January 16, 2014
A dying plastic minnow, shining and flickering in the golden light below, draws the attention of bottom-hugging perch, drawing them from their crevices. That's the plan. Up they come to join the puppet show, prey to be, now more visible at a distance to cruising predators.
Some minutes later, in classic fashion, the perch flash onto their sides and scatter among the rocks. Oblivious to the danger, my minnow continues its death dance. Quiet. Too quiet. Like watching a scary movie, with Mr. Plastic Minnow pitted against the unseen villain. We know the toothy bad guy is about to flash onto the screen, but we don't know when, from which direction, or exactly what he's going to do.
A long, dark form with wide pectoral fins zooms in from directly under my feet, consumes the plastic minnow, and moves off, doing more than the speed limit. "Goin' somewhere?" I say under my breath, as with hope in my heart I rear back on the runaway lake trout. Not so much a fight at first as a hang-on-a-thon, as in hang onto your rod or lose it down the hole.
In just 12 feet of water, the fish has nowhere to go but sideways, and out it goes with freaky strength, the smoothness of the drag appreciated, until finally I win back all the line and the fatigued fish rests in the hole as I unhook it.
Jigging up big predatorsâ€“â€“lake trout, pike, and walleyesâ€“â€“is the topic. General differences between these species are important. Lake trout, for example, often are the most active of the three under ice, followed by pike, with walleyes only moderately aggressive most of the winter.
Plastics have proven to be most effective when fish are aggressive.
Bringing Out The Heartless Fox
Let's begin in clear, shallow water, using a system that takes big lake trout and pikeâ€“â€“plastic minnow bodies rigged on a single hook, fished as a dying minnow. While walleyes occasionally respond to plastics, they're not generally a top option for them.
Rick Wood has spent a lot of time refining this approach, experimenting with a variety of body lengths and styles (he calls them "rubber shads") and recently glass rattles and split shot to add sound and a bit of weight. He concentrates on lake trout in shallow clear water, rarely deeper than 20 feet, often from 12 to 15 feet, and always sight fishing.
The soft plastic bodies have flash, to be sure, but they're subtle. Still, they have drawing power, calling fish into the hole from a distance. If predators can spy perch tight to the bottom, they can see a dying minnow several feet up. And triggering appeal? Their action is so hapless that it brings out the heartless fox in these big fish. They often zoom into the hole with purpose, and hit with abandon.
The goal in fishing for predators through the ice is to make the bait scream "pick me" out of the crowd of natural food. These baits do that, but require salesmanship on your part. Anyone can learn to do it, though, and the action of the bait builds anticipation, which keeps you alert until the bad guys show up.
This type of presentation works in deep or dark water, too. But being able to see what the bait is doing is important, though, making the clear shallows its primary application.
The Death Dance
Now, the salesmanship part. A minnow that is in trouble, either sick or injured, swims erratically, pumps its tail, flops onto its side, sinks slowly, and recovers only partially, seeming to call out "I can't swim; I'm not going to make it, but I am still alive." No rotting corpse here. This is a living, breathing meal, so obviously unable to get away, that big fish are fooled, if you do it right.
In shallow water, a relatively large plastic minnow body can be fished efficiently with no more weight than a plain hook, and perhaps a snap. I also fished them with a short leader intended to prevent bite-offs from pike, using Fenwick's IronThread Braided Alloy Leader material, which you can tie knots in.
As you lower your minnow just beneath the hole and sink it slowly to a position near the bottom, it can be made to look alive, sitting perpetually on its side and kicking what appear to be its last dying kicks. Being almost neutrally buoyant, it flutters out to the side as you work it. Concentrate and practice, and you'll begin to believe, because it looks that real.
Fishing near other natural food, like perch and minnows is important, because drawing them up out of hiding to peck at your bait increases the chance that a predator will spot the opportunity to feed. Wood rarely stays long in a hole that doesn't have other baitfish in it. He works at getting their attention, then draws them as high in the water column as he can, fishing his bait just above them. Before leaving the hole, he also works the bait higher and higher to check for fish closer to the surface.
