Thanks to GPS, digital cartography, powerful sonar/flasher technologies, and compact underwater cameras, today's ice anglers are finding fish faster than ever before. But location is only part of the equation. So we dial in jig weight, profile, color and add a micro-plastic or livebait, adjusting jigging cadences (or keeping baits still) to trigger a bite. Even then, it's not over — our eyes and hands must read the bite, all the more difficult on pressured waters and during daylight hours or frontal systems.
Carefully observe ice fishing's best anglers and you notice a host of techniques that maximize strike detection. For example, competitors on the North American Ice Fishing Circuit (NAIFC) can be divided into camps according to their preferred techniques. You've got tightliners, long-rodders, palm-rodders, and various combinations thereof. Although all come into play on any given day during a tournament, most rely on a quality graphite rod, spinning reel, and spring bobber. What all techniques have in common is the reliance on visual bite detection. Tightliners watch for deviations on how line behaves to distinguish the bite; long-rodders watch a bright indicator on a thin flexible rod tip or spring; European-style palm-rodders study almost cartoonish adjustable plastic spring bobbers while using spider silk-thin line and microscopic jigs.
Perhaps it's because we fish for most of the year in open-water where feel is the deal, but on hard water, bites (especially panfish) are typically more subtle. So, if you aren't visually cued into what's going on, you're missing out. But combine any of the new ultra-sensitive ice rods on the market with a soft visual tip section or spring bobber and suddenly you've got a magic wand.
"I still see 80 percent of anglers fishing without a spring bobber because the market is flooded with inexpensive rod/reel combos," says veteran world champion ice pro Greg "The Prowler" Wilczynski. "I call them 'sticks with guides' because without the spring bobber you miss countless bites. Similarly, everybody touts the quality of their graphite and sensitivity, but it doesn't matter how good the graphite or carbon is; you're still not going to feel 80 percent of the bites."
Story has it that the origins of the term "tightlining" can be traced back to Michigan ice anglers who took to using gold-colored Stren monofilament in the 1970s to detect gravity-defying panfish bites by watching line movement — for example, when a crappie pushes the bait or sucks it in and swims upward.
"Tightlining really came about here with hard bead spoons, previously written about in In-Fisherman. You're slowly dropping a hard-bead spoon or line-watching while jigging one and waiting for the line to kink or move to the side," says John Bacarella, veteran ice pro and owner of Michigan-based Sportsman's Direct.
Ice fishing pioneer Dave Genz explains: "Any time you're ice fishing without a bobber or spring — and you're line watching and feeling for a bite — you're tightlining."
"It's the 'no-bite' you want to distinguish, something crappies and bluegills do when they feed upwards," says Minnesota-based NAIFC ice expert Shawn Bjonfald. "When they release the weight of the jig you see a buckle or curl in your line, but you never feel them take the bait. That's where the high-vis mono comes in — or a line like Lindy's copolymer Ice Line — which lays flat and shows variance if a fish takes the jig."
There are challenges to this form of strike detection. High winds, for example, can make the technique difficult when fishing outside and hole-hopping. A better strike detection method in these circumstances is a spring bobber, which like tightlining, shows subtle change in the load of your jig that even the most sensitive rod can't transmit. Instead of relying on movements of high-vis line, a small-diameter piece of plastic, metal, or some other sensitive filament is used to visually display the most subtle fish strikes.
Wilczynski has been preaching the benefits of the spring-bobber system for decades. As the designer of St. Croix Rod's strike indicator systems (Super-Finesse Spring Bobbers) and Legend Silver and Gold ice rods, his goal has been to teach anglers how to discern more bites and increase catches. But it all started decades ago when the young Wilczynski first started fishing in Poland.
"I was ice fishing with an angler 30 years my senior and he showed me something different — a spring bobber he made from a single, long hair from a wild boar. It was very sensitive but broke easily so he had to carry replacements. It was the first time I had ever seen a spring bobber. I caught a lot of fish using the same system, and started thinking how I could design other sensitive yet durable spring bobbers. Over the years I developed different spring bobbers, and eventually settled on a coil-spring design because it's the most sensitive. From beginners to pros, this style of spring bobber fixes any mistakes you make and allows you to see the slightest bites."
