It isn’t quite Ice Road Truckers in action, but being on the road for 40 days last winter, traveling to shoot Ice Fishing Guide TV, you hit the same highs and lows that make those truckers’ lives a challenge. Mostly it’s the weather. A blizzard here and there, frigid temperatures, gale winds—even a mid-February warm spell while traveling the southern edge of the Ice Belt that halted fishing because of thin ice.
Through it all one often-overlooked product saved the day, helping to scratch the fish we need to finish TV segments. The Ice Rigger is a trusted tool. I carry 6 of them with me at all times. I might not begin the day using them, but I often end the day using them. When the fishing’s tough, there’s usually a way to get a Rigger into the action.
The Rigger allows fishing a rod as a deadstick. You set a trap and wait—but I’m not good at waiting, so it’s usually set a trap or two and explore the general area by jigging while the Riggers wait. Tip-ups work best in brutally cold weather because the line spool is below water. Riggers works best in milder conditions. If it’s colder than about 0° to 10°F it’s a full-time job tending them to keep the line from freezing in the hole.
The rod I like best for the Rigger is the Frabill Ice Hunter Series 38-inch Medium. The combination of the length and soft-action doesn’t alert fish when the trap snaps; indeed, it seems that most fish actually like the resulting gentle pressure and refuse to give up the lure. The rod has proven tough enough to handle big catfish and trout, but light enough to fish well for big perch and crappies. The Frabill Bro Series Reel couples well with the rod. For a modestly priced reel it’s dependable and has a nice drag. Six-pound mono works for just about everything, as an all-around tool. If I’m primarily after panfish, I drop down to 4 pound. If big channel catfish are the target I spool with 8.
It’s February 15, on a big pond near Columbus, Nebraska—south edge of the Ice Belt. We’re on 8 or 9 inches of ice. In a cold year they might get another two weeks of fishing, but the weather’s so warm and windy it looks like this could be it. The first snow geese flocks of the season are in flight. One expects better fishing at last ice, but the fish—crappies, bluegills, bass, and channel catfish—are scattered and tentative. It’s a classic situation to employ Riggers, so I set out three, one for each of us. We continue jigging as the riggers also work their magic.
The best bait is almost always a minnow anchored with a leadhead jig. With minnows about 3 to 4 inches long, I use a 1/32-ounce jig with a long hook shank. Put the minnow in your hand with the head away from you. Just nick the hook point under the skin next to the dorsal fin, so the hook rides parallel with the fin, the hook point riding toward the minnow’s head. This keeps the minnow lively enough to attract fish, but the swimming is hampered just enough to make it easier for fish to catch the minnow. And when fish bite the hook is in perfect position to hook them. You rarely miss fish.
It’s easy to pick up Riggers and move them, so we’re moving from one area of the pond to another, fishing drop-off edges, but mostly concentrating on the pond basin in 20 feet of water. Often when the fishing is difficult the Riggers produce most of the good fish. The first big fish is a channel cat of about 10 pounds. We scratch a bass that goes about 3.5. The crappies are running about a pound and they’re biting jigging lures at about the same rate as they’re biting anchored minnows.
As a matter of pushing percentages and needing another big fish to end our TV segment, I quit jigging and set out more Riggers. I let them fish an area for about 10 minutes then move each one to another hole. We get the fish needed to end the day, a crappie that pushes 1.5 pounds. The two Nebraska friends fishing with me swear to never again be on the ice without Riggers of their own.
That’s pretty much the way it goes. Another day last season we’re on a small reservoir in southern Iowa, where we catch most of the largemouth bass we need on Riggers, while also jigging some up with Northland Puppet Minnows. Filming a show segment on deadsticking on Lake of the Woods, Field Editor Gord Pyzer and I catch half our walleyes on Riggers, the other half on Puppets. Meanwhile, I have not been on the ice the last three years fishing for channel catfish without using the Riggers to do great damage. The system is absolutely deadly on catfish. It’s also deadly in situations where bass are part of the mix.
You might be most surprised how effective Riggers are on perch and crappies. They can be set to trip from the lightest bites. I’m almost always jigging, but the Riggers work set in an area nearby to warn of fish moving through. The rod pops and the Rigger flag goes up. Catch the fish and immediately drop a jig down the hole and pop another fish or two. Then reset the Rigger and get back to jigging in another hole. A fish here and a fish there and pretty soon you’re talking serious fish fry. Hey, this is fun. And more than just a bit effective.
Riggers work well for pike, but you risk having your rigging dragged down a hole unless you anchor each Rigger with an ice spike. Takes too much time. I go with tip-ups when I’m working on pike. And for fish like Great Lakes brown trout and steelhead, the auto-set riggers are much preferred.
It’s all as simple as can be—just another tool on the ice. A vital tool, though, in so many situations that call for scratching fish when the bite goes bad to the bone.