"Even if I'm in 24 feet of water," he says, "fishing near the bottom is unproductive compared to being 10 or 15 feet off the bottom. Half of my fish come from maybe halfway between the top and the bottom. In fact, I'm never down on the bottom. I try to draw the baitfish up to my bait. If I go into a black hole (one without baitfish), I don't stay for more than five minutes if I don't see a fish."
This is not the kind of fishing you do when you would rather be taking a nap, because the bait lies straight up and down in the water if you let it come to a rest, looking ridiculous. Motion is what sells it to the fish.
Wood doesn't have a set routine while working plastic minnows, but instead says, "Be as aggressive or subtle as you want. At the beginning of the day, I usually start out somewhere between subtle and aggressive, just to see what kind of mood the fish are in. If they come in and lazily swim around the bait, I downsize and slow down the presentation.
"When I'm being aggressive with a plastic shad, I get it pointed in a certain direction and pump it out, with maybe three quick pumps (no pause between them), whatever it takes to get it as far out of my line of sight as possible." (He leans over to demonstrate how he strains to look out to the side and keep an eye on it. He prefers a 10-inch hole.)
From experience, he can tell when the body is about to swing around and come back toward him. At that point, he lets up and allows the bait to glide and tumble back to him. While it's gliding back, he maintains control over it with his rod tip, "kicking the bait" softly onto its side, as if it's using its last ounce of muscle to right itself. "It doesn't look as real if you let it just fall without adding that little tail kick," Wood says.
Wood doesn't always use only the weight of the body and the hook. He often cuts a small hole on the underside of the body and pushes a 1/16-ounce split shot up into the plastic to a position below the shank of the hook.
"That helps the body ride in a more normal, upright position," he says, "so you have the choice of allowing it to lie on its side or working it more upright. If you fish it on a tighter line, the body stays more upright. More slack allows it to fall over on its side.
Wood experiments by embedding a small glass rattle, such as the Venom Lures Max-Mag worm rattle. "My first choice is getting it into the tail," he says. "That way, even when worked real subtle, you get a little rattling."
If a fish makes a pass at it but doesn't get hooked, Wood makes the bait appear to be on its last legs. He wants it to be almost stationary, should the fish come back around to finish it off. It's not uncommon for a trout or pike to come through and bash the bait with a closed mouth, or slash through and get "a mouthful of real minnows," Wood says.
In the clear, shallow water where this system excels, one of the keys to its effectiveness is that the plastic minnow bodies stand up to close visual inspection by a predator fish.
Learn to Trigger
After warming up in the shallows, it's time to broaden our perspective. You'll often be on a "locator bite," where your depthfinder is your underwater vision.
Jigging, one rod at a time, is Dave Genz's forte. He long ago gave up the search for a magic lure, or the one color that works when everything else fails. Genz believes in the power of being in the right place. If you're over fish, you'll catch some. But to become a dragon slayer, you must develop your talent with the baits you use.
"To become good at triggering bites, you have to put the lure down and watch it," Genz says. "Learn how to run it, so you know what your rod is doing to the lure, should you pump it aggressively, or more softly, or just shake it.
"I see guys put on a lure and drop it down into 30 feet of water, then have no clue what their lure is doing in response to their jigging motions."
In the past year, Genz has expanded his study by cutting a hole adjacent to the one he fishes, and lowering the camera of his Aqua-Vu to study it. That, he says, has taken the guessing out of the equation when he has more line out.
"I use the System Tackle Flyer for trout, walleyes, and pike," he says. "It exhibits a circulating action, swimming out wide when dropped down on a slack line. It covers a lot of water. But to get it to do what you want it to, you have to spend time watching it.
"When a fish comes into the hole and I'm watching this unfold on my FL-8 flasher, I need to know what the lure is going to do if I rip it away from the fish, or just shake it right in the fish's face. I can make the Flyer do a complete flip, swim out, or just rock in place. I've put time into learning that bait." Only by understanding each lure, and how a certain rod motion affects the presentation, can you experiment meaningfully in triggering strikes.
"Some days," Genz says, "I have more success if I make the fish grab the bait while it's moving, so they don't get a good look at it. Other days, the opposite is true; you can't get them to bite unless you just slightly shake the bait or even hold it completely still." But how do you decide what they want, or make a good decision to switch to a more or less aggressive lure if you don't know what kind of presentation was refused or which one they were after?
