February 01, 2022
Sometimes, the best little ice jigs are found off the beaten path. Discovering them can feel a bit like hitting the jackpot. Like the time you ran across that killer lure you'd never seen before at someone's garage sale. Or the day you met that old Russian angler on the ice who put a tiny jig he called a Wolfram Mormyshka in your hand. Or the first time you walked into Dick Smith's Live Bait in Delafield, Wisconsin—that amazing family-run tackle shop disguised as an Amish barn. You strolled the aisles in awe, pegs and shelves stuffed to the gills with tackle, including a vast selection of ice jigs and more microplastics than almost any other place earth.
Just as likely, you can find interesting stuff at any number of hardwater hangouts—local outings with buds, large gatherings like the St. Paul or Milwaukee ice show, or competitive events like the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC). You never know what little lure or trick someone might share.
It's cool to observe tactics at western events, too, such as Ice Addiction tournaments in Colorado and Utah. This is the fishing world I knew as a lad, as a flyfisher for trout by necessity and hardwater explorer out of curiosity. Interesting in those early days was the prevalence of hybrid ice jigs—weighted "jig flies" that coupled the artistry and imitative accuracy of fly patterns with the vibrant, often lurid colors of traditional ice jigs.
Much of the time on small ponds or reservoirs, such as Chatfield, McConaughy, and Starvation, we fished for bluegills, crappies, perch, and rainbows with tiny hair jigs. Hand-hewn by a Rocky Mountain fly tier, the Mini Morsel jig employed a 1/64- or 1/80-ounce leadhead wrapped with Ultra Chenille and short wisps of marabou for a lively tail. Measuring just over an inch in length, the Morsel iced thousands of fish for us. Although it hasn't been available for years, it's not difficult to duplicate, even for an amateur tier like me.
It surprises me just how few ice anglers wield hair jigs for panfish. Panfish jigs—unlike many trout flies—need not necessarily match the hatch to trigger fish. And yet, some of my favorite panfish presentations meld anatomical accuracy and vivid visual attraction into the same lure.
Micro Bug Mimics
Four years ago I met Jeff Wenger, a Minnesota North Shore fly tier and ice angler who was crafting some of the sweetest hair jigs on the scene. Around the same time, Wenger and I started kicking around the idea of mimicking zooplankton in an ice jig. His first renditions of the Zoo Bug blew my mind. A Daphnia (water flea) imitation built with a tungsten bead, translucent epoxy, and fine squirrel or Arctic fox hair for antennae, the Zoo Bug is among the most unique ice jigs ever produced. Sales via Wenger's website, Jeff's Jigs & Flies (jeffsjigs.com), have exploded, attracting attention of top anglers, including notables on the NAIFC. He's added a copepod, shrimp, scud, and bloodworm—each incredible in their anatomical accuracy.
It's easy to get caught up in the process of imitating aquatic life, and forget about how the lure actually moves under water. "Rarely does it hurt to show big crappies, bluegills, or perch something that looks like what they eat," Wenger says. "Sometimes, matching the hatch is the main reason you're able to tempt that sluggish 11-inch 'gill. But equally important as a jig's physical attributes is the way you make it swim.
"I never completely understood this until I looked through an Aqua-Vu Micro camera last winter," he says. "It showed me that even though I can tie something that resembles a specific amphipod, you can kill your momentum by failing to work it in ways that resemble life. The Aqua-Vu showed me exactly how plankton move."
Daphnia use filamentous antennae to make short, quick, vertical jumps. They appear to hop and stop, or quickly rise and fall, as their primary means of propulsion. Copepods move in a similar jump-pause-jump manner, but they use swimming legs like oars, propelling them slightly faster than Daphia. Scuds and shrimp employ a form of jet propulsion or undulation, using legs and uropods (posterior tails), to quickly scoot up and down, near bottom. Bloodworms, or midge larvae, writhe their bodies wildly, but don't cover much ground with each tail pump. At rest, they appear almost neutrally buoyant.
