Proliferation of panfish plastics useful to ice fishermen has gone off-the-charts bonkers. If the expansion isn't checked soon, shapes and styles of tiny to mid-size softbaits could soon surpass nature's own array of bugs, tadpoles, and fry.
The question is, what do we do with them all? Trying to pack up for a day trip is getting a little insane. With access to samples of every company's new plastics, ice fishermen would have to fill a mountaineering backpack to carry every shape and color. And some might. These new plastics are incredible, and the key is constant movement. When holding the rod, your pulse is enough to make the thin, tapering tails dance. When using a rod holder, the slight to moderate currents found in every lake suffice.
The thin, "tapering-to-infinity" tail revolution started, for me — perhaps for all — with a small operation called PinPoint Plastix over a quarter century ago. The current owner of PinPoint, Terry Firkus, said the inventor developed an allergic reaction to the resins. "You need to get the plastic up to 360°F to pour it," Firkus says. "I was a good customer of his, and after his eyes were swollen shut by the fumes he allowed me to buy the operation and equipment. I make four different styles in 24 colors. A lot of customers come right to my shop from within a 60-mile radius to buy in bulk."
Firkus said he needs nothing else for panfish under the ice. "These baits are all I've been using for 23 years," he says. "Presentation is the key. Tiny jigs with a #12 hook are perfect. A lot of locals use the tungsten Sitka Gold Ant. Keep it moving all the time with a slow jigging action and a pause of only a few seconds. That seems to work the best. We use 2-pound Seaguar AbrazX Fluorocarbon line. The biggest thing is not having fish see the line, and yet it has to be strong. You don't know what you're going to hook — could be a bass or pike. Everything eats these things. I think PinPoint Plastix move like a live mayfly nymph. The tip quivers constantly, mimicking those waving gills on a mayfly. You can't hold it still if you try. I have a clear gallon jug with water in my shop for showing people what the bait does when jigging it. It really opens people's eyes when they see how it works."
Not long after PinPoint's versions appeared, the I.S.G. Plankton Series was introduced. Their concept in common — the infinite quiver — has practically ruled panfish plastic designs for ice fishing ever since. Many unique shapes and designs following that trend in the market today probably stem from the work of Scott Brauer, owner of Maki Plastics. Brauer, the Salvadore Dali of soft-plastic designs, is responsible for the new oddball lineup from Clam which includes the Draggi, Bloodi, Matdi, and Maki — all of them quiver with infinite taper. But can art really be any more bizarre than nature?
What Brauer and those who followed created are matching or expanding upon is nature's palate. Take one peek at a drop of lake water with a microscope and you see how ludicrous my exaggeration is. Lure designers will never match the endless array of invertebrates out there. No matter how bizarre or imaginative some designs of Brauer's may seem, a biologist could probably find several zooplankters, nymphs, bloodworms, and other invertebrates that look something like every one of them.
Jason Mitchell, host of the Jason Mitchell Outdoors television, is highly familiar with Maki madness. "The original Maki is one of my favorites," Mitchell says. "The Jamei, Draggi, and Neki all have tentacles coming off the sides. Bulks up the profile, which I like. People underestimate a bigger profile, but it moves more water so you can pull fish up higher and from farther away. A lot of larvae have a large profile. Panfish aren't always eating tiny backswimmers. Many things are longer than a half inch. You can always downsize later, but I start big every day."
In order to fish plastics this small and delicate, Mitchell likes soft rod tips and spring bobbers.
"Soft is critical," he says. "It produces the right quiver. It doesn't take much. Just a slight wiggle of the rod tip. The key is a small hook so the presentation doesn't twist. Plastic has to be perfectly symmetrical on a hook. If the plastic is curved or bunched on the hook, it's going to twist and turn. You want plastic laying straight along the hook shank. Typically I hook plastics horizontally. Even with a vertical jig, I nose-hook the plastic, slide it around the bend and pin the hook in the body so the plastic hangs horizontally. When a fish is looking up, they see a bigger profile when it's horizontal."
Mitchell says he's a big fan of Tungsten Drop Series jigs from Clam for Maki Plastics. "Tungsten is heavier so the pound on bottom is more distinct," he says. "If the jig doesn't drop quickly you don't get the same quiver-in-place action. With small tubes you get a glide, more like a Jigging Rap, but when you want plastics to quiver in place use heavier jigs. Tungsten jigs allow you to use 4-pound test and it feels like 2 or 3. If you don't have break-offs, you're more efficient and fishing longer.
"I let the rod tip quiver, and don't shake my hand much. Bigger fish shoot up from the pack — are more likely to leave the pack. That bigger silhouette overhead with more movement brings them up from the pack. Some panfish want it held still and inched up, others want you to pop it up 3 inches at a time. Watch their reaction. Often you feel like you're holding the rod still but those tentacles are always dancing. Watch it in a bowl of water. Maki Plastics never stop moving no matter what you do with the rod tip."
Mike Wendlandt, owner of Panfish Plastics, created some unique "plastic invertebrates" like the 1-inch Ballzy and Chigger Fry, but also mimics the classics with tubes and Pintail shapes in the lineup. "One-inch plastics like these require 2-pound-test lines or lighter," he says. "For big crappies I might use larger versions on 3-pound monofilament. There are a lot of good lines and I try them all. I like monofilament and in clear water I put a foot or two of 2-pound fluorocarbon on the end with a little heavier line above (4-pound). I use a tiny swivel to add leaders and to avoid line twist. If the bait is spinning, it's not natural."
