Small Baits, Big Bites

Small Baits, Big Bites

The ultralight craze is old. Been around a long time. But, just because it's an old game doesn't mean it's not right. Take baseball. Bottom of the ninth, the good guys are down by two runs with the sacks loaded, full count. Anybody heading for the fridge at that moment probably doesn't know who Abner Doubleday was, or that he lived over 100 years ago. Baseball has been popular a long, long time.

Ultralight fishing doesn't go back as far as baseball, but similarities abound. When it's the bottom of the ninth out on the ice, smaller baits become your bullpen. When the fish have been ignoring your best curves and changeups all day while forcing a swing-'n-a-miss here and there, call the bullpen.

Think of all the reasons why standard baits, at times, don't work at all. Every reason is, conversely, a rationale for using a smaller version, or a different bait that's smaller than what you have on. Every artificial lure gives off negative cues. The smaller the bait, the smaller the negative cues. What if the fish aren't biting because there's a glut of forage? What do you do when you're full? Order a steak? No, but you might eat a peanut if somebody puts it on your napkin. What if the fish are pressured and spooked? Again, logic demands a smaller bait on fluorocarbon line, eliminating many of those negative cues. What if a cold front puts the fish down? The smaller your bait, the more likely it will trigger fish in that case.


Let's look at one team's bullpen -- team Smith, as in Pat Smith of Thorne Brothers in Minneapolis. When walleyes get tough in those heavily pressured metro-area lakes, Smith downsizes to see if an hors d'oeuvre gets more of a response than a Big Mac. Downsizing for Smith sometimes translates into lures smaller than 1/32 ounce presented on 2-pound-test line -- panfish gear. "I've caught walleyes over 9 pounds on tiny jigs tipped with maggots on 2-pound line," Smith says.

He doesn't start out fishing walleyes with stuff that small. His starting pitchers are the usual specimens -- 3/8-ounce spoons and Jigging Rapalas on 8-pound line. "I start with a plain spoon from Jig-A-Whopper," Smith says. "I start big and aggressive and start listening. If walleyes tell me they like it, I actually try bigger lures. But, if that original jig fails and I'm seeing fish on my Aqua-Vu or flasher, I downsize to a smaller spoon like the 1/8-ounce Jig-A-Whopper Hawger. If that fails, I drop down to a unique pointy-nosed, tail-bladed jig called the Hornet by Red Neck Tech. The nose shape causes the jig to drop more vertically, and the blade adds resistance to the tail, so it turns nose down quicker than a ballhead. I pump it up and it teeters down quicker, providing more of a vertical drop, triggering more walleyes than a ballhead."

Another ballhead alternative Smith likes is the Cabela's Wobbler, a flat-bottomed jig that wobbles on the drop. "I tip with a whole minnow and use a light lift with this jig," Smith says. "I bring it up slow and easy, then I try not to manipulate it on the drop. It wobbles slightly on the drop, and the head stands up on bottom , leaving the minnow pointed face down and wiggling with its tail up."

Another good jig for standing minnows up on a soft bottom is the Lindy Little Joe Fat Boy, a smaller-than-average, flat-sided jig that tends to drop vertically and 'stick' in the mud. By this time in the downsizing process, Smith has dropped to a lighter rod and 4-pound line. He also starts downsizing minnows at this point, switching from the usual walleye minnow to a fathead or large crappie minnow. If that doesn't work, he drops to a 1/32-ounce Custom Jigs & Spins Demon, a slightly-larger than average teardrop jig.

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If that doesn't work, Smith doesn't pack it in. He calls the bullpen one more time and brings in the closer. "My largest walleye through the ice two years ago was a 9-pounder that came on a #10 Arnold's Fairy Jig tipped with 4 maggots, on 2-pound line. I couldn't have done it without an underwater camera. Without a camera, you have no idea if those big girls are around, because they stay pinned tight to bottom. And, what I've learned about walleyes with a camera is that nothing brings inactive pigs off bottom like a tiny jig with a #10 hook."

