January 14, 2020
Major mark appears on the screen. Right at jig level. And sits. Something is staring at a nervously rising and dropping panfish jig. Well, the jig isn’t nervous. But the jigger is.
The rod doubles up. Nothing moves. Until line begins peeling off the reel. And there goes the knot connecting a 30-foot, 3-pound Raven Fluorocarbon leader to the braided backing. Through the guides and down the hole.
Bass often hit panfish jigs in winter. Big ones. Walleyes, too, sometimes. Pike. Whitefish. Trout. Tough customers on ultralight gear and light line. But an incredible advantage arrived in the form of fluorocarbon line. Where we once needed 1- and 2-pound mono to fool fussy panfish and trout in clear water, we can now get away with 4- to 6-pound test.
Then they came out with tungsten jigs that have little microscopic eyes. Getting 4-pound through the eye twice to tie a double-shouldered knot is all but impossible. It pays to have at least one panfish rod spooled up with 2-pound mono or fluorocarbon. But by “spooled up,” I actually mean tying in very long leaders.
Several years ago, I decided never to spool line on my favorite ice reels again. Fill them once with braided line (some mono at the base, of course) and tie in long fluorocarbon leaders. Neither line degrades in ultraviolet light or heat. Leaders eventually have to be replaced. So what? After cutting the leader back to about 20 feet with new knots, replace it and wind on 30 more feet in seconds. It’s far less expensive than spooling up every year. We seldom fish deeper than 30 feet for panfish and walleyes, due to concerns about barotrauma, so the braid seldom goes down the hole.
But if braid does go down the hole these days—no big deal. Older braided strands would carry water up to the spool where it would freeze and fuse the whole thing together. Today, fused 4- and 8-carrier micro-strand braids won’t do that. New lines like Berkley FireLine Micro Ice, Northland Bionic Ice Braid (both available down to 2-pound test), and Sufix Ice Fuse are rounder, carry less water, and are designed to resist freezing.
Braid with fluoro leaders may not work as well for tougher, bigger fish like lakers, steelhead, and browns—fish that can drag a lot of line down the hole. Nobody wants a knot between those fish and the tip of the rod. But they can be conquered with light line.
“It’s typically unnecessary to fish as heavy as many anglers do,” says In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange. “Light line is so important to success comparatively speaking, given the chosen approach and fish species. We use 3-pound when fishing tungsten for smallmouths, and 6- or 8-pound, with 6 being just fine most of the time with smaller jigs and spoons for lake trout.”
Former Ontario resource manager and In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer sent me a photo of his grandson, Liam, with a lake trout pushing 30 pounds “that he caught two winters ago on perch gear!” Pyzer said. “Four-pound test is max for us in the winter for crappies and perch—3-pound test is standard and I try 2-pound regularly. I use 4-pound Sufix Ice Fuse superline, which has the diameter of sewing thread, with a 3-pound-test Maxima Clear leader. I love the Maxima leader spools like fly anglers use with 1-pound-test differentials on tiny spools that fit in your pocket. There is not a single thing a fish can wrap you up on in the winter. So long as you set your drag properly and don’t get into a rush to land the fish, light line provides no worries whatsoever. Plus, the fish’s metabolism is so much slower in the winter.”
Light Is Right
There are many reasons why light line is right in winter. Fish are more lethargic, for one thing. Smallmouths and largemouths are notably less tough. Great Lakes harbors with pilings and 30-pound browns notwithstanding, hard-fighting, coldwater fish like lakers and steelhead typically have nothing to wrap up on and snap light lines which are so much better at presenting lures.
“I’ve written many times that folks need to just drop their walleye, lake trout, crappie, and perch bait in the hole with their standard line where they can see it and then watch how it reacts,” Pyzer said. “Now do the same thing with much lighter line. The difference in movement is shocking.”
Lighter line lets jigs move in ways heavier lines can’t. “I routinely use 3-pound when downsizing to #5 Rapala Jigging Raps fishing during the day for walleyes along weededges or along deeper humps and flats,” Stange said. “In the evening, with lower light, I eventually switch to rods with 5- or 6-pound fluorocarbon and a #7 Jigging Rap. But the trend the last few years for most of the season is toward lighter line, preferably fluorocarbon, and smaller lures than I’ve been used to using in the past. I’ve been using Berkley Trilene 100 Percent Fluorocarbon Ice and love it.”
It’s amazing how often good anglers use the word “love” to describe their favorite ice-fishing lines. Pyzer loves Maxima Clear mono, while guide Tony Roach declares devotion to a new mono. “I hate heavier lines for ice fishing,” Roach said. “I fell in love with Advance Mono from Sufix. It’s more like fluorocarbon. It goes on the reel like mono, but it has less stretch and less memory on the spool. I prefer spinning gear, and in the morning we used to deal with memory, especially on the coldest days. Advance doesn’t coil up on you. You get better abrasion resistance. Sufix has an Advance Ice Line coming out and I’ve had good luck with it.”
Roach uses 1- and 2- pound for panfish and 4- to 6-pound for walleyes. “With Advance 4 or 6 you have better control over the lure,” he said. “Total control. Anything I do with the rod when jigging, the lure responds the way I want it to. I can create whatever movement I need to trigger a fish because memory isn’t an issue. When line is coiling, you don’t have control. The lure isn’t responsive. I like thinner-diameter line for that, but people worry about line breaks. For them I still offer rods with 4-pound-test Advance, but with an 18- to 20-inch, 6-pound fluoro leader for extra protection around the hole and for reaching down to grab fish. You never get that crazy bunched look to your line and bite detection is much better—more like braid or fluoro. Advance is my go-to mono all summer, too.”