We've said it for years: Big panfish often eat tiny plastics. "A 14-inch crappie might prefer larger versions, but it's amazing how often 16-inch crappies eat the little Chigger Fry," Wendlandt says. "They're conditioned to eating bugs and even microscopic zooplankton, which tend to swim in a horizontal fashion. I fish the Chigger Fry horizontally. No matter what kind of jig you use, plastics should hang horizontally. The Fry has an offset tail. You shouldn't run the hook into the tail or it interferes with the action. It quivers no matter how still the rod tip is held. Jig it fast or slow, but I like the gentle, slow fall of a light jig.
"Of course, in deep water you have to fish heavier, but I don't like to use split shot above the hook. I like a natural fall with plastics. Panfish are more apt to respond to it slowly sinking down to them. I've tipped with and without bait, and I don't feel there's any point in tipping with livebait. It attracts smaller fish. I run-and-gun a lot with a 24-inch B&B Ultralight Custom. Fishing that way, plastics are more efficient and take more fish than livebait."
Bob Bohland, outdoor writer and technician for the Red Lake County Soil and Water Conservation District in Minnesota, favors larger plastics designed around the same "infinite quiver" motif. "I start with a Lindy Watsit because I don't want to mess with smaller fish," he says, "especially when fishing crappies. They school by size a lot in larger lakes, but in small lakes you find big ones and small ones mixed together. I want to target bigger fish. Panfish are predators and they want to conserve energy. I put the Watsit on a 1/32-ounce Lindy Jig or a Lindy Rattlin' Flyer. I can pop it and it falls slowly and shimmies down — dynamite for suspended crappies. When we first saw the Watsit we thought it was the most worthless looking bait we'd seen. But by the end of the first day we wondered how many we could get."
The Watsit reveals its advantages on the drop. "I work the Watsit to make it fall," Bohland says. "That's when most fish react to it. If they react tentatively on the drop, I hold it as still as I can. It doesn't hold still, of course. Try as you might, it's going to wiggle and quiver. Drop one into a pickle jar full of water, try to hold it still and watch. That's the action that triggers strikes from tentative fish.
"Four-pound Silver Thread copolymer works best because it has a little less stretch and doesn't absorb water. I run-and-gun the Watsit on a long rod I make myself — a 40-inch, fast, light-power carbon-blank rod. With the rod tip held right next to the water it's not affected by wind down in the cylinder of the hole. You don't have to get on your knees when walking around and you can feel the jig. I use Sportsman's Direct blanks and rod-building supplies."
Plastics often elicit a different response than bait. "The great thing about plastics — panfish don't pick at it," Bohland says. "You know right away if they're aggressive. They either put it in their mouth or not. I don't buy livebait anymore unless I'm fishing for walleyes. Sometimes for perch, but big perch are just as susceptible to big plastics as big crappies. Start big and work your way down and you often catch the biggest fish that can fit the lure into their mouths."
Northland Tackle added two effective plastics to their lineup last year with the Skeleton Minnow and Water Flea. "More than 70 percent of all panfish I pulled through a hole last winter came on the Skelton Minnow," says Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Everything eats the Skeleton Minnow. It imitates bloodworms. I have the red one on all the time, but you have to try every color depending on what lake you're on. It imitates a bloodworm, but I've seen bloodworms that are purple on a lake where, understandably, purple is hot. Panfish cough up bloodworms that are pale white, some are pale green, and many are red."
Invertebrates occupy Brosdahl's mind quite a bit in winter. "Insects don't move at the speed of sound," he says, "but they do shimmy around constantly. Making your bait wiggle is key. Watch the fish on camera or sonar as you raise the lure. When you get one fish to rise, it's less likely to spook the pack when hooked. To hook it, try to hold these lures still. They still shimmy. When dropping back down, bring it slowly down from 10 feet above, see when they react and stop. You want to hook fish above the pod."
He watches the Skeleton Minnow at the top of the hole before lowering it down. "Try to make the tail move as little as possible," he says. "Watch your rod tip. What's it doing when that tail just begins to move? Mimic that and you catch panfish without livebait every day. We had a blast with that lure last year, catching fish where people using other tactics were getting blanked. It's like a ninja — kicks tail all by itself down there."
The style, weight, and hook of a jig has everything to do with creating optimum action with tiny plastics. "The Northland Mini FireBall, those micro tungsten jigs, and the Gill Getter rock the bait in a way that makes the tail shimmy," Brosdahl says. "A ballhead jig that has a 90-degree angle between eye and hook makes it easier to let the jig sit static while accentuating tail movement. I don't set hard, just lift. Horizontal jigs work best, but you can fish it vertically. But you don't want a vertical jig that's too big. A simple fly hook works — like a #16. With that, you can drop-shot the Skeleton Minnow so you know exactly how far off bottom it is."
Effective baits for us last winter included B-Y Baits Mud Bug and Water Bug, Trigger X Nymph, and all the relatively new Berkley PowerBait Ice plastics. Having scent impregnated in a lure is a plus, so I add Blue Fox Dr. Juice Panfish to all unscented plastics — like old favorites from PinPoint and I.S.G.
With or without scent, a lot of guides have declared livebait to be an unnecessary expense for panfish under the ice, which should elicit three cheers from the peanut gallery. No more dead bait in the fridge. No more rank leftovers in our pockets. No more extra containers to carry around and keep warm, with the awesome bonus of greater efficiency as we rebait hooks far less often during a hot bite. And we can match the hatch with almost anything panfish are chewing on.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies ice angler and longtime contributor to In-Fisherman publications.