No matter how much you like to jig, suspending livebait remains a top ice fishing presentation. But that doesn't mean that you have to stop jigging. In fact, deadsticking livebait while you jig may be the best way to attract and trigger fish -- one way or the other.
I primarily jig for walleyes and pike through the ice. I enjoy seeing fish move in on sonar, and I like trying to trigger strikes; plus, my personality doesn't match well with sitting and waiting for a tip-up to release or a float to go under. I have to jig to stay interested, but I rarely go ice fishing without setting a deadstick rod. Using a deadstick is one of the best ways to continue jigging while soaking a minnow to catch fish that prefer livebait.
Jigging a flash or swimming lure is a key aspect of deadsticking. Jigging is unquestionably one of the best ways to attract fish. And although a deadstick rod may outproduce jigging from time to time, jigging may be the main reason the fish moved in to investigate in the first place. Many times I've had a fish move in, shy away from my jigging lure, and take the livebait dangling on the deadstick rod a few feet away -- it's the combination of the two methods that works so well.
A deadstick is about half backbone and half noodle. The rod should have enough backbone to fight fish. The tip must be light enough so the bait works the tip as it struggles, and the rod should bend with ease when a fish takes the bait -- serving as a strike indicator.
Several companies make rod actions designed for deadsticking. Thorne Brothers makes deadstick rods suitable for walleyes and pike, offering the right combination of an extra-ultralight tip with a sturdy butt section. HT's 36-inch Signature Series deadstick rod has a fast tip section, yet the rod loads nicely for fighting larger walleyes and pike. Cabela's XML 28-inch ultralight ice rod is about half noodle, half backbone, and has Fuji guides and a chartreuse tip for detecting strikes. Frabill's new 24-inch Amplifier deadstick rod has a wimpy tip that should work fine for deadsticking inside a shelter.
Using a jig to control a minnow keeps the minnow fairly stationary, but a split shot and a bare hook tipped with livebait works, too. Match the jig size to the bait. For walleyes, a 1-8- to 1-4-ounce jig keeps livebait, like a 2- to 3-inch minnow or a 3- to 4-inch shiner, dangling below the hole as the bait struggles against the weight of the jig. For pike, I prefer larger shiners, chubs, or frozen smelt. I generally use a wire quick-strike rig, like Bait Rigs' Quikset Rig or HT's Duel Treble quick-strike rig. Using a #1-0 single hook or a 1-4- to 3-8-ounce jig rigged with a 6- to 8-inch wire leader works, too. Deadsticking swimming lures, like a Jigging Rapala, Nils Master Jigging Shad, or Chubby Darter produce walleyes and pike, particularly when fish favor baits with minimal action. Simply deadsticking swimming lures without any bait works, but adding a small crappie minnow to the back hook adds action and scent.
To set a deadstick rod, position the bait anywhere from 3 to 12 inches off bottom. Keeping livebait closer to bottom seems to work better. If you set the bait 12 inches up, fish swim up to take the bait, but they often quickly return to the bottom, which loads the rod too quickly. Fish don't mind a little resistance caused by your line and rod, but too much resistance and they spit the bait before you get a chance to set.
Dependable rod holders are a critical aspect of deadsticking. The best rod holders prevent aggressive fish (like pike) from pulling a rod down the hole, yet the holder must allow for anglers to quickly and easily remove the rod from the holder without being detected.
When most fish are taking the bait on the deadstick rod, consider switching your jigging rod to a jig and minnow -- the fish want a slower presentation. Jigging with this combo allows you to keep attracting fish via jigging, but you also may catch more fish jigging with livebait. Hold the bait 3 to 12 inches from bottom, gently lift the rod tip a foot or so, then let it fall. Another trick is to bounce the bait on bottom, giving the illusion that the minnow is feeding.
Most days, jigging lures produces walleye and pike strikes, but not always. Using a deadstick doubles your odds of triggering strikes and also boosts your daily catch. Besides, there's something visually exciting about seeing the noodle tip of a deadstick rod bend over like a witching stick over a water vein.