It's ICAST, the fishing industry's annual big tackle show, 2011, and I'm sitting across a table from two Latvians who apparently regard me with high suspicion. Fortunately, next to me is Mike McNett, president of the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC), and past world champion ice angler who knows them well, having fished in their country. One is Andrey Shipilov, owner of Sharx Fishing Tackle based in Riga, Latvia. The other is company manager Oleg Harlamov. I look at McNett. He says: "Wait until you see what these guys are packin'."
Shipilov breaks the silence. "So, you writer, ah? You like tungsten jig? You see what we have. Then you decide." He spills a small pile of tiny jigs onto the table and leans back to watch my reaction. I pinch one between my thumb and index finger, examining the simplicity and craftsmanship evident in this micro lure that seems impossibly heavy for its size. The hook is finely forged, with a crazy-sharp point—perfect for competitive ice anglers that need to hook every fish.
There's no line tie. A tiny plastic tube runs through the jighead. Your line goes through the tube and you tie a snell knot on the hook shank and slide it against the jighead to hold the lure in place horizontally in the water.
"Good swim! Yes?" Shipilov says, showing me how the jig darts and glides diagonally with exaggerated hand motions. I wonder out loud about the lack of glow paint and other bright colors, noting the solid metallic finishes—gold, copper, nickel, and black nickel.
Harlamov pipes in: "Action important on tungsten. Flash important, too. But color for fishermen." I pick up another tiny lure. The two Latvians smile, look at McNett. All three nod. "Ah, deesco ball. Yes. Good choice. That for championship."
McNett explains that on the World Ice Fishing tour, including recent World Championships in Poland and the Ukraine, the "disco ball" design has been a gold-medal ticket. A round faceted head—half metallic tungsten, half Swarovski crystal—sparkles and reflects light from every angle. The effect is roughly the same as a flat spinner blade versus a hammered blade that twinkles under light.
I drop the jig on the table and it rests at a perfect 45-degree angle, hook up, almost every time. The lure's balanced center of gravity is a design feature to maximize hookups. In world competitions, McNett tells me, the difference usually is in how many bites you hook. Teams often need to hook almost every fish in order to win. It's an achievement anywhere, especially in European and Russian waters, where target species run in ounces rather than pounds. Of course, converting bites is no less important for the weekend angler in North America, especially one who's working with ultra-fussy fish when jigging bluegills or perch.
I examine another lure that in shape resembles something most American anglers can relate to. It has a bullet head called a "plummet," which connects to an eyelet, a split ring, and #18 VMC treble hook, all attached to the lure's nose. It's a mini bait-delivery device that sinks super fast and allows fish to freely inhale hook points without feeling the weight of the tungsten. Raise the rod tip and the fish is hooked.
Pivoting Hooks & Playing Angles
Last year in the winter issue of In-Fisherman magazine we discussed the Bentley Tarantula jig. A similar lure, created by Sharx Tackle—imported by HT Enterprises and sold as the Marmooska Dancer—allows the hook to pivot freely when a fish bites. Tiny spoons, or in this case, tungsten-headed lures, with pivoting #14 to #18 hooks increase hooking success when panfish are barely mouthing a lure.
Using a tungsten jig the size of a mosquito, yet heavier than a lead jig twice its size also helps convert difficult fish. A 1-gram tungsten jig weighs about 1/28 ounce, slightly heavier than the 1/32-ounce jig you might cast for summer crappies. On 2-pound line, the jig feels like a miniature anchor—yet with its tiny dimensions it slips easily into the mouth of a panfish.
Hook angle also influences hooking success. Many of the top tungsten (and some lead) jigs have down-turned hooks. Professional ice angler and world ice-fishing gold medalist Tony Boshold has had more experience with tungsten jigs than any other American angler. He believes that a 60-degree hook angle is optimal for hooking tentative panfish that often feed by slowly swimming upward.
When he uses jigs with down-turned hooks and traditional line ties (eyelets), such as a Northland Mud Bug or a Mooska Jig, he uses a double surgeon's loop for optimal balance. "The loop lets the hook hang slightly downward," he says. "It also lets the jig dance and swim freely. I tweak the hooks on some jigs by opening the gap and offsetting the bend slightly. In competition, it's all about catching everything that bites."
At times horizontal-hanging jigs trigger fish best. The no-eye jigs work beautifully in this regard. As I mentioned earlier, thread your line through the tube and tie a 5-wrap snell around the shank of the hook and slide the knot down to the base of the jighead. The jig rides horizontally and the hook gives a nice kick when you twitch the rod tip.
"The other key," Boshold says, "is to thread the plastic or larva body perfectly in-line or parallel to the hook shank. You don't want it dangling off to the side like a hangnail. Don't make it easy for a fish to grab the body of the bait without inhaling steel.
"On the tournament tour, I'm usually fishing plastic, especially for crappies. At the World Championships, most anglers use live bloodworms—super-lively blood-red midge larvae about 1/2 to 1 inch long. American anglers would go nuts over them if we could get them. But even with these delectable little morsels, you must place them on the hook properly.
