October 25, 2017
A short walk from shore, amid underwater fields of large- and clasping-leaf pondweed, one of the coolest early ice bites for imposing, razor-toothed animals awaits. When you arrive each winter and realize you're the first angler to cut holes, you feel a little disoriented and a bit wiser. You get the feeling that after at least a month without seeing lures, pike and walleyes stalking the vegetation might be ready to bite any lure you drop down the hole.
It's rarely that easy. And so you're faced with the dilemma of either drilling a trapline of holes to find fish — inviting unwanted attention from drive-bys — or selectively cutting holes here and there. More and more, I've opted for the latter, having experienced the angst of angler encroachment into holes I've drilled, not 15 feet from my position.
On many lakes, individual pike and walleyes seem to establish a temporary feeding area on a larger shallow flat, point, or other structure. Drop a camera into the midst of vegetation in 12 feet of water and you often come nose-to-nose with a threatening pike. The fish swims along the periphery of your position for several minutes until drifting off into the distance. Five minutes later, it's back, stalking, circling, and eventually disappearing completely, likely off to its next hunting grounds.
Within this behavioral framework, individual pike, walleyes, and muskies exhibit somewhat divergent patterns. Some fish linger in an area for an hour or more. Others work a more extensive route, often across multiple miles before returning to where you originally found them. In essence, some fish work the same milk route, daily or weekly.
Loosely associated schools of larger walleyes tend to swim on and off an edge, as opposed to lingering on shallow flats for long periods. Sizable fish seem to move up into shallow vegetation or onto the rock-capped crown of a point, work a section of turf, and then move back off the drop-off before repeating the route, perhaps three or more times per day.
In terms of pike location, panfish are a decisive draw. When you're focused on catching crappies and bluegills, you frequently resent the presence of a menacing predator. But fishing around these panfish schools — even in community holes — can be the best way to connect with a sizable pike, muskie, or bass.
Panfish hold where they do for a reason. Abrupt transitions between low-growing plants and tall pondweed, small clearings within dense vegetation, or a patch of impenetrable stalks attract panfish seeking to escape. Fish cribs placed in featureless lakes are hotspots, too. All these spots provide opportunities for pike (and muskies) to ambush prey. Find a sizable bluegill school and you've also located a prime spot for big pike.
In shallow water, an underwater camera remains an essential scouting tool. I like to drop the lens through every hole, hoping to spot a bogey — large, lone-wolf predators working shallow cover. Once found, they can nearly always be convinced to bite. And often the best way to catch them is to stalk them with a camera.
When I'm fishing with friends, we often set up on a shallow flat with nearby access to the deep edge. A few deadsticks or tip-ups with 4- to 6-inch chubs flag any fish in the vicinity. It's good to save some big chubs left over from fall, or grab a few dozen from the baitshop if they're still available. There is no better bait — natural or artificial — for attracting big predators.
While chubs soak and serve decoy duty, I go in search of bogeys. I wear my underwater camera — an Aqua-Vu Micro — around my neck, tucked inside a fitted softcase. I can quickly dip the optics and view the screen. The portable, wearable camera allows me to carry a sonar and jigging rod. I've managed to lighten my load further by powering a Raymarine sonar-mapping unit with a feather-light lithium-ion battery instead of those brick-like 12-volt gel cells. Together, these tactical gear mods spell unprecedented mobility and more fish located, iced, and released.
Given the small selection of predator-specific ice baits, one plan is to become skilled with a single lure at a time, mastering its subtleties until you feel confident with it. Power-fishing for predatory fish on ice reminds me of muskie fishing — the best, most successful anglers often wield a single lure all day long, building confidence with each successive cast and hook-set.
On ice, you've got the archetypal Jigging Rap and a handful of dandy bladebaits like the Sebile Vibrato and Damiki Vortex — all capable of producing big bites. Ice crankbaits including the Salmo Chubby Darter and Livetarget Golden Shiner put off moves that seemingly spellbind all fish-eating species on any water.