Roach said he used the braid-fluorocarbon combination for years but is going back to mono because of Advance. Being inherently lazy, I stick with Berkley FireLine Fused Micro Ice or Sufix Ice Fuse mainlines with long fluoro leaders for panfish, bass, walleyes, and small trout. But not for steelhead and big browns, which demand a spool filled with 4- to 6-pound fluorocarbon. Seaguar AbrazX is simply amazing for those brutes. It has no memory, compared to other fluorocarbons. It never bounces off the spool in cold weather, and will not break no matter what big adipose-finned critters do to it. And UV won’t break it down. Just grab the steelhead ice rods off the wall and go fishing, every winter, year after year. Unless the spools are getting low, of course.
Light line is the way to go for big trout because they have excellent visual acuity and the baits they respond to tend to be small, looking less natural on heavy line. “When I went out to Erie we were filling spools with 4-pound fluorocarbon and monofilament lines for steelhead,” Roach said. “I never broke any off.”
But, fishing for big lake trout, Pyzer goes braid-to-fluoro. “Ten-pound-test Sufix Ice Fuse with an 8- to 10-pound-test Maxima Clear leader is my go-to for lake trout and easily handles fish in the 20- to 30-pound range,” he said. “People say not to use micro-Dyneema in winter because it ices up, but I fish in colder weather than 99 percent of them and never have a problem. The ultra-thin diameter, natural lure movement, and no-stretch hook-sets outweigh any bit of ice build up, which comes off easily when you run the line through your fingers. Anglers simply keep repeating a myth they never personally experienced and it starts to take on a life of its own. They need to experiment for themselves and see the benefit of micro-Dyneema on ice. Ditto, with walleyes—8-pound-test fluorescent red Sufix Ice Fuse with 6-pound-test Maxima Clear if the water is clear and Maxima Ultragreen if the water is dingy.”
Bass Are Panfish
“In many situations where panfish are the main target but larger predators may also happen along, I’ve settled on fishing with 3-pound Berkley Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon Ice as my go-to line,” Stange said. “This thin-diameter line is supremely limp, so it performs well in cold weather, and I believe that fluorocarbon line is worth the extra price, because it’s more abrasion resistant than regular monofilament yet harder for fish to see.”
He referenced one scientific test that demonstrates how fluorocarbon is actually harder for fish (bass in this case) to see than monofilament. “Scientists at the Berkley lab in Spirit Lake, Iowa, placed equal numbers of both types of lines vertically in one of their raceway tanks and counted (with electronic sensors) the number of times bass ran into each type of line,” he said. “The results showed that bass ‘clearly’ ran into fluorocarbon more often than they ran into nylon monofilament—thus the bass had a more difficult time seeing the fluorocarbon.
“Along the way, fishing for panfish over the years, I’ve landed many larger predators with 3-pound—walleyes, smallmouths, pike, and even a muskie or two—that I now have no trouble downsizing to 3-pound when I run into tough conditions while fishing for larger predators,” he said. “A typical situation last winter was when In-Fisherman videographer Christian Hoffman found smallmouths in deep-water haunts on Minnesota’s famous Mille Lacs. We spent a day shooting TV. Long story short, the fish were as tentative as can be, and didn’t respond to lures like #5 Jigging Raps and smaller spoons, which I have for so long been successful with to catch smallmouths below the ice.
The answer was tiny tungsten jigs (1/32-ounce) tipped with maggots. Once a fish came in, we deadsticked the offering, with maybe an occasional rod-tip nod to get the fish to commit. We had no trouble landing smallmouths weighing up to 5 pounds. While it’s necessary to take your time fighting the fish, the battles aren’t unusually long.”
Years ago I began writing about how winter largemouths often prefer panfish jigs over larger offerings, possibly because their metabolism slows to the point where digesting a large minnow or panfish might take too long to be comfortable or healthy. The farther north you go, the more prevalent this preference for small offerings seems to become during the heart of winter. If they won’t hit a crappie minnow—downsize.
Back to those microscopic eyes on tungsten jigs: To use tungsten, it almost becomes a requirement to have a rod rigged with a 1- to 3-pound-test leader. Or just spool on one of the new, limp, manageable fluorocarbons like Trilene Fluorocarbon Ice, AbrazX, or InvisX. It helps to have a magnifier that attaches to a hat, like the Orvis Flip Focal.
My favorite leader material for panfish (and steelhead, for that matter) is Raven 100% Fluorocarbon. Like Seaguar AbrazX, Raven is extremely tough. Can this 4-pound line land a 12-pound steelhead on ice and in open water? That’s my acid test. Light 2- to 4-pound fluorocarbon leaders can be attached to 2- to 4-pound superlines mentioned above with back-to-back uni-knots, but trim it close. Any tiny bit of tag end sticking out of the knot catches line when dropping jigs down the hole.
“I use 2-pound Sufix Advance mono for panfish,” Roach said. “The same factors apply—no stretch, I feel everything, and it fishes a lot like fluorocarbon. I’m a flouro fan, but those lines can be an issue on spinning rods in winter.”
Well—can’t expect everybody to have tried some of these new fluorocarbons yet, like the Seaguar lines just mentioned, or Trilene 100% Fluorocarbon Ice. Those lines stay on the spool while providing an extra measure of stealth, less stretch, and better abrasion resistance around the edge of the hole.
Major mark on the screen. Right at jig level. Something wild and wonderful is about to happen. Not a good time to wonder if saving money on fishing line was a good idea.
*Matt Straw is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor and multispecies expert.