There's so much happening on the panfish scene that you can scratch big bites on literally hundreds of fine jig and plastic pairings without tapping into your spoon supply or livebait. In recent winters, I've watched the rise of smaller lure companies, often hardcore anglers with an idea and a passion for creating stuff that catches fish. Some of the best lures these days come from the minds and out of the basements and workshops of individual entrepreneurs.
Thinking of folks like Darrin Anderson and Brandon and Michelle Young, owners of B-Y Baits; Brian King of Contraband Baits; Travis Krousie of J & S Custom Jigs; Jeff Wenger of Jeff's Jigs; Cory Robinson of Venom Floats, and more. B-Y Baits uses a proprietary injection molding process to produce some of the most refined softbaits on the scene. These real-world engineers and machinists love icing big panfish enough to build baits to their own scrupulous specs.
Similarly, it's amazing to behold the intricate details of King's Contraband Baits. The diminutive sizes and soft, petite anatomies of these panfish baits speak well for the levels of skill and intelligence in our current ice fishing community. These are super smart anglers who understand what it takes to appeal to the visual acuity of big panfish.
In recent winters, I've also palmed a load of good pans, thanks to the killer stuff from J & S Custom Jigs. These guys have taken the concept of micro plastics to whole other levels, all for the good, and with a few truly micro baits measuring under an inch, all the more impossible for panfish to snub.
Bloodworm bites have become a favorite for big panfish, and some of the best midge larvae are Akara Fishing's Silicone and "Live" Blood Worms. Likewise, on the hand-tied jigfly front — one of the best kept secrets in panfishing — Jeff's Jigs Tungsten Blood Worm is a killer, as are his transparent tungsten Zoo Bugs and Copepods. If you haven't fished these amazing jigs yet — especially the Tungsten Shrimp — this is your year to shine.
On a slightly larger scale of availability, Northland Tackle's new plastics, which I'll get to in a moment are fantastic. Of note, too, is In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange's go-to option of a Lindy Slick Jig dressed with what he calls the hottest bloodworm imitator of all time, a Berkley Gulp! Eurolarve string. Of course, Berkley offers many other soft options in both their PowerBait and Gulp! lines, ranging from Power Nymphs to Maggots. For many anglers, the 1/2-inch Gulp! Minnow is one of the best tipping options of all time.
Some of the better original plastics included options from Custom Jigs & Spins and Little Atom. Custom Jigs' Finesses Plastic and Wedgee remain two of the best softbaits ever made, with the Little Atom Nuggie certainly in similar company.
But a lot of the realism began with Scott Brauer, founder of Maki Plastics. Brauer, a robotics teacher by trade, sculpted some of the first anatomically correct aquatic insects, including a freshwater shrimp and the original Maki bait around 1998. His panfish baits didn't just look the part, they were designed to mimic the hydrodynamic movements and body positions of the real live critter. Tournaments were won, word spread, and before long, Maki became a substantial business, now partnered with ice giant Clam for marketing and distribution.
Jigs & Jigs-Softbait €¨Combos
The Maki-Clam partnership has yielded a reintroduction of the Maki Bloodi, a 1.5-inch segmented midge larva mimic, and Matdi, blunt-headed with twin tails, also at 1.5-inches. The Jamei and Eggi are two favorites among an impressive array of hand-poured panfish softbaits, all of them imitative of aquatic life.
Most of these shapes pair nicely with a Dave Genz tungsten Drop Kick jig, also from Clam. Genz praises the square edges on the Drop Kick, a design element made to display more clearly on electronics.
"One of the trends we see is a move to larger panfish lures," Genz says. "We've been hearing so much about tiny stuff lately, but anglers would be surprised by the sizes of the bluegills and crappies they'd catch with a little larger plastic and jig pairing.
"That includes the hook, too. The Clam Pro Tackle Drop XL and new Snow Drop XL have larger hooks (up to #4) and bigger line ties, great for cold hands or folks who struggle to see or tie knots with micro lines and jigs. Bigger also means more exposed hook and better catch rates." Genz adds that the heavy, compact XL series shines for punching through slush, penetrating dense vegetation or brush, and plummeting quickly past tiny fish stationed higher in the water column. "These jig hooks are so strong that we've used them to land lake trout."
It reminds me of a bloodworm pattern I came upon last winter, as we found big walleyes grazing on fields of midge larvae. Akara Fishing makes one of my favorite plastics, the Mega Softtail Blood Worm, an inch-long silicone bait that shines on a #12 hook, rigged drop-shot style. Crappies, perch, and sunfish all inhabit basins and hunt bloodworms, but so do pike, walleyes, and occasionally bass.
This season, Akara — the Latvian based fishing company with new offices in the U.S. — unveiled jarred versions of a bloodworm and maggot. Jars of the Live Blood Worm include hundreds of tiny worms imbued in actual bloodworm scent. Live Maggot baits are nearly indistinguishable from active Eurolarvae, and are even packed in sawdust for a novel rendering of the real thing. These baits were hot beginning late last winter.
For minnow bites for perch and crappies, also check Akara's silicone Rippers, a 2-inch baitfish with subtle moves on a jighead or drop-shot. The beauty of Akara plastics is that regardless of size or shape, there's always a tungsten jig in their lineup to match. I can't wait a to hook a few Akara Live Maggots onto one of their Tear Drop jigs in the new rainbow metallic pattern.
