In my nightmare, the bluegills and crappies lurking below the ice are gigantic—and they won’t bite. That first drop down the hole produces little more than disinterest. On subsequent attempts, as the lure drops within centimeters of a snout, a sunfish the size of pie-plate makes a half-hearted attempt to inhale it. More like an airy kiss. Nothing I can do produces a hooked fish. It’s maddening.
Seeing this on a camera or while sight-fishing certainly sets your mind to thinking about better ways to hook fish. You watch the fish-lure drama unfold over and over again and realize even a biting fish isn’t necessarily a hooked fish. We spend so much time thinking about how to make fish bite that we often forget the goal is to plant hook into mandible.
How Bluegills Feed
When a bluegill sees a potential food item, you usually see it slightly unfurl its dorsal fin—that’s “tell” number one. The fish then stops within an inch of the bait, perhaps examining it for familiarity in anatomy and movement.
In Bluegills: Biology and Behavior, author Stephen Spotte notes that as a bluegill grows in size, so too does its visual acuity—both in terms of detecting prey from greater distances and discerning details up close. Spotte also observes that a bluegill’s narrow mouth opening is only about one-third that of a largemouth bass of the same size. That drives home an important point about bluegill feeding and why it’s occasionally tricky to hook fish.
He describes that a bluegill feeds by “rapidly expands its pharynx, inducing an abrupt surge of water into its mouth.” A stationary-feeding bluegill sucks water in from all directions, while a forward-swimming one concentrates suction force directly in front of its mouth, lengthening the intensity of the inhalation as ram-speed increases. Fish that feed aggressively enough to approach your lure with ram speed don’t necessarily need to inhale so much as overtake and eat. Crappies aren’t typically much of a problem to hook, given their propensity to engulf things entirely when they decide to eat. Mostly, the situations covered here are those frequent instances when sunfish lazily inspect, nip, and mouth your bait.
Beyond visual detection and examination, there’s little doubt a bluegill often samples potential food by lightly mouthing it—tasting, expelling, and re-sampling in rapid succession. Likewise, when we observe the behavior on camera, it’s easy to overlook that a bluegill may be attempting to inhale your bait, but is failing because of the bait’s excessive weight and lack of neutral buoyancy, relative to natural prey like zooplankton or invertebrates.
Once your goal focuses on making it easier for fish to engulf your bait, you consider alternative presentations. Drop-shot rigging, for example, is an effective approach for presenting micro softbaits or livebait below the ice. Various forms of Texas rigging can also apply to ice fishing. Same for other methods for putting a softbait on a hook, such as wacky rigging.
Scott Brauer, owner of Maki Plastics, keeps an open mind about ways to rig his line of exceptional softbaits. Among his strategies is the notion that drop-shot rigging not only yields unique ways of presenting plastics, but also makes it easier for panfish to inhale a hook. “At seminars, when I talk about drop-shot rigging on ice, no one can explain why they eagerly fish a drop-shot rig in summer but forget about it when the lake freezes,” he says. “Beyond the idea that a drop-shot lets you show fish two or more different looks in one rig (depending on state regulations), the near-neutral buoyancy of a lightwire hook and bait make it easier for bluegills and other fish to inhale it.”
A drop-shot rig can be as simple as tying a #8 to #16 hook directly to the mainline with a Palomar knot, leaving a 6- to 12-inch or longer tag end, onto which you pinch a single lead shot. Add an overhand knot just below the sinker, to keep it from sliding off the line. If you leave enough of a tag-end, it’s easy to make quick adjustments to dropper length, suspending a hook and bait at various levels above the bottom or above the tops of aquatic plants where fish frequently hover.
Making it even easier for fish to inhale a bait, he likes to employ different baits on one, two, or three separate droppers, which intersect the mainline at a 90-degree angle.
Rather than joining mainline to dropper via a traditional blood knot, he prefer a dropper loop knot. “A dropper loop gives the bait more freedom of movement,” he says. “The loop also lets the hook pivot and slide more easily into a fish’s mouth.”
Rather than weighting hooks as in the case of a jig, a drop-shot puts the weight on the base of the rig. Tying a hook directly to the mainline with a Palomar knot gives you direct control over bait action. That’s half the magic of the drop-shot—using rod-tip pulses and line strums to make a small softbait undulate in ways panfish find provocative. The tradeoff is that with a tight line, you slightly sacrifice a fish’s ability to move the hook and inhale it.
