I was introduced to the use of ice fishing floating jigs while fishing the mouth of the Thames River, Ontario. I don't know who originated the system -- only that the locals use it to great effectiveness in subtle current. Elsewhere on the Great Lakes, and in fact anywhere current may be a factor, I believe it has great potential to increase your ice-fishing success. After all, river anglers have long used the bouncing, dancing, wobbling effect of floating jigheads to trigger river walleyes in current. Why not similarly take advantage of this tempting motion under the ice?
To begin, we place the floating jighead on a short leader about two feet above a sinker or, where legal, a bottom-oriented lure like a bladebait. And when I say short leader, I mean really short -- like 3 inches. The reasons for this extreme shortness will soon become apparent. Rather than using a three-way swivel to attach the leader, we simply tie it directly to our main line with a blood knot or surgeon's knot and then trim off the tag end, nice and simple. Dressing the floating jighead with a 1 1/2-inch soft-plastic tube tail completes the package.
In effect, you have two lures, one above the other. At rest, the floating jighead is free to drift slightly downcurrent, away from your main line, and gently weave and dance in whatever current is available. When you jig the bottom lure up and down, however, the floating jighead immediately becomes a slave to the motion of the jigged lure, also jumping up and down in an exaggerated fashion. So you get a mixture of subtle wiggling and triggering with aggressive attraction, all in one package.
SUBTLETIES IN STRONG VS. WEAK CURRENT
Here's where several subtleties come into play, based upon the strength of the current.
In stronger flows, we find that lengthening the leader to perhaps 4 to 6 inches allows the floating jighead to move slightly farther downcurrent and achieve a better bobbing, weaving, darting action when the bottom lure is at rest. Less restriction, more motion; makes sense. Using a leader significantly longer than that, however -- like a foot or two -- positions the floating jighead so far downcurrent that it actually causes the jighead to move less whenever you aggressively jig the combo. So you gain a little motion during the subtle resting phase, but lose a little triggering effect when aggressively jigging. Besides, with a longer leader, the floating jighead tends to tangle with the mainline on the initial drop. Experience has taught us that 4 to 6 inches is about max.
At the opposite extreme, where current is very subtle to nonexistent, we find it best to stick with the aforementioned short 3-inch leader. Why? If the leader is any longer, the jighead tends to float almost straight up at rest and then sometimes snag the mainline when the lure is jigged. Since the floating jighead is perilously close to the line, it usually causes us to downplay the lift-drop a bit to alleviate snagging.
We avoid using any leaders shorter than 3 inches, however, because with two knots so close together, and with so little line stretch and shock absorption, a big fish places too much strain on the short leader. With such large average-sized walleyes in Great Lakes systems, we don't want hooked fish to break our lines. Eight-to 12-pound-test mono is about right for most conditions.
Correct knot position for ice fishing floating jigs is important, since it affects the action of the floater. We slide the knot forward and down on the hook eye, causing the floating jighead to ride as naturally as possible, with the hook pointing up.
Two of our favorite bottom lures for this system are the #7 Jigging Rap and the Bitzer Creek Zip Lure (bladebait). The Jigging Rap introduces a wider circular motion to the presentation, while the Zip Lure introduces a shaking motion and more up-and-down action to the floating jighead. In both cases, when you stop jigging, the jighead immediately swings downcurrent, away from the mainline.
Even though these are fairly aggressive jigging lures, it's best to keep your jigging motions relatively short and subtle with this system. Remember, you don't simply have to set the hook when a fish hits the bottom lure; should a fish strike the floater at the top of your jigging lift, you need to further sweepset the rig sufficiently to remove all the inherent slack in the leader. This can be tough with a typical short ice rod, particularly if the rod is already up around eye level at the top of your lift. You could do it with a longer rod when fishing soft water in summer, but through the ice, keep your leaders relatively short, your floaters dressed, and your jigging motions reasonably subtle. With two lures simultaneously down there working for you, the walleyes will take care of the rest.
We've experimented with several shapes of floating jigheads, since they each offer unique actions. Northland's pill-shaped generic floater is a good one when subtle action proves best. Lindy's old, wide-wobbling floater (discontinued, but perhaps still available in some tackle shops) has a more aggressive action. Locally in northern Ohio, we buy tadpole-shaped floaters with large hooks that feature an intermediate action and the durability to handle large Lake Erie walleyes. Each has its place.
While we often simply dress the floating jighead with a plastic tail, feel free to add or substitute a minnow if it increases your confidence, particularly if the walleyes appear fussy. Hook the minnow up through the lips, so it remains lively and swimming when the rig is at rest. Be sure to balance minnow size to the floater. Placing too large a minnow on too small a floater causes the minnow to drop, while dressing a midget minnow on a large floater causes the rig to float too high. A properly balanced combo stretches almost straight out and level to bottom, downcurrent of your line.
DROP IN DA MUD
This is my favorite aspect of the floater-jigging lure system, simple but oh-so deadly.
When your weighted bottom lure is dropped into a mud basin and allowed to rest, the floating jighead remains independent and works on its own. Fine, in noticeable current. With subtler current, however, try introducing a slight quiver to the jighead, using just enough rod-tip action to impart a nervous twitch to the jig, plastic tail and minnow.
In current, we usually let the combination of a longer leader and increased jighead action do most of the work for us between jigging motions. Even so, occasionally try swaying your rod tip back and forth or up and down to make the minnow appear to be struggling. Sometimes, little additions pay big dividends.
In most cases, we fish this system with the leader positioned from about 2 to 3 feet and no more than 4 3/4 feet above bottom, targeting basin fish. Theoretically, you could also fish it for suspended 'eyes, if you tie the leader to your mainline at a point much farther off bottom and at the level you see walleyes. The bottom lure would typically still be fished on and off bottom, with the floater targeting high-riders. The best of both worlds, high and low.
*In Memoriam: Jim Fofrich, Jr., of Toledo, Ohio, often referred to himself as In-Fisherman's roving cub reporter, his handwritten yellow notepads providing gems of wisdom garnered during a lifetime of fishing Lake Erie under the tutelage of his father, Hall Of Fame Legendary Angler, Captain Jim Fofrich, Sr. -- also taken from us far too soon.