"As is the case in fishing a waxworm or even a single maggot, the best way to hook a bloodworm is by threading. Poke the hook point into the head, then slide the body slightly down the hook and back out. It's all about keeping things straight and in line, allowing the jig to swim seductively, being able to detect light bites, and getting a positive hook-set."
Holding the School
Boshold notes that anglers in eastern Europe often chum with groundbait. You bring fish into an area and hold them there with mixtures of ground up grain and added flavors. "When we're using bloodworms, we thread several onto the hook, and flick the extras into the hole," he says. "We're 'feeding' the hole—holding fish in a spot by feeding them live or crushed bloodworms."
Anglers often pack a small cone-shaped container with groundbait and then a layer of bloodworms before closing a pressure-released lid and lowering the device to the bottom on a line. A sharp pop opens the lid and distributes the mixture on the bottom, attracting roaming fish.
In North America, the challenge often lies in going to the fish—locating schools that roam vast lake areas. Groundbaiting and other chumming remain illegal in many areas.
Boshold uses the fast-sinking jigs to attract and hold fish. "One of the reasons pounding is effective," he says, "is that it stirs up the bottom and makes fish pause and inspect when they might otherwise swim right by. But, depending on bottom type and the presence of bottom-dwelling invertebrates, the tactic doesn't always hold fish for long.
"Europeans rely on the heavyweight tungsten and gold jigs to get down fast to catch a fish and return the jig within seconds before the school departs. It's a machine-gun process of drop-set-unhook, again and again. Keep their attention by staying in their face.
"In some tournaments we spend most of the day trolling," Boshold says. "We run and gun, looking for the right fish. Things get down to the wire, where you have a half hour at the end of the day to catch as many fish as possible, or to sort through bunches of smaller fish in hopes of contacting one big kicker. Anglers fishing a hot bite during the last 30 minutes of daylight can relate. It's why speed-fishing with heavyweight jigs—doing everything possible to keep the hook wet—is essential. If I speed-fish my way through 20 bluegills while another guy fishing just feet away lands 10, you know who's usually going to win?"
Boshold: "A tungsten jig with a soft plastic tail is my crankbait on ice. I use a rod like a 38-inch Frabill Ice Hunter, add a Schooley reel, which keeps the twist out of 2- or 3-pound line, and troll across endless ice holes. Often, I'm fishing with a Fiskas 5-millimeter Wolfram (tungsten) jig or a Sharx (HT) Jeweled Marmooska with a small plastic tail. Last year I developed a pearl-glow Little Atom Jumbo Wedgee that has been terrific for big crappies. And for bluegills, red glow has been crazy good. Trim off the head and thread the thick end onto the hook. When it gets chewed up trim a little more off the head and rethread it.
"Move quickly from hole to hole. Drop, shake, hold. Shake and quiver a little more. Watch the spring tip. I like the long rod to dip and lift and try different depths while you're standing over a hole. Usually, though, I keep the tip close to the ice as I jig. But keep moving until you hit the mother lode. At Richmond Lake, South Dakota, we zigzag trolled over a half mile of breakline before contacting a big batch of fish. That's trolling frozen-water style."
Boshold adds that trolling with tungsten becomes even more important in wind and as snow drifts and fills holes. The compact heft of tungsten punches through the crust, plummeting fast and keeping fishing line tight.
Fishing fast and covering water isn't always the best option. At times settling in over a few productive holes is preferred. At the World Championships, as well as at some NAIFC venues, some competitors use stick-short "palm rods" with single-action reels. Again, the single-action reels help to eliminate line twist, which causes jigs to spin and turn off tentative fish. They use fine-tuned spring tips matched to various jig weights. Others might use a tightline setup, such as the new Frabill Straightline Combo, which couples an aluminum centerpin fly-fishing reel with a graphite rod. Boshold usually uses a 17-inch St. Croix Legend with a light-action and a spring tip.
Boshold: "Get down on your knees, put your back to the wind, and hunker down close to the hole. Last winter in the Ukraine I used 6- and 8-inch palm rods. It was vital to keep the spring-tip steady. It helps if you're a big guy who can block the wind.
"Some European anglers were using these crazy spring tips we'd never seen before—indicators made with a high-tech fiber like Mylar film strip, or microfiche. Secret-agent stuff. They were detecting the lightest bites by pinching the indicator between their thumb and index finger. They call it handlining. We were a step behind in technology. Not this year. And what we learn, we share."
*In-Fisherman magazine Field Editor Cory Schmidt lives in the Brainerd, Minnesota, lakes area.