"Jig selection for me has become a function of the waterbody or the specific habitat you're fishing," Wenger says. "The camera shows you what's down there, which reveals which jig to select." One way to expose specific prey species is to use an Aqua-Vu during low-light conditions or in deep water, activating the camera's infrared or LED lights. The lights reflect off even the tiniest critters, which swarm to sources of light like moths, particularly in dark water. From here, it's a logical shortcut to jig selection and swim cadence.
"Last winter, a #14 Zoo Bug dressed with a pink Ice Mite Jr. softbait caught an unbelievable number of big basin crappies," he says. "Fish would materialize out of nowhere and completely engulf this little jig. Last winter, John Garcia finished high on the NAIFC, wielding a black and copper Zoo Bug. It's a pattern I tied with squirrel hair antennae, which gave the jig a subtle wobble when you twitched it. He also added an Ice Mite onto the Bug, but rigged it 'vertizontal,' threading it onto the hook just to the bend, forming an 'L' shape in the softbait.
Debbie Compton, another top tournament angler, continues to crush big perch on my #12 Tungsten Blood Worm, tipped with live larvae."
The Undulation Issue
Beyond Wenger's exceptional Zoo Bug, the Tungsten Shrimp also has become a favorite for farm ponds and other fertile waters hosting scuds or freshwater shrimp. Big bluegills are so fooled by this jig that they consume it in one bite. The Shrimp has also proved itself with brook trout, rainbows, and even selective browns in clear lakes with ample vegetation—prime habitat for the freshwater crustaceans.
As durable and as dynamic as hairy fibers can be at imitating aquatic life, soft plastics do some things naturals can't. It's why when Wenger endeavored to create his artificial shrimp with fly materials he eventually threw in the towel and impaled a J & S Custom Jigs Ice Mite Jr. onto the hook.
The Ice Mite Jr. measures less than an inch but is easy to rig, thanks to a relatively thick body section, which transitions to a paper-thin posterior and bulbous tail. In the water, the plastic undulates beautifully. Outside of short, quick upward hops and stops, undulation is a move that's almost universally appealing to panfish. It's a maneuver best achieved with select small softies, most notably the J & S Ice Mite Jr., Versamite Jr., Custom Jigs & Spins Wedgee, B-Y Baits MudBug, and Maki Plastics Matdi and Eggi.
Undulation also can be enhanced with heavy tungsten jigheads, which activate the soft material, but which can also, at times, be too much aggressive motion for less-active fish. Nick Smyers, a top performer on the NAIFC, accomplishes mad underwater action by using thin slivers of Uncle Josh Meat, rigging the trimmed pork bait onto a Custom Jigs & Spins Majmun tungsten head. He says the action of the super-soft, thread-thin Meat surpasses any other softbait he's seen, with the bonus that fish hold it like livebait. I've watched Smyers and his partner, Kevin Fassbind, set hooks into multiple big crappies in a crowd, and detected the collective angst of their competitors.
Expanding on the "movement" motif, one other overlooked element is the third dimension of animation provided by small appendages—short fine legs, antennae, or other anatomy secondary to the bait's main tail. With jigs tied with natural hair, the "breathing" movements made by marabou or hackle fibers are apparent and often critical to the lure's success. But you can achieve similar motion dynamics with soft plastics.
Walt Matan, a topnotch panfish angler, likes to dress his jigs with a two-tier system of softbaits. Regardless of jig type, he first creates an active "skirt," sliding one or two sets of Nuclear Ant Legs—a four-legged, spider-like soft accoutrement by Custom Jigs & Spins—onto the jig's collar. Then he threads on a Wedgee, Finesse Plastic, or live larvae. The result is a morsel that moves on several planes, fine legs quivering in one direction and sliver-thin tail shaking or undulating in another.