In-Fisherman stresses that the best jiggers understand there's the attraction phase (where bait is presented to get the attention of a predator fish and draw it near), and the triggering phase (where the amount of up-and-down or side-to-side movement is reduced, in order to get the fish to nail your bait). The best lures offer both attraction and triggering appeal.
"Sometimes," says Paul Fabian, another serious ice stalker, "if you're working a bait that swims in circles, you might go from big circles to smaller circles, to just a quick snap of the lure. Or try shaking the lure and raising it slowly. If the fish follows the lure up but won't eat it, let it fall all the way to bottom, beat it on the bottom a couple times, and raise it again. Some fish have to almost be tricked into biting."
"The thing to remember," Fabian says, "is that if your first routine doesn't solicit a strike, change your presentation. The common elements to a successful jigging style is to call 'em in then slow down to get bit.
"It might take a lot of action to attract fish to your lure, but then you finally have to make it easy for them to catch it. So many times, the final thing you do just before you get bit is just kind of shake your offering in place. Just making the lure tremble. If you don't get hit, try another hard pump that shoots the lure away, like it's escaping."
When it comes to learning to trigger bites, according to Fabian, technique is important. And experience is irreplaceable.
In-Fisherman places jigging lures into three basic categories:
(1) Flash lures like the Acme Kastmaster or Swedish Pimple (straight-bodied baits) that flutter and flash down when you let them settle back after a 1- or 2-foot lift of your rod tip. This category is subdivided into bent flash lures, like the Bay de Noc Do-Jigger and Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow, which create even more vibration than straight lures. Super-action flash lures like the Reef Runner Slender Spoon and Blue Fox Tingler add even more vibration and flash.
(2) Swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala, Nils Master Jigger and Nils Master Jigging Shad. Lift them sharply with about a 11â'„2-foot upward lift of the rod tip and they dart out, then return. Continuous pumping of the rod makes them swim in circles.
(3) Plain, undressed "anchor jigs." Reverse-hook a minnow, so it struggles away from the weight of the head for a subtle presentation. The weight has to be light enough to encourage the minnow to swim and struggle, but not so light that the minnow can freely move about.
Are plastic minnow bodies, fished as a fluttering, dying prey, a fourth category? Depending on how they're fished, they can do everything from swimming upright, to kicking on their sides, to fluttering toward bottom, thereby cutting across existing categories.
The pliable bodies, especially those with long, thin tails, offer enticing actions. The stiffer, more classic minnow-shaped bodies suggest a dying baitfish even better. In this category are the Berkley Power Mullet, Mann's Jellyhoo (an 8-inch bait), and Baitfish Bodies available from the Bass Pro Shops Offshore Angler catalog.
Siwash 2/0 or 3/0 hooks work well, as does any long-shank wide-gap hook. Embed the hook into the upper portion of the body, either in a slot created by the manufacturer or in a slit you cut with a knife.
Plastics dressed on leadhead jigs also work well for pike and lake trout. Dave Genz, for example, dresses the System Tackle Flyer with Reaper Tails or Power Tubes. In-Fisherman staff members have long slipped gitzit-style bodies over plain leadhead jigs for lake trout and pike.
Making Any System Go
Getting soft plastic minnow bodies or any other lure to look their best, you need to match the right line and rod to the weight of the bait. For lures intended to catch big predators, use from 6- to 20-pound monofilament. Lines like Berkley SensiThin and Stren Magnathin perform well on the ice. Superlines like 14-pound Berkley FireLine and SpiderWire Fusion also work well, but add a mono or fluorocarbon leader. When bite-offs are a problem, use a short, wire leader.
A good rod doesn't just detect subtle bites. The rod, in addition to needing adequate backbone in the butt section, needs to flex forgivingly to keep the rod bent as you fight a fish. This is particularly important with lake trout, which roll wildly. If your rod comes to rest (straightens out), a fish gets slack line, which often means the end of the hookup.
* Mark Strand, Woodbury, Minnesota, is an Ice Guide Field Editor who compiled In-Fisherman's Ice Fishing Secrets book. Ice Fishing Soft Plastic Lures