1 Clear Lake, California
The largest lake in California (43,000 acres near Lakeport) is known for lunker largemouths, but houses overlooked giant 'gills, yielding the 3¾-pound state record last year, along with others over 3. The bite by docks and at the edge of tules is strong from mid-April into September. Nearby Collins Lake, renowned for trophy trout, also produces massive sunnies — 2 to 3 pounds. The best bite starts in April and lasts into the spawn in May and early June. Contact: Clear Lake Information, lakecounty.com; Clear Lake State Park, 800/444-7275, parks.ca.gov
; Collins Lake, collinslake.com
6 Deep Creek Lake, Maryland
This impoundment in the northwestern corner of Maryland yielded the state record 3-pound 7-ounce 'gill, giving evidence of its productivity. With a deep basin, the Prespawn and Spawn periods are protracted, with prime action from mid-April into early June. Contact: Fish Deep Creek, 240/460-8839, fishdeepcreek.com
; Guide Ken Penrod, 301/937-0010,
7 Coastal Impoundments, Virginia
Four reservoirs near Norfolk and Suffolk, Virginia, are regular producers of big bluegills and shellcrackers. Fertile lakes Cahoon, Western Branch, Prince, and Burnt Mills have a history of trophy fish production. Western Branch (1,265 acres) reopened to public fishing in 2010 and is known for outsize redear, with certified specimens approaching 3 pounds. Boating permits required. Contact: Burnt Mills Reservoir Manager, 757/441-5678; Chesapeake Bay Office, Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries, 757/465-6812, dgif.virginia.gov
5 Kentucky & Barkley Lakes, Kentucky-Tennessee
These massive impoundments — Kentucky Lake on the Tennessee River and Barkley on the Cumberland — are joined by a canal and offer outstanding fishing for big redear sunfish, as well as bass and crappies. Contact: Jack Canady, Woods and Water Guide Service, 270/227-2443, woodsandwaterguideservice.com
2 Lake Havasu, Arizona-California
Lake Havasu, impounding about 45 miles of the Colorado River, has become redear central after producing the all-tackle record 5-pound 7-ounce fish, along with many others over 2 pounds. The record was 16¾ inches long and boasted a 19-inch girth. Best action runs from April through June, when fish gather in coves to spawn. Locals fish livebait but small spinners and cranks catch some monsters. Contact: John Galbraith, basstacklemaster.com; Captain Jerry's Guide Service, 760/447-5846, havasufishingguide.com
; Havasu Fishing, havasufishing.com
3 Pelican Lake, Nebraska
Nestled in the Valentine National Wildlife Refuge in the Sandhills region of Nebraska, Pelican Lake consistently produces the biggest 'gills in the region, many over a pound and occasional 2-pounders. Blessed with abundant and diverse large invertebrates, growth is fast in this shallow waterway. Abundant vegetation provides habitat for bugs and a sanctuary for big sunfish. Most giants are caught through the ice or in early spring. Contact: Valentine National Wildlife Refuge, http://www.fws.gov/valentine/
4 Reelfoot Lake, Tennessee
Labeled 'Earthquake Lake, ' a mighty tremor of the New Madrid Fault in 1811 diverted the Mississippi River, backing up this highly productive 11,000-acre waterway in northwestern Tennessee. Big bluegills and shellcrackers roam the shallow lake's cypress forests and lily pad fields, yielding prime pole-fishing opportunities all spring and summer. Contact: Bluebank Resort, 877/258-3226, bluebankresort.com
; Eagle Nest Resort, 731/538-2143, eaglenestresort.com
9 Richmond Mill Lake, North Carolina
Located near Laurel Hill, North Carolina, Richmond Mill likely offers the best shot at a 2-pound bluegill, truly a rare animal. This pay-to-play waterway, owned by the Kingfisher Society, is managed to ensure balance between bluegills and largemouth bass and habitat quality. After refilling in 2000, it's approaching prime productivity. Giants sometimes require finesse presentations, such as tiny jigs tipped with a bit of 'crawler. Contact: Kingfisher Society, 910/462-2324, kingfishersociety.com
10 Santee-Cooper, South Carolina
This lowland jewel produced the former world record shellcracker and continues to yield amazing numbers of platter-sized bluegills as well as redears, not to mention big catfish, bass, and crappies. Spring comes early and a fine bedding bite starts in late March, lasting into May, but recurring on a monthly basis until September. Anglers also take jumbos in the Diversion Canal between the paired impoundments in fall and winter. Contact: Santee-Cooper Country, 803/854-2131, santeecoopercountry.org
8 Tidal Rivers, North Carolina
Flowing into Arbemarle Sound in the northeastern part of the state are a series of blackwater rivers that represent the northernmost range of the coppernose bluegill, the southern subspecies known to attain large size. Panfish expert Jim Gronaw picks the Pasquotank, Yeopim, Perqimens, and Chowan rivers, with loads of 9- to 11-inch fish and some over 1½ pounds. Local expert Jeffrey Abney scores with hair jigs tied in a grass shrimp pattern. Contact: bigbluegill.com
; Pembroke Fishing Center, 252/482-5343; Bethel Fishing Center, 252/426-5155.