The Tear Drop with Hole tungsten jigs in new glow colors will also be a killer paired with a wad of the Live Bloodworms, especially the 3-mm jig size. You need to learn to tie a snell knot and fish some of these "through-head" jigs. It's a solid line-tie system, providing the strongest connection and maintaining a nearly horizontal jig posture. Speaking of colors, Cory Robinson of Hudson, Wisconsin, has a novel coloration system, using a tungsten base and glowing plastic around it to produce a powerful and long-lasting "Inferno Glow."
I mentioned new offerings from Northland Tackle. Brian Brosdahl sketched out several bait and jig ideas on a napkin and Northland made them.
"The soft Skeleton Minnow undulates," Brosdahl says. "It moves exactly like what fish eat — swims rhythmically and puts out vibration. Rig it on one of the new Mitee Mouse jigs. This big-eyed jig moves fluidly, tracks straight, even rolls up and down on the bottom." Other Northland introductions include the soft Water Flea, that works well threaded onto the back of a Bro Bling Jig or Forage Minnow Dart.
Gary Snyder of Snyder's Lures has been designing ice lures for more than 30 years and has overseen tackle companies, ranging from Jig-A-Whopper to Bad Dog Tackle. He mixes classic designs like the Feathered Two-Tone Glow with more exotic designs like the Flying Ant. One should visit his website to get a feeling for the breadth of designs offered.
Sweet little softies from B-Y Baits, Contraband Baits, and J & S Custom Jigs also merit time on the end of your line. From B-Y Baits, compelling critters include the Freshwater Shrimp, Mudbug, and Mayfly — all anatomically accurate. Their Bloodworm is another fine option, offering a bulbous, segmented head for easy hooking, and a long thin tail for action. Contraband Baits has tiny stuff, including the Shrimp, Spider Mite, Crab, and Waxy among a dozen dainty shapes.
Last year, Travis Krousie bought J & S Custom Jigs from Jeremy Lustila (both topnotch ice anglers) and added his 8 My Bait jigs to the mix. The Versamite Jr and IceMite Jr have risen in popularity. Both swim and kick seductively and present fish with wonderful general bug imitations,.
One killer combo is an Ice Reaper jig dressed with a red IceMite. Krousie is a jig paint artist — one of the best I've seen — and his Splatter Blood patterns deserve awards. Additionally, the Ice Reaper employs a red, wide-gap sickle hook that yields high hook-set rates. Other interesting 8 My Bait jigs include the Tungsten Wrecking Ball and Tungsten Teardrop in rainbow metallic, as well as UV coated Snake Belly patterns.
On the bell curve of panfish lures, while jigs dominate up the middle, small spoons compose the outer fringes. My all time favorite flutter spoon is Custom Jigs & Spins' Pro-Glow Slender Spoon. Dressed with maggots or microplastics, the 1/16-ounce size invites attention from big crappies, perch, trout, and more.
Northland's 1/32- and 1/16-ounce Forage Minnow Spoon is another classic, with new UV patterns. And venerable Acme Tackle has added the Rattle Master, a noisy Kastmaster. Check too the smaller spoons from PK lures, especially the Flutterfish and the PK Spoon. And Johnson's SlimFish spoon is worth a look, as a light flutter spoon that falls on its side with a seductive wobble and flash. Tip it with a 1/2-inch Berkley Gulp! Minnow.
Clam Pro Tackle added the Guppy Flutter Spoon, a 1/50-ounce, slab shaped beauty with a free-swinging single hook. Clam unleashed its Rattlin' Blade Spoon last year, and now features Jason Mitchell color schemes for winter 2016 — all adorned with a feathered treble hook and a Pyrex glass rattle chamber with stainless steel BBs. And the Leech Flutter Spoon is a curved beauty, with unique dotted complexion and feathered treble, in sizes to 1/16-ounce.
From J & S Custom Jigs, the Demon Tongue is a 1/16-ounce flutterspoon with a twist. A cavity in its center has a tiny secondary blade, flickering like a pectoral fin. It puts J & S on solid footing as an up-and-coming ice company.
Meanwhile, Snyder's Lures introduces the Stripper, a small panfish-style lure with a spinner blade on a shaft atop the spoon body. It falls with a fluttering slide. On the up stroke, the blade rotates for added flash and vibration. They offer many other options, including Big Shaker and Lil' Rascal Flash.
Small Fry Swimmers
On the other end of the crappie-perch-bluegill bell curve, the swimming lure category continues to expand and increase in popularity (thanks to Rapala's Jigging Rap). Friends and I worked Custom Jigs & Spins' new Rotating Power Minnow for crappies last winter in deep basins on Lake of the Woods and fished circles around folks hunkered over tiny jigs or minnows. Built with a free-spinning line tie and treble hook configuration, the lure moves and swims dynamically, won't twist line, and keeps fish securely hooked.
Akara Fishing offers the Midge, a 1-inch swimmer that weighs about 1/7-ounce. Its slab profile almost matches a baby sunfish or crappie, important in the diets of trophy-class panfish. Two other options: The 1.5-inch Cancan has a thin minnow profile and a flat underside for gliding; the Legioner is a lively 1.5-inch swimming minnow. Meanwhile, Acme Tackle's Hyper-Glide actually has wings that deploy on the glide. Johnson Fishing has added the Johnny Darter. And there's the Slab Rap, more fluttering ice crankbait than swimming lure. It's a lipless hardbait with a flat minnow profile, offered in 1.5- and 2-inch sizes, 1/8- and 1/4-ounce, respectively. But one of many reasons to budget bucks for the winter's brightest new baits.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid ice angler and stays on the cutting edge of lure development.