Bending a blade, adding a split ring, changing trebles, adding swivels, using round clips—there are many ways to affect the action of a panfish lure. But, in the end, triggering panfish effectively with lures depends on the line, rod, terminal tackle, and action you choose.
To increase the action of a small spoon—to aid it in turning on its side, adding wobble and flash—use a rounded clip, like a VMC Duolock Snap. But monitor the fish. If they don't approach at all, or back off from the presentation, try tying direct to the eye of the spoon to decrease action and flash. For pressured, finicky panfish, sometimes less is more.
For years I changed treble hooks on Rapala Jigging Raps, going up a size, because the hook was too small for walleyes. Meanwhile, the similar Lunkerhunt Straight-Up Jr. comes equipped with an ideal hook size for walleyes. But I still have to change the trebles. That little horizontal jig, with its super realistic finish, is a crappie killer in clear-water lakes. By switching to a treble one size smaller I can add a waxworm or a couple maggots without killing the action. And it catches more fish because of the way panfish approach these lures—often coming underneath and sucking in the treble. A smaller treble is taken farther into their mouths, and hooking is improved.
Adding a small split ring, or even a second small split ring, to a spoon or small lure aids the same dynamic. The added split ring allows the hook to move more freely when panfish try to suck it in.
Adding a second, smaller split ring to a Venom Inferno Spoon or PK Lures Predator Spoon often allows better hook-sets, even when huge crappies engulf the entire bait. An added ring gives the hook more room to grapple and provides fish less opportunity to apply torque to the hook, twisting it free from their paper-thin skin. (The Inferno drops faster and glows longer than most spoons on the market, because two soft-glow panels are attached to the outside of a tungsten blade.)
Pat O'Grady, owner of PK Lures, invented the blade style on his Predator Spoon by experimenting in his favorite lab—in a shelter out on the ice. "People have been putting blades on spoons for a long time—usually on the bottom," O'Grady says. "Experimenting on the water one day, I put the blade on top of the spoon and liked the way it flipped up on the drop. When the lure comes to a stop, the blade flutters down, adding motion on the pause. But it didn't always work. So I took a pair of pliers and bent the tip of the blade up. After that, it always worked. Even after a 1-inch rise and fall, it flutters down after the lure stops."
He sells extra blades to add to other spoons or to put on the line above the lure. "You know me—I'm always fiddling around with these things," O'Grady says. "Put a blade directly on the line above any lure. Pull the lure up 20 inches and drop it. The blade catches water and slides up the line. When the lure stops, the blade slides and flutters down to the lure. It's a signal—like scales fluttering down after an event—or the an illusion of many minnows feeding in the area. It just kills crappies and bluegills. Trout, too. Put a blade on the line above a Predator and it's like a double-flash whammy."
Getting lures to work right—to attract and trigger the most fish possible—requires careful consideration of resistance, sensitivity, and rod-tip action. Resistance is provided by the fishing line. The lure has to pull it down through the water column. We can add resistance with thicker line, and subtract resistance with thinner line. Which way to go depends on the lure itself, and the action you want to impart.
Mark Martin's Ice-Fishing Vacation Schools have been around for more than two decades. The many venues and experiences along the way allowed him to teach and learn at the same time. One of his favorite discoveries of recent years has been tag-teaming for perch and crappies with Rapala Jigging Raps.
"Somebody has to take one for the team with this method," Martin laughs. "And it's the guy who's working the lure. The guy with his rod in a holder, letting the lure sit perfectly still with a waxworm on its tail, catches the most fish, but he wouldn't catch nearly as many if the other guy wasn't working a Jigging Rap nearby. Sometimes I put a maggot or a little piece of plastic on the tail and it looks like it's wiggling a bit more. When it's not moving much and currents are slight, a thin piece of plastic or a minnow tail flutters sightly when you tap the rod blank. I change the hook to one with a longer shank on the belly of the Rapala."
Having one person working the lure from bottom to 3 feet up and having one Rap sit still about 2 feet up is Martin's most effective panfish strategy. "In the Great Lakes and bigger lakes, current moves the lure," he says. "Even a deadstick is doing a little on its own. You want light line to allow that movement. Panfish come in because somebody is jigging, but watch them on camera and they often sit back and watch, finally sneaking up to the lure that's barely moving and nail it. I always keep a little bit of bait on the deadstick lure. The person on the deadstick has to tap the rod blank occasionally. If panfish won't react, let it fall to bottom. It's amazing how often perch and bluegills take a mouthful of gravel and silt to hit it at that point."
Working the Jigging Rap to attract fish and not spook them requires attention to line, terminal tackle, and tip action. "You need a high-quality swivel on the line about a foot above the lure," he says. "Otherwise the line twists, but also makes the lure spin. To get the lure to rock side-to-side on the twitch, you need a rounded snap or a Rapala Knot. You're dealing with light line and small snaps, like #00. And you want to touch bottom, and make the lure 'walk' out from wherever it lands. If I want to actively work a small Jigging Rap for perch, I use 1-pound test Trilene XT. It creates the right action. Limp line, like XL, has too much stretch. But the smallest two sizes of Jigging Rap swim better on 1-pound. Stiffer line makes the lure swim better and the lure won't tangle."
Martin wants lures to hit the bottom hard. "Bottom is your friend," he says, "especially around rocks. Walk that Jigging Rap around. Little Rapala Slab Raps, Little Cleos, any lure can 'walk' with the right line. To get the lure to walk around bottom, the right line provides the right amount of resistance—not too much and not too little. You can get most of these lures we're talking about to circle and walk out from center—Rapala Rippin' Raps, spoons, Slab Raps. The line should be slack coming off the rod tip so when you pop it quickly off bottom, it moves out away from you. It's harder to do with limp line or line that's too thick or too thin.
