they may ignore or even spook from larger jigs, minnows, and spoons. In these situations, scaling down can attract and hold interest even when tiny plastics don’t resemble plankton in any appreciable way. Even in the case of crappie populations that have the option of foraging on minnows all through the ice season, small, soft imitations that have recently appeared on the market can make a big difference.
Tiny Softbait Lineup
Laboratory tests reveal that bluegills react to the introduction of microscopic zooplankters from distances of 2 to 3 feet in clear water. If small is good, tiny can be even better. So when panfish feed on things so small you need a microscope to see them, best to have some tiny options along. Panfish might be less selective than trout, but that doesn’t mean panfish won’t feed exclusively on one type of forage when that forage is highly abundant. And nothing is more abundant than plankton or barely visible insect larvae.
Every angler with a modicum of experience has by now seen panfish refuse lures of all types. Watching with an underwater camera while ice fishing, pressured panfish often cruise up for a sniff, stare at the lure for a long time and slowly swim off. When that happens, try a splitshot rig on wispy line, or a use a jig-dropper below a small spoon. The result reveals why so many lure manufacturers have scaled down to jigs weighing less than 1/80-ounce ounce and plastics measuring less than 1/2‑inch in length.
Tiny packages give panfish less to scrutinize and less to be wary about. The reduction in weight allows panfish to inhale tiny things easier. I’ve watched panfish swim up to a 1/16-ounce spoon or 1/32-ounce jig and flare their gills. If they fail to suck the bait in, they turn and swim away without touching it.
About 15 years ago, a Wisconsin company called PinPoint Plastix developed a thin, almost infinitely tapering piece of plastic called the PinTail. A decade has passed since Innovative Sports Group (ISG) came out with the Plankton Series, which includes thin, hollow worms, tiny solid worms and tapering tails.
Those early innovations in the tiny marketplace provided us with tools that taught us a lot about panfish. We learned that thin, skinny plastics are more subtle and responsive on light gear than larger plastics—which still represent 80-percent of our choices for panfish. Custom Jigs & Spins answered with the Wedgie and those “mousey” imitations—the Shrimpo and the Ratso. Five years ago, Lindy introduced the Munchies Tiny Tails series, in the same size range.
Probably the tiniest “plastic” out there today isn’t plastic at all, but Berkley Gulp!. The Gulp! Ascot, now entering its third year, is just over 1/4 inch long, and probably closer to the actual size of a real maggot than anything out there. The Gulp! Alive Minnow now comes in a 1-inch panfish size that mimics the tiniest crappie minnows you might find in your bucket. The scent and taste of these products attract panfish just like livebait in many situations.
Northland Tackle released the Bro series of plastics last year. I used Bro’s Bloodworm and Bro’s Slug Bug not just to catch scads of panfish, but also rainbow trout, smallmouth bass, and brown trout last winter. Few plastics look more alive or balance better with tiny heads than these new additions. You have to watch one dance to appreciate it.
These and other innovations led to a unique development: A custom plastics designer. Call Scott Brauer at Maki Plastics, describe the shape and size plastic you want and he’ll make it for you. His unusual designs (with equally unusual names, like Draggi, Buggi, Fri, and Stoni) include capsule-shaped bodies with ultra thin bobtails, three-legged mutants and lifelike fry imitations. The thinnest ones fascinate me most, because these are the tails that wag the dog. When used with jigs in the 1/100-ounce range and smaller, watch out. The action is so hot you might bite it yourself.
None of these plastics would be functional without tools to carry them down and present them. Tiny plastics require tiny hooks, which require tiny bits of lead to make a functional jig. Before ISG introduced those tiny plastics with tiny jigs to match, only a few small companies were making any jigs smaller than 1/80 ounce. Turner Jones, Comet, and Rainbow Lures were among the first. Jones still holds the record for marketing the smallest jig ever (his Scampi still weighs in at 1/500 ounce), as far as we know. But the choices have been broadening ever since. Today, shapes that create action on the drop are all the rage.
Tiny Jigs Today
If tiny things make a difference, tiny, fluttering motions can likewise make a difference in triggering panfish. More than a decade ago, Northland Tackle introduced the Jiglet, a horizontal, tear-shaped jig for panfish with a flattened, almost concave belly. Several years later, Lindy came out with the Genz Bug. This oblong jig is partly flattened on the bottom, producing resistance when the jig drops. The Genz Bug is a standup-style head, pointing a plastic tail up at a 45-degree angle when resting on bottom. Flutter on the drop created by these small changes in shape precipitated some flutter in the industry as well.
Custom Jigs & Spins answered with the ‘Gill Pill, a panfish jig with a half-moon profile and 45-degree hook angle. The flat bottom on the Pill creates a fluttering, knuckleball action on the drop. Maynards recently introduced the Skeeter Bug, another 45-degree “tweener” (not really horizontal on the pause, but not vertical either). The Skeeter produces a unique swimming motion on the drop.
Famous ice angler Brian “Bro” Brosdahl helped Northland develop another unique lineup called the Bug-Eyed Bro collection, which includes the Gill Getter, the Bro Bug, and the Mud Bug. Like the Skeeter Bug, these jigs have bulging eyes, and the Gill Getter has that flattened bottom and wiggly little wobble on the drop. The other jigs in this lineup, the Scud Bug, Slug Bug and Bloodworm, come combined with the tiny plastic tails discussed earlier. A little wobble on the drop in combination with thin tapered tails or appendages can create motions irresistible to panfish (relieving the angler of the need for learning how to make those things happen with rod action to some extent).
For many years we’ve discussed the effectiveness of tandem rigging for panfish. Adding a dropper line doubles the odds while cutting in half the time required to pattern fish. Determining the optimum color, shape or size can be half the battle some days.
Few things make tandem rigging easier than the new Tandem Heads from TC Tackle. The jigs are available in sizes ranging from less than 1/80 ounce up to 1/8-ounce. Some are flattened (aspirin style), and some are ball heads. The dropper eye at the bottom of the head is perfect for adding a baited hook a few inches beneath the head. With plastic on the jig and maggots hanging below (or vice versa), patterns are more quickly recognized. And, like Brauer, Tim McFarland of TC Tackle is a custom designer. If it’s physically possible he’ll make jigs you design, using hooks you want in the weights you order.
The Marmooska style jigs, long used in Europe and popularized here by HT Enterprises, precipitated many of the newer jigs described above. The Marmooska is a horizontal hanger, and probably had something to do with the process behind the creation of the Bro Bug, the ‘Gill Pill, the Skeeter Bug, the Mud Bug, the Mormuskat from Nils Master and the Optic Stealth Jig from Little Atom.
Each has a slight, subtle flutter on the drop, but these designs are easy to rock. The slightest vibration in the rod makes the hook (and therefore the bait or plastic attached to it) rock ever so slightly, up and down. With pressured fish already staring at a jig, you don’t want big or quick movements. Subtle is better. Barely perceptible vibration is best. With these jigs, just tap the rod blank softly to trigger reluctant biters.
Smaller presentations require lighter line (2-pound test fluorocarbon is optimum) and less manipulation. With tiny things, slight movement of the wrist and the light taps on the rod blank result in the kind of lure movements panfish can’t resist.