A custom 42- or 45-inch Thorne Bros Professional Plus rod is a great tool for working 3/8- to 1-ounce lures, hole hopping on prime spots. These blanks offer a fine balance of power and give (shock absorption) with a sufficiently stiff tip to impart precise micro moves to heavier jigging lures. The firm graphite tip also is sensitive, compared to many other blanks on the market with tips that fold under just the weight of a lure — something that shouldn't happen unless you're deadsticking. A 42-, 45-, or 48-inch rod can be thrust down the hole during powerful predator runs to protect line from jagged ice edges.
Longer rods have been rare among most brands' lineups. I haven't yet fished Tuned Up Custom Rods' 38-inch TUCR Admiral, purported to be sufficiently built for lake trout, pike, and large walleyes. I love the split-grip concept, something I've tested in earlier versions of Eagle Claw ice rods. Tuned Up Rods are gaining a larger following each winter and I'm anxious to fish one this season.
For the past decade, put a Thorne Bros Professional Plus and a #6 Chubby Darter in my hands and I fish with confidence. I know a few lakes where I've caught substantial predatory fish, all on the same Darter and on the same day. Besides a big lively chub, I've never seen an ice lure so strongly compel big fish to investigate. The Chubby Darter, designed by In-Fisherman digital editor Jeff Simpson, usually keeps big fish around long enough to provide you with the opportunity to set hooks. Closing the deal most often occurs as you hold the bait steady, giving it little nervous quivers, hovering just above eye level of a big walleye or pike.
Simpson says the key to triggering strikes lies in your reactions once an interested fish appears. "When you spot a fish on sonar," he says, "realize it doesn't take much rod tip movement to get the lure's tail to move. The slightest shake is often all you need to trigger a strike."
Even if you try to stop it from moving, it's nearly impossible to hold the lure still, Simpson says. "If subtle shakes don't work, I often slowly start lifting it away, sometimes increasing the speed of my take-away to trigger strikes. I think it works so well because fish instinctively believe an easy meal is escaping. And when they bite, they absolutely crush it," he says.
I've noticed walleyes like to bite the Chubby Darter at its apex, after I've worked it several feet up in the water column, often quivering it as it rises. Walleyes also tag the Darter as it's descending with its subtle wobble, swimming slightly head-down on the drop. You do this on nearly slack line, using something like 8-pound Sufix Invisiline Ice fluorocarbon for bite detection, abrasion resistance, and shock absorption.
I think fluoro is the definitive ice line. Problem is, like most ice-rod builders, few line-makers seem to acknowledge that ice anglers might occasionally need 10-pound line or heavier. For 1/2-ounce and heavier lures and big pike, walleyes, and lakers, I spool a Shimano Stradic 2500/Professional Plus combo with 10-pound Seaguar AbrazX Ice — a tough fluoro that fishes beautifully on spinning tackle. It feels substantial yet fishes sensitively in deep water. Plus it gives me assurance it'll hold up when a power run scrapes line across the bottom of the hole.
More and more in recent winters, this second combo is rigged with a Vibrations Tackle Echotail, which has proven its mettle with lake trout and pike. The Echotail couples the flash and vibration of a bladebait with the subtle pulsing thump and soft texture of a curlytail or other soft-plastic tail. I like the smaller 1/4- and 3/8-ounce Echotails, even for larger pike, which at times can surprise you with their preferences for dainty meals.
Working an Echotail or other blade effectively isn't much different than how you fish a Darter. Lift the bait with short, fast strokes, feeling for just two or three rapid blade thumps. Big rips are mostly a no-no, especially once you've attracted a fish. Let the blade flutter back, stopping just a hair above bottom, and hold it steady for several seconds before repeating the short fast stroke. The pause is frequently the trigger — that's when a walleye, pike, or laker dashes in and strikes. If a fish swims in but hesitates, try the gentle shake-and-rise approach, focusing on imparting action to the soft plastic tail, rather than shimmering the blade itself. Subtle is best.
