In the off season “Ice Man” Barry Williams builds roads, so it’s not surprising that he encounters road kill—fuzzy expired varmints like muskrats, opossum, squirrels, and skunks. All that furry carnage mostly reminds him of ice fishing. The Michigan panfishing prodigy has long pondered the fishy appeal of feathers, fur, and critter hair. He says they have natural oils that make them especially supple and lifelike under water. Wrapped judiciously around a jighook shank, he builds real fur and feather jigs that puff, flutter, shiver, and quake—otherworldly underwater moves that make soft plastics look like a rigid road-killed snake by comparison.
Unlike a singular slab of molded plastic, natural fibers dance independently of one another. Placed precisely on a hook, each feather and hair performs autonomous movements, while creating the illusion of multitudinous appendages that compose every aquatic invertebrate. Ever watched up-close the cilia, antenna, and swimmerets of various zooplankton? Each appendage performs a tantalizing independent dance that results in perfect mobile symmetry.
For big bluegills, perch, crappies, and stream trout, these visual enticements culminate in appetite overload. The compulsion to eat is primal, immediate, and aggressive. Placed under the microscopes of panfish, these micro cues demonstrate the fishes’ remarkable visual acuity. Anyone who’s cast a dry fly or dabbled a nymph for trout amid a specific insect hatch can attest to their focused vision.
Numerous studies of the diets of crappies, sunfish, and perch have established the importance of micro-scale vision in shaping their dietary selections. One particular study of crappies revealed that the fish’s wintertime diet consisted of up to 95 percent Daphnia pulex, one of the larger and more common members of the zooplankton clan. Not only did crappies target Daphnia over other micro invertebrates, such as copepods and mysids, the fish actually targeted the largest individual female Daphnia. The difference between a “large” and “small” Daphnia is measured in tenths of a millimeter. Lure anatomy and action matters, and on a truly tiny scale.
Yet unlike trout, which often require a specific anatomically correct offering, panfish don’t necessarily demand that you match a specific invertebrate species, although it’s often beneficial to do so. Instead, panfish anglers are best served by presenting a generalist jigfly package. A #10 to #16 jighook dressed with fine individual wisps of material that move fluidly yet independently are rarely rejected and frequently accepted over almost anything else, often including livebait.
Williams uses heavy yet tiny tungsten beads to plummet and activate his jigs. His Spooky Tungsten Larva and Freshwater Shrimp are suggestive of midges (bloodworms) and crustaceans, respectively, while the Spooky Bushwacker features squirrel, marabou, and other tail materials, imitative of various living, moving prey. Big panfish munch them all and that includes a giant 17-inch 3-pound crappie Williams caught in 2010.
Tie or Buy Hair Jigs for Panfish
In crafting homemade stuff, you can get as creative, realistic, or basic as you want. Start with a #8, #10, or #12 Mustad 32756 or 32833 jig hook and slide a tungsten bead onto the shank to act as the jighead. I get most of my materials from one of several sources, including jsflyfishing.com, jannsnetcraft.com, or hareline.com. Or you can order hand-tied tungsten jigflies directly from Williams or Waters Edge Fishing Tackle, who both craft some real gems. Cortland and Blue Fox Canada also offer a series of Pro Select Tungsten Ice Flies.
I typically use the largest tungsten barbells or beads available—3- to 5-mm sizes with countersunk eyes. A 5.5-mm tungsten bead weighs 1/25-ounce. Wrap in a dozen or so twists of #210 Ultra Thread and add a drop of head cement or clear fingernail polish to secure the bead.
From there, you can build up a body using synthetics such as ultra chenille, Ice Dub, or some of the squishy latex-based materials like UV Chewee Skin, which creates a mean midge larva. The best patterns often have little more than a dozen or so artfully chosen hair or fur fibers, spaced and wrapped uniformly around the shank.