A 4- to 8-inch dropper, on the other hand, slightly sacrifices control and your ability to impart micro moves. But a dropper also offers flutter, the natural slow descent of a helpless critter. This makes the bait nearly neutrally buoyant, and that means finicky fish can breathe it in with minimal effort.
Brauer’s compromise is to fish both looks on the same rig. Tie in a hook on a short dropper several inches to a foot above a second hook, which is tied direct to the line with a Palomar knot. This rig shows fish two looks and opportunities to reveal their preference. I like this option, too, especially with wormy softbaits, such as a Maki Bloodi or Eggi or a Northland Impulse Skeleton Minnow. By hooking the same bait two different ways, you get two different actions, with the dropper-rigged bait providing less aggressive, wavy, fluttering motions, as opposed to the stationary quivering action of the bait tied direct.
Some final elements of a super-tuned drop-shot setup include a 28-inch St. Croix Custom Ice rod, 2- or 3-pound-test ASSO Ice Fishing line, and #12 to #16 scud hooks. Brauer suggests using a small heavy hookless spoon to anchor the rig, as opposed to a split shot. The spoon creates larger clouds of silt when you jig and thump bottom, which sometimes acts as an attractor.
The Croix Custom rod features a soft but precise tip to control bait action, while also cushioning light line. Italian line company ASSO makes the finest copolymer and fluorocarbon ice-fishing lines I’ve spooled. Their Ice Fishing line fishes small baits crisply and precisely, and it’s strong and closer to neutrally buoyant relative to fluorocarbon, which sinks. Gamakatsu’s C12 or Tiemco’s TMC 2488 are lightwire fly-tying hooks, exceptional hookers and ideal for drop-shotting micro softbaits. Brauer likes to match this hook with the Maki Scudi, a little freshwater scud mimic.
B-Y Baits MudBug is another fine drop-shot bait. Use the curvature of the scud hook to give the bait a little tail-up arc, threading it just past the head into the tail. Or do the same thing with a B-Y Baits FreshWater Shrimp. The result is a natural posture, more undulation, and a better chance fish engulf it. Another trick is to adorn your drop-shots with tiny, hand-cut slivers of Z-Man ElaZtech baits. ElaZtech is super soft, lively, buoyant, and durable.
Slivers, Strings & Segments
When bites get tricky, “Panfish Phil” Laube, an exceptional ice angler from Northcentral Minnesota, uses a tiny pair of scissors to cut ultra-fine strips from larger softbaits. “Especially in midwinter, the answer can be to go super-small with your plastics,” he says. “I cut half-inch to inch-long razor-thin slivers off tubes and other baits, leaving a thicker head end for impaling on a #14 or smaller jighook. When big bluegills nip and mouth tails and jigheads without eating the hook, I offer them the smallest package possible, forcing them to chomp hooks.”
Beyond traditional plastisol baits, which become brittle when cut in ultra-thin shards, Laube also suggests cutting tiny strips of pork rind. Although Uncle Josh has stopped production of pork-rind baits, Chena Bait offers a similar product, allowing the angler to cut baits to any desired size.
Last winter, I began experimenting with Z-Man’s ElaZtech—an alternative softbait material that’s soft, stretchy, ancd durable. ElaZtech is also highly buoyant, so it stands up in lively fashion when you fish it on bottom. Using a fine scissors (razor blades won’t easily cut ElaZtech), cut tiny tentacles off Z-Man tubes and crayfish baits for a lively panfish sliver. Also, keep ElaZtech baits in separate bags, as the material react with traditional PVC baits.
My experiment with ElaZtech slivers fished on drop-shots and tungsten jigs has shown promise as an ideal softbait material for ice fishing. A single nose-hooked shard stays on your jig for hours and stands up to dozens of bites and fish catches.
Meanwhile, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange finds Berkley Gulp! Euro Larvae irresistable to panfish in most situations. “The Euro Larvae comes in strings of five tiny body segments,” he says. “I usually pinch off two segments and fish a string of three when there’s a potential bloodworm connection to the fishing. A string of two segments also fishes well as a generalist option (could be just about any kind of forage) when bluegills are really finacky. The addition of scent to attract and trigger fish, and taste to get them to hold on or continue to sample (peck at) your presentation gives you a big advantage in almost every situation.”