Vibrations Tackle packages some Echotails with Kalin's grubs — among the softest and most lively curlytails available. Some of the newer UV-enhanced versions of the lures also come with tapered straight tails. Lake trout love this shape and its action, though for pike and walleyes, I prefer a grub or small paddletail swimbait, such as a Z-Man SlimSwimZ (you can mix and match most any tail). Another tweak is to clip your line to one of the rear-most ties on the Echotail, using a tiny snap. The rear eyelets make the lure swim more head-down while producing perhaps a deeper thump on the upstroke.
Vibrations Tackle owner Justin Blanchar says that some of his customers have done well replacing the softbait tail with a live minnow, inserting the keeper into the bait's mouth or nose-hooking it on the tail treble. With bladebaits, Chubby Darters, and Jigging Raps, I replace factory trebles with Mustad #4 or #6 Triple Grips. These hooks have points that turn inward, so you pierce and hold a higher percentage of fish — particularly with heavier lures such as the #7 and #9 Jigging Rap. These hooks save you some angst around the hole, where fish often work free.
For pike, tie a 2-foot leader of 6- or 12-pound 7-strand Knot2Kinky wire to the lure. Six-pound holds up well for pike to about 10 pounds, while 12 fishes more naturally with lures 1/2 ounce and heavier and holds up to trophy pike. Build your own leaders, connecting fluoro mainline to wire with a ball bearing swivel. I tie wire directly to the lure with a clinch knot or perfection loop.
Soft Swimming Minnows
A lot of us have been anticipating the day when a creative company might take the balanced swimming lure category to the next level. I knew I was looking at this concept when pro angler Steve Pennaz and Berkley's Jeremy Albright showed me the Snap Jig. Recognizing the power and increased prominence of plastics in ice fishing, Berkley designers created a swimming, gliding, darting jig, enabling the angler to customize it with various softbaits.
"The Snap Jig takes the concept of a gliding, swimming ice lure and adds the versatility of soft plastics or livebait," says Pennaz, host of Stone Cold Fishing TV. It's simple to rig, has an effective bait-keeper, and offers superb hookup ratios. Most of the fish I've caught with it, including walleyes, engulf the entire thing. The jig has a single wide-gap hook, and a secondary eye attached to its gliding tail that accepts a stinger or treble hook, or small blade."
The bait's glide is impressive, he says. The 1/4- and 3/8-ounce Snap Jig fishes lighter than lures like a #7 or #9 Jigging Rap, so it planes well away from center on the drop. The beauty of this jig, too, is that it fishes like a chameleon — changing action, glide, and darting motion depending on which softbait you attach. Albright says the Snap Jig pairs perfectly with a 4-inch PowerBait MaxScent Flatnose Minnow, a new super-scented, extra-soft fluke bait. I also envision fishing the Snap Jig with Berkley's Twitch Tail Minnow and Z-Man's SlimSwimZ paddletail.
Another amazing swimmer with potential is the Lucky John Maiko, a Japanese swimming lure that fishes a little like a vertical jerkbait. Slightly longer than a #9 Jigging Rap, the size 79 Maiko also weighs about a quarter of an ounce less, yet offers a thicker body. Its swim tail is intriguing, as it angles slightly upward, as opposed to other swimmers with down-angled tails.
Drop the Maiko down an ice hole and it rolls and swims like something alive. It glides a foot or more horizontally for every foot it descends — a function of its reversed tail and reduced weight. The upturned tail also causes the Maiko to plane to the side when you jig it, working somewhat like a crankbait in reverse — diving slightly shallower rather than deeper. This is an amazing, unique bait — the first lure I tie on when the ice is thick enough to walk on. With any luck, my friends and I will once again have that same early ice bite all to ourselves.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid ice angler and an industry insider, always at the forefront of lure development.