Dropping a minnow on a line may seem the antithesis to today's high-test and quite mobile fishing systems. Occasionally, though, it's better to slow down, to sit and wait. Even when sitting isn't the best option, however, anchored bait still can be integrated into a mobile strategy to increase catches.
We've come a long way in our quest to fish efficiently on ice. Properly rigged sonar allows for moving from hole to hole without having to constantly make major readjustments to get accurate readings. Sonar reads allow for identifying appropriate structural elements that attract fish. Moreover, predatory fish and baitfish below can be seen in relation to lures, allowing judgments concerning how fish are responding to lure maneuvers.
In the far North, meanwhile, portable shacks, several styles of which are pulled along and set up in seconds, allow for fishing in relative comfort. And power augers allow us to proceed without exhausting effort. The resulting increase in mobility is the principal reason why today's best anglers catch more fish than ever before. We can move — that is, search for fish — almost as efficiently on ice as in open water. What little mobility is sacrificed is more than made up for once fish are found, for lures can be presented much more precisely on ice.
Most anglers who practice this system find that jigging is the most natural counterpart to search tactics. Rod-and-reel combos allow for fishing lures quickly, then moving on quickly if fish aren't found or aren't responding. Yet stationary minnow presentations also remain a top way to catch fish, at times. It will ever remain that fish generally are not quite so active during winter. Still, in many cases, an angler can do better than fish a minnow below a bobber, or even below a tip-up.
In-Fisherman staff members perfected a combo system that relies primarily on jigging, but also incorporates livebait in combination when necessary. We've used the system extensively for walleyes, crappies, bluegills, and perch, but with slight modification it will work for most species.
A primary jigging rod is required, for the objective is always to keep jigging — that is, actively presenting a lure to trigger fish. Even when fishing turns ugly, the right combination of lure and jigging motion usually results in some fish. Add to your repertoire, however, another rod fished as a "deadstick."
The deadstick is a lighter rod than the primary jigging rod, for it is used to present a lively minnow reversed on a jig. Drop the jig and minnow to the bottom and reel up 3 to 12 inches. Then place the rod on a bucket or in a rod-holder on a bucket. The tip of the rod should be light enough so the minnow below can work the tip as it struggles. Meanwhile, wind movement also works the tip, prodding the minnow to move. And all the while you continue to jig in the immediate area. Moving requires only reeling up the deadstick — easier than dealing with tip-ups or even bobbers.
Most days, jigging produces most of the fish. often, though, the deadstick contributes the fish or two or three that are the difference between a good day and a great day. Then, at times, usually when fishing is difficult, the deadstick can make the difference between hamburgers and fresh fish for dinner.
When most of the fish are coming on the deadstick, we change our jigging approach. Instead of using a traditional flash lure or swimming jig, we switch to a standard jig and reversed minnow — the same rigging on the deadstick. Often, actively jigging with this combo can be even more effective because you can add more "attraction" to the process, gently lifting (a foot or so) the jig and minnow and letting it fall, then allowing the minnow to work for 30 seconds as you pause.
The only rod on the market specifically designed as a deadstick is the "Deadstick" from Thorne Brothers (612/572-3782). The rod retails for around $50 and offers the right combination of an extra ultralight tip with a sturdy butt section. Rods from other companies will work so long as the rod has a light tip and offers at least some backbone to handle larger predators like walleyes. Tape a light spinner reel to the rod. I go with 2-pound line for bluegills, 4-pound for perch, 6- or 8-pound for walleyes; and settle on 6-pound line when I expect perch and walleyes on the same outing.
Minnowlines, or handlines as they're called in some areas, remain one of the best options for crappies and perch in situations where fish continue to move through a set spot. Minnowlining also works well to present tiny minnows (usually anchored with small leadhead jigs or teardrops) for outsized bluegills.
Hand-over-handing monofilament is difficult in icy weather. So the key to efficient minnowlining is to use dacron, usually something like a 27-pound-test line from companies like Gudebrod or Cortland. The new 50-pound-test braided or fused superlines work well, too, although they're comparatively high priced for this duty.
About 3 feet of monofilament leader — usually 4-pound test — is tied to the end of the dacron by way of a small swivel tied into the line. Before connecting the dacron to the swivel, slide a Carlyle-style slip float onto the dacron main line. As I've said, usually the minnow is anchored with a small leadhead jig or a teardrop ice fly. The jig or teardrop should be just heavy enough to allow the minnow to swim so it attracts fish, but heavy enough so the minnow experiences difficulty getting away when a fish moves in.
File most of the barb from hooks to make minnow hooking and hook setting easier. Leave just enough barb to hold the minnow on the hook. Then, with the minnow facing away from you, barely nick the hook under the dorsal fin with the hook pointing away from you — toward the minnow's head. This lets the minnow swim seductively, but most importantly, it increases hooking percentage. On tight-gapped jigs or tears, bend the hook out about 10 degrees or so to allow easier minnow hooking.
Perch usually prefer the bait within a foot of bottom. Crappies may be anywhere from top to bottom. A common scenario would be for crappies to move through during a sunset bite at 5 to 10 feet above bottom in about 30 feet of water. One approach would be to set your float so the bait is suspended about 8 feet above bottom. Cover more water by including a lift of 2 to 3 feet above the water. After lifting, drop the float slowly as you follow it down to the surface of the water.
You can extend the depth range fished by making this float rigging neutrally buoyant. Suspender floating requires a float coupled with a bait and line weighted with lead shot so the rig is barely heavier than neutrally buoyant. Drop the bait and shot down the hole, and as the bait settles, place the float daintily on the surface.
Water tension at the surface will keep it from sinking. Move the float and it will begin to barely sink. With your bait sinking ever so slowly, the slightest rod tip movement adds action to the bait. Now you can lift the bait above the hole as well as sink it in the hole, extending your fishing range. Bites, obviously, are registered as a halt in an otherwise steadily sinking float, or a twitch and faster sinking float.
Not fancy by today's standards, but dead stick fishing a minnow works great incorporated into an aggressively mobile ice fishing system.