New on the scene from Berkley is PowerBait MaxScent, a material that, like Gulp!, gives off scent and is infused with taste inhancements. “This will be the first season for it on ice,” he says. “I started cutting slivers of it off shapes like the Blunt Nose minnow for addition to panfish jigs in open water after having bluegills go crazy after the MaxScent worm shapes I was fishing for bass. There aren’t any specific MaxScent ice products on the market yet.”
I’m not suggesting you hit the ice without a few traditional lead or tungsten jigs. I do suggest, however, a left turn in the knots you use to tie on a jig. I find I can do better than an improved clinch or Trilene knot. I suggest trying a snell knot—either a Marka knot or a uni-snell knot—for almost any jig presentation. Advantages over traditional knots: 1) You never have to reposition a snell knot to maintain a horizontal-hanging bait; 2) the knot is recessed and tied around the shank of the hook, so it rarely requires retying (I can often fish most of an 8-hour day with the same snell knot and jig); 3) snell knots are strong; and 4) the knot acts as a plastics keeper, pinning the bait tight to the jig collar. The plastic also protects the knot by sliding over the top of it. You can tie either the Marka or uni-snell with traditional eyelet jigs or Russian “through-head” jigs.
Most of us nose- or head-hook softbaits, and by doing so you can quickly burn through packages of baits during a good bite. The miniscule sizes of some of these softbaits sometimes requires bifocals to rig them right. But threading the bait onto the jighook, rather than nipping through it’s nose or head, saves you from constantly re-rigging and helps hook more fish because there’s less tail they can grab without getting stung. Rig most of your ice plastics just as you would those you put on a jighook during the summer.
A good alternative for rigging micro softbaits is offered by B-Y Baits owner Brandon Young. With some of his tiny 1-inch baits, he uses a “double stitch” method: First, impale the hook through the head of the plastic. Next, rotate the bait around the hook, turning the plastic and pushing its head toward the jig collar while impaling it a second time farther down its body, like Texas-rigging a bass worm, except you want the hook exposed.
Shawn Bjonfald, a panfish specialist and exceptional North American Ice Fishing Circuit angler, was the first to show me how to Texpose an ice bait. The procedure is basically identical to Young’s method above. But for fishing in vegetation, or around cribs or brushpiles, Bjonfald does the double-stitch, but barely exposes the hook point, running the point parallel to the plastic. The result is a bait that slides snag-free through cover, yet allows him to effectively hook biting fish, while also pulling it away from runts.
I fish this arrangement more each season. It saves on re-rigging and has a streamlined look. Sometimes, slightly hiding the hook point can produce more bites, as pressured panfish can sometimes avoid hook points—another lesson you can learn by watching fish on an underwater camera.
Tricky bites are perfect for spying on fish with an Aqua-Vu, and it’s an ideal time to try other rigging, such as wacky rigging. Watching how baits move and the way fish respond to them is a valuable exercise. Along these lines, my favorite bait for wacky-rigging big bluegills and perch is the Mustache Worm by TriggerX, now discontinued. Any uniformly worm-shaped softbait can be wacky-rigged, or hooked through the middle or egg-sack portion of the bait. Little rod-tip twitches make the bait wiggle, each tail flapping up and down, sort of a sideways swim. Bigger fish usually bite it in the middle.
Another arrangement that’s overlooked is what I call reverse rigging, threading the bait backward so the tail juts out the front or head of the jig, rather than its posterior. Put it in front of a camera. When you give it short, fast darts and stops it looks amazingly like a Daphnia.
To give fish something else that’s easy to eat, I occasionally orient the jig and bait to match the position of the fish. If they’re approaching your bait from below, consider a vertically oriented jig with a softbait tail pointing toward the bottom. Oppositely, for fish feeding in the substrate, thread a larvae imitation onto a horizontal jig, pushing it just past the hook bend until the bait juts upright, perpendicular to the bottom. It looks like a bloodworm.
Bites are one thing, but bites alone don’t get it done. They can even haunt your dreams. Wake up and set the hook.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the panfish-rich Brainerd Lakes area of Minnesota, where he frequently is out testing new baits and rigging wrinkles on ice and open water.