This doesn't mean Smith likes to target big walleyes with #10 hooks. "When I see fish on the screen that won't bite, I usually try ultralight jigs tipped with maggots, which are key when walleyes lock their mouths shut. But that's my last resort. Nobody in their right mind wants to try and land a big walleye with a #10 hook on 2-pound line. And, if I had my way, the fish would never be inactive. But, when they are, you have to do what you have to do."

The next-to-last resort for Smith is the Lindy Little-Joe Genz Worm, an alternative ballhead with 3 lobes of lead on the hook. "I get a consistent quivering action with this jig," Smith explains. "With the weight spread out both in front and in back of the hook eye, this jig quivers and waves the maggots around when you quiver the rod tip. And, with the Genz Worm, I can try a #6 hook, then a #8 before dropping down to ultralight panfish gear."


Smith demonstrates that trophy predators, when inactive, consistently trigger on tiny baits. Huge largemouth bass are notorious for taking diminutive offerings even when they're active. A lot of the lures designed for vertical applications are not species specific. Scaling down with swimming baits under the ice can create a real smorgasbord effect.

Vertical lures include bladebaits, soft plastics, spoons, and swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala, Nils Master, and Salmo Chubby Darter. The same downsizing philosophy applies with all active jigging lures. Even more so than a few years ago, with the introduction of new smaller sizes in most of these lures.

Back in the 1970s, Rapala came out with a small version of the Jigging Rapala -- the 2-inch W5. It was an instant success for crappies. Rapala has since introduced two smaller sizes, the W3 and W2. In this issue you'll find an article about finessing bluegills with tiny, tiny jigs. The same philosophy won't work for big crappies in environments where they eat only minnows. Meat-eating crappies swim up to tiny finesse plastics and keep right on going, looking for a real meal. A jig-minnow combo is always the local favorite on those lakes, but my new favorite is the W2 Rapala.

Smith also, at times, downscales to these tiny Jigging Rapalas for big walleyes, after replacing the belly treble with a larger #8 or #6 treble. Unlike the larger versions, these lures can be worked on 4-pound line, and they still circle and swim. Crappies love a tiny Jigging Rapala, but it's just one of few downsized lures that work well in winter for a variety of species.

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We have yet to meet a bladebait that won't take fish under the ice. Quite some time back, Reef Runner came out with a tiny 1/16-ounce version of their popular Cicada bladebait. It's a dynamite, if vastly overlooked, crappie, bluegill, trout, and walleye tool under the ice. With a length of only 3/4 of an inch, it puts out far more vibration than a much larger spoon on the lift. Yet, in a package that small, it appeals to big bluegills. Connect it with a Mustad Fly-Line Pin and drop it down. Use a swivel two feet up the line. Shake it, then lift it 8 to 10 inches. You can rip it, but a moderate lift seems to work better for bluegills, bass, and walleyes most of the time. Just pull it fast enough to feel the rod tip vibrate slightly, pause it, shake it, and let it drop on a controlled line. But drop the bottom out from beneath it sometimes, too. Even the smallest Cicada will glide off the vertical path in free fall, becoming a swimming bait. The lighter the line, the more it glides.

One of the most dynamic swim baits is the Salmo Chubby Darter. It displays a realistic, photo-image profile and swims with lifelike action. On the upstroke, the tail moves left to right, creating vibration. In free fall, the Mini Darter swims through an area 3 feet in diameter on 4- to 6-pound line.

That circle gets smaller in deeper water, as the lure has to fight the weight and length of the line to glide. The thinner the line, the better it glides in deep water. It sails off in the direction the nose is pointing when you let go. On the fall, the bait settles with a realistic baitfish body motion back into place directly below the hole. Walleyes, pike, crappies, and bass love Chubby Darters, but all tend to hit them at different points in the retrieve or after varying lengths of pause.

A small lure designed for vertical presentation is a versatile tool. In winter, when the metabolism of fish slows down, even giant specimens will key on small forage items -- especially during times of stress or cycles of inactivity. A small lure could produce a perch, a pike, a smallmouth, a trout -- who knows what's coming out of the hole. Scale back with active presentations this winter for better mixed-bag fishing.

Get Your Fish On.

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