You can achieve a similar scheme of multidimensional movement by selecting more elaborate softbaits with secondary appendages, such as those from B-Y Baits, Contraband Baits, and Maki Plastics. As Wenger notes, use of jigs with multiple appendages—whether hair or soft plastic— means that even at rest, subtle underwater currents play against the fibers, creating ultra-subtle movements.
Even while the ice world continues to encourage rapid-fire jig moves (e.g., pounding), perhaps the best trigger for picky panfish is lack of movement. Deadsticked in suspended animation, 3-D jigs continue working for you, wispy appendages waving, quivering, and breathing just enough to appear alive to the acute eyes of panfish. On the toughest bites, the ace move often is to set the rod on the ice, hand ready to strike, watching the strike indicator for the slightest motion.
As you enter the ranks of competitive panfishing, the art can be elevated several notches. Shawn Bjonfald, topnotch angler on the NAIFC, adds: "Some of the better anglers I know thread their softbaits onto the hook like a bass grub, rather than just nipping them through the head. I'm a fan of soft trout-style worms, like the Nitro Trout Worm." (The Nitro trout worm is discontinued. Check Trout Worms offered by Berkley). "Pinch off the thicker head and thread the remaining 11â'„2- to 3/4-inch section of worm onto a Lindy Toad or similar jig.
"Another great method with ultra-slim softbaits is to impale them almost like a Texas rig," he says. "This is a killer move with a bait like a Custom Jigs & Spins Wedgee. Thread it onto the hook about 1/8 inch, turn the hook out, and reinsert it another 1/8 to 1/4 inch toward the tail. For hook penetration, we Texpose it, rather than burying the point back into the plastic. You get a perfectly straight presentation that stays on the hook without tearing the material."
Once you're wielding a confidence jig, says Bjonfald, what separates success from failure is reacting wisely to fish response. "When anglers see fish on their flasher, say at 12 feet, they're tempted to drop the jig rapidly down to that depth. With bigger 'gills and crappies, that can spook fish and scatter schools—especially when using tungsten. Instead, I drop the jig to about 8 or 9 feet in this case (3 or 4 feet above the fish's level), and begin a controlled drop, doing tiny twitches and bobs as the lure slowly descends. Or, drop it fast to this level, stop, and then pull it up a foot or two. Often, bigger fish materialize and chase. When that happens, you got 'em," he says.
Bjonfald notes that the key to achieving fine-tuned jig movement, which helps scratch bites while surrounded by dozens of other competitors, is to properly match your rod, line, and spring-tip indicator. "For plastics, a stiffer medium to medium-heavy spring offers more precision and control," he says. "For livebait, a softer spring shines.
"The beauty of St. Croix Finesse Springs is that they're easy to adjust. Just push the spring back into the eye for more control and less give, or do the opposite for a softer presentation with less control. For plastics, you want the spring to hang at 25 to 30 degrees with the jig in the water; or about 45 degrees for a jig with live spikes. I like a limp copolymer line, like Silver Thread, in 2- or 3-pound test to bring the elements together."
Everyone has their preferences in rods, but I've yet to fish a nicer plastics tool than a 27-inch Thorne Brothers Quiverstick Stealth. In the past few seasons, I've been hearing more good things about Tuned Up Custom Rods. Wenger says the Tuned Up Bullwhip is perfect for fishing his jigflies. He's also working on a new ultralight spring indicator for micro tungsten baits.
A final tip for extending the life of your expensive tungsten jigs and preventing broken hooks: Get your gloves on a Panfish Toothpick. It's what I use most now to remove small hooks, almost to the exclusion of forceps. The Toothpick—available through jeffsjigs.com or yourbobbersdown.com—is a simple, plastic hook disgorger that quickly pops even the most deeply impaled hooks, without abrading or torquing the hook.
Take the time to attend an NAIFC event this winter. Stop in and support every local tackle shop you encounter. Even if the place more closely resembles someone's garage, or even an old Amish barn, you never know who or what you might find there.