A noteworthy trend in micro panfish plastics has been for companies to create shapes with the skinniest tails possible. Thinner plastisol pulses and flutters more freely, requiring less rod-tip movement to activate them. But plastisol breaks easily and can’t quite duplicate the micro moves of natural fibers—not that it always has to.
Sparsely tied jigflies require zero activation on the part of the angler. The fibers are so fine, dainty, and neutrally buoyant (or positively buoyant, depending on the material) that subtle water movement alone is enough to activate them. A micro tungsten jigfly tied with short, fine marabou; Arctic fox; Australian opossum; or CDC Super Select Feathers creates an irresistibly lively package that few panfish refuse. All you need are just enough fibers to cover the hook shank and perhaps extend a quarter to half inch beyond the bend.
In moderately clear water, fundamental colors like black, brown, olive, and white produce best. Master pan man Tony Boshold often adds a speck of red on many of his favorite patterns. In darker water, or where scuds or other mysids are common, he adds pinks, glows, and reds.
Boshold also carries a mini stomach pump (available at fly-fishing outlets) to harmlessly vacuum up the contents of a panfish’s stomach. “Compare the color of the mash in their belly to patterns in your box,” he says. “Sometimes you can even identify specific species, such as mayfly larva or baby crayfish. I’ve even found young zebra mussels in the stomachs of redears and ‘seeds (pumpkinseeds). Apparently, the larval mussel veligers are swimmers, and get eaten by panfish at this stage. I often use a zebra-striped jig, such as several new patterns by Fiskas. Details matter.”
Trawling with Tungsten
As Boshold notes, the other half of the equation is the tungsten jighead. By now, heavy metal’s merits are renowned—incredibly hefty yet small and nearly twice as dense as lead. Tungsten promptly plummets down the water column. But it’s this same heavy-headedness that actually hammers the hair’s message home. Via rod-tip movement, tungsten delivers strong blows to the jighook, which in turn makes its fibers dance with exceedingly dramatic motion. A steady pounding presentation—that is, rapid wrist shakes that pulse the rod tip—make certain hair jigs look like the scraggly mullet of a headbanger rockin’ out at a Metallica concert. It’s one crazy whipping ball of fur, and sometimes, fish like big crappies respond to it—especially if they’re roaming actively. Other times, you use the tungsten to get down fast, then hover the hair motionless in space.
To pull this off, it’s critical to minimize line twist. Doing so requires a single-action fly-reel spooled with a low memory line, such as 2- or 3-pound Sufix Ice Magic. I pair a $60 Lamson Konic 1.5 or Pflueger Trion 1934 with a fast-tip ice stick minus the spring, such as Thorne Bros’ Quiverstick Stealth or St. Croix Legend LIR24UL. Boshold stretches the first 50 to 100 feet of his line, tying to a tree and then simply pulling steadily back for a minute or two. This helps line come off the spool in nice coil-free ribbons.
From here, jigfly presentation branches in various directions. I typically opt for a single jig presented with ultra-finesse, other anglers, such as Boshold and Williams sometimes add a dropper tethered to an additional weightless fly a foot up from the main tungsten jig. Tipping jigs with bait, such as Eurolarva, freshwater shrimp, or wigglers (mayfly larva), also are an option, though it’s usually unnecessary with crappies or perch. Boshold says he uses a single white maggot when sight-fishing with hard-to-see flies. The maggot acts as a “tracer” that allows him to follow the fly. When the white speck disappears, he sets the hook.
Boshold is a master of observation and presentation. He notes that most anglers work jigs with overly rhythmic strokes. “Watch the little bugs on a MarCum camera screen,” he says. “They don’t constantly swim. They twitch-twitch-twitch, freefall, float slowly up, twitch, sink gradually. It’s almost impossible to keep the fly from pulsing, even on a deadstick. And pauses are key. But also think about the way invertebrates swim, and deliver random jig moves and pauses, rather than the same old jig-jig-pause, or constant rod-tip pounding.”
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt is a frequent contributor to all In-Fisherman publications and a veteran ice angler and writer.