"Every time you jig a lure, it should swim out away from you," he says. "Lift it off bottom and the next drop should happen several inches away. To walk small spoons, lipless cranks, and Slab Raps, you need 4-pound fluorocarbon. These lures are just a little too big for 1-pound XT. Without some added resistance, the lures fall vertically. I've used 6-pound a few times, but I've learned that 4-pound gets the most vibration and swim out of small lures. With the smallest Jigging Rapalas, you can get away with 1-pound. People don't spend enough time watching how their lures move in the hole."
Martin says the right rod is critical in making lures work correctly, and for telegraphing vibration well enough to let you know the presentation is right. "The Rapala Slab Rap chatters when you lift it with a round snap," he says. "You should be able to feel the moment when that chatter begins. That's all the vibration you want. The newer rods facilitate the use of lighter line to get the right action on a lure. The average guy doesn't always realize that lighter line is right. Blanks are thinner in diameter, You can feel everything better. The best quality medium-power panfish rods are thin as pencil leads these days. You can feel the vibration on the lure, you can feel bottom, you can determine what's down there, and you can feel the lightest takes. But it doesn't work unless you match it with the right line."
He likes the Rapala Mini Rippin' Rap for big perch and crappies. "You have to touch bottom with that lure," he says. "To get the most out of it, use 4-pound fluorocarbon because it has less stretch and it's stiffer. That exaggerates the feel of the lure and it won't tangle as often. Even though it's small, it's a little heavier. You need a thin but fast tip and a good, stiff butt on the blank to put pressure on them without breaking the line. New Fenwick Methods rods are perfect. If you don't have the right rod action, you don't get the right lure action. You miss fish because you can't tell where you are in the water column. You can't feel bottom. When the bottom is soft, a good rod makes all the difference."
Crappies in the Bank
"The smallest Northland Puppet Minnow is like crappies in the bank," says Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Blue chub color catches fish for me everywhere I go. It hammers walleyes of all sizes, too. When panfish are active, they come up off the bottom after it. To make it operate the way I want it to, I needed a thin but stiff line. I tried Sunline FC Fluorocarbon 1- and 2-pound test and I like it. Fluorocarbon is heavier than mono, so it sinks faster. It's super thin, stealthy, and amazingly strong. The Micro Puppet hangs straight, falls fast, and you don't want fish to see the line."
Getting the most action out of a lure isn't always advisable, however. "The Puppet Minnow is responsive," he says. "You don't want to make it zing right at them. I don't want it to circle aggressively. Heavier line has more resistance. As the Puppet pulls through the water, resistance produces wider circles—makes it zing out away from center when you pop it. It can spook fish. You want crappies to sneak up on it and not be put off by too much action."
The same line works with the Forage Minnow Dart from Northland Tackle, Brosdahl says. "It's not about trying to tangle up with somebody fishing in another hole five feet away," he says. "Just lift it slowly. But you want it to glide, and to get that glide the lure needs a tail, like a kite. And the tail is a straight piece of plastic, like a Northland Skeleton Minnow or Mayfly. Gliding jigs glide farther and better with a straight tail. Give it two quick jigging motions then let it fall about a foot to attract panfish. But once they come in close, stop making it sail. It spooks crappies and bluegills, especially when they're being tentative."
Derrick Soulliere, a pro-staffer for Lunkerhunt, likes to compete in ice tournaments. "I fish the Lunkerhunt Micro Spoons a lot for crappies and perch," he says. "I use the Straight-Up Jr. for walleyes mostly, but it catches crappies at times. I swear by 4-pound Sunline FC Fluorocarbon. On 2-pound or 6-pound you don't get the same action. The spoon is very light, so heavier, denser fluorocarbon helps the spoon sink faster and the added diameter helps it flutter more when you jig it. The 4-pound is heavy enough to create enough resistance to make it flutter, and fluorocarbon is plenty stealthy."
He rarely baits a Micro Spoon. "The feathered trebles are enough," he says. "If the water's dirty, I tip the treble with maggots. Some models come with single hooks, some with trebles. The treble provides a better hookup ratio, so I tend to use those versions more. And you want the spoon to flutter down and swing side-to-side when you jig it. The spoon is the attractor and the feathers trigger the strike. Let it pause, then snap it up at least a foot or two, and let it rest. But the right action depends on water clarity. There are so many variables to how you fish everything in your box."
Soulliere says a Thorne Brothers Quiver Stick has the perfect blend of speed, backbone, and give to make spoons trigger strikes and set the hook. "The Micro Spoon has a great action in the water and it flashes best when fished on a fast, light rod," he says. "I used the Micro Spoon to catch almost all my tournament crappies last year in the Midwest Open in Brooklyn, Michigan (which pays $20,000 to the winning team and lasts only 5 hours long). And I don't use a swivel. I don't like the extra weight on the line."
The type, weight, and thickness of fishing line determines a great deal. Rod length, power, and action—all critical in imparting lure action, too. So many think they can imitate the lure that's catching fish for that other guy and voila. How spoons and jigs react to jigging motion often determines success or failure, yes. But the best ice fishermen know precisely how a lure responds to different rods, lines, and motions to produce the optimum presentation—the one that puts the most fish on the ice in most situations.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw lives in the Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota and is a decades-long writer for In-Fisherman publications.