Wilczynski's travels across the Ice Belt (and around the world) have given him a unique perspective on how average ice anglers fish. "Once you introduce them to a spring bobber, they never fish with anything else again. I've watched as anglers go from catching 5 fish to 50 fish by learning how to read light bites on a spring bobber. A $20 ice fishing rod-and-reel combo does not reveal most bites. Anglers using very basic equipment may catch five or six fish early morning and early evening, but they struggle during the day. A spring bobber changes all that.
"I love electronics, and while they show you a fish approaching the lure, they don't show you the bite," says the former Team USA coach and international ice fishing medal winner. How many times have we watched our bait and a fish signal merge on our electronics only to miss the bite because our eyes were in the wrong place? Our focus should have been on the rod tip, line, or spring bobber.
But it's not just enough to slap on a spring bobber and go. Some consideration should be put into choosing the correct size spring bobber for the size jig you're fishing.
"The key thing is loading spring bobbers correctly by matching spring-bobber size and wire diameter to the weight of the jig," Bacarella says. "For the most part, tungsten spring-bobber sizes correspond to half-gram jig size increments. Some spring bobbers, like the plastic PET-material models, aren't adjustable. They're set for a specific range — about .5 to 1 gram. And then you have the flat, spring-steel style, which are adjustable and cover a wider range and give you a little more adjustability when it comes to changing baits. The titanium-wire spring bobbers we carry can either be tied right into when a rod is made, or set up on rods that come with a rubber attachment where you can slide the spring bobber in or out — much like the St. Croix system."
"You know you have a spring bobber properly set up when you have about a 30-degree load so that you can detect light bites, or 'up-bites' when fish comes up under the bait and raises it," he says. "That's the most important thing for me, being able to see that lift of the up-bite when fish are neutral or negative."
Besides spring bobbers available from St. Croix and Sportsman's Direct, Frabill's Titanium Spring Bobber, Clam's Nitinol Spring Bobber, and Rapala's Titanium are also popular options.
Over the past few years, we've seen rods emerge with spring bobbers tied into the tip eyelet wrap, including gems from Thorne Bros., Tuned Up Custom Rods, and Beaver Dam — the latter with a built-in, retractable titanium spring bobber.
The latest trend in bite detection are new rod designs that feature soft tips (many fiberglass) in bright colors that function much like spring bobbers. Examples include Frabill's 2017 Bro Series (especially Bro's 18-inch Micro Light Panfish), 13 Fishing's Tickle Stick, and the HWI Flat Line II from Sportsman's Direct. The latter is an interesting rod, which features a traditional round blank that transitions at different speeds from top and bottom to a flat tip section in bright green with the softness of a moderate-weight spring bobber. "This design allows you to see bites but still has plenty of backbone to set the hook while keeping a nice tight line, even with light test, similar to what crappie guys like to do with bullwhip-style rods for crappies," Barcarella says. "This rod does a lot of things well."
With rods like these, is the spring bobber on the way out? Doubtful, considering most ice anglers have yet to fully commit to spring bobbers. Is the spring bobber right for every situation? No. But it does excel when fish are neutral or negative and want a jig barely moving. As Wilczynski notes, a spring bobber also reveals those light bites during the day between primary feeding times when active jigging doesn't cut it.
But Bacarella raises an important point. "There are only so many presentations you can do well with a spring bobber or a soft-tipped rod. You can't really shake the bait with a spring bobber. For me, any time I'm using a contact jig, I'm going to be tightlining in a sense. My style is going to the spring bobber when the fish call for it. With a spring bobber you swim the bait. You cannot shake the bait; it's just going to swim. When fish want the bait to shake in place you've gotta jig and/or tightline. A spring bobber absorbs your jigging. It's a dampening effect. But during neutral and negative bites — and when fish want a bait swimming or not moving at all — yep, nothing beats a spring bobber. Plus, the smaller you go in jig size, the spring allows the bait to go into their mouth without resistance."
Wilczynski refers to the St. Croix 24K Super Finesse Spring he designed as "a killing machine" — a strike indicator he says needs to be used conscientiously. "I see anglers start increasing their catch by 500 percent, which can be a dangerous thing. I tell them, 'You don't have to keep everything you're catching now because you've learned how to read the light bite. Do your part to make sure fish are here tomorrow.'"
*Jim Edlund, Becker, Minnesota, is an avid multispecies angler, hardwater junkie, and freelance writer who contributes to many In-Fisherman publications.