I could wax nostalgic for those simpler times when I first got the fever in the 1960s; first realized there was more to ice fishing than a hook, a minnow, and a bobber; first realized some of the better anglers of those times were spooning up walleyes and perch; occasionally saw the impressive pictures in the paper; and just knew there was a simple straight line from those hot lures to fishing success; only to get those lures and see, as we all do when we really get into something, that knowledge is the key to success, although it always helps to have a great lure on the end of your line.
A lot happened along the way, including my discovery in those early days of one of the best ice lures of all time, one that has stood so many tests of time that it is today perhaps the single best yet somewhat under appreciated spoon of all time.
The Acme Kastmaster is such a fundamental design that by today's standards it seems almost blasÃ©. It's a slightly elongated metal slab beveled thin at the head end, and progressively thicker at the butt. On the lift the head of the spoon cuts like a knife, while the butt gives off a subtle pulsing wobble. The heavier butt anchors the fall so the hook never gets near your line. You can fish a Kastmaster all day without it tangling and wasting time.
Fish it with a short gentle stroke for tentative fish. But it's also one of the best spoons in ripping mode — and only a handful of anglers ever use it this way on fisheries like Lake Winnipeg or other big waters where walleyes sometimes roam in aggressive packs. On the rip the head of the lure vibrates intensely to call fish in, but the spoon never goes wildly out of control.
Just as in open-water fishing, depth control of lures is our primary concern. Our second concern is speed control, which is influenced by how you work the lure and the lure's "cycle time," or inherent fall rate. Spoons like the slab design of the Kastmaster have a quick cycle time, the opposite of broader, thinner designs like another of my favorites, the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon.
The Slender Spoon isn't — slender, although three of the four available sizes are stamped thin, with a narrower bent butt, and broad shoulders at the top end. Where the Kastmaster offers just a hint of flash on the lift and fall, the Slender spoon immediately lays on its side and shimmies and shakes and wobbles as it falls — slooooow cycle time. Lots of flash and vibration, whereas the Kastmaster falls quickly and, by comparison, just flashes and wobbles enough to hint that it's something a fish might want to eat.
I have written many times before, but it bears repeating, that a spoon is an illusion. Often the illusion is little more than subtle delivery device for a tasty, aromatic morsel of something fishy, like a minnow head or a whole minnow. A little flash, a little vibration — a hint of color. It's something injured, something struggling (on the lift-fall). And then it hangs vertically, for all purposes disappearing on the pause, except for whatever you tipped the spoon with, which can be critical, but other times need be no more than almost nothing, which is to say a bare hook.
At times the jigging process is like calling ducks or geese or turkeys or elk. When the critters haven't been bothered and are looking aggressively for food or company, call boldly and often, often using lures that are a step or two more "outstanding" than a spoon, or at least fish with "bold" spoon like the Slender Spoon. Other times, when they've been worked over, have become wary, or environmental conditions aren't perfect, just hint at the presence of something. Touch off a spark of curiosity. Don't let them find you easily, make them search. Or don't show them something that's obviously food, make them wonder until they have to sample to be sure.
With a spoon, the idea often is to hint subtly at this and subtly at that by lifting and letting it fall. The illusion continues as the fish draws near. The fish is reacting to a set of simple cues. Something flickered and flashed, wiggled, and fell. Based on past experience, the fish is predisposed to think food. We have to continue the ruse long enough to get the fish to sample.
Thus anglers need spoons on each end of the cycle spectrum, so the Kastmaster on one end, the Slender Spoon on the other. The Slender Spoon that fishes best for me for larger predators is the 5/16-ounce option, which is a thicker design than the others, still offering lots of flash and vibration, but with a quicker cycle time. And it comes to rest and finishes spinning on its axis much more quickly than the thinner Slender Spoons, which often do a great job of attracting fish, but then spin for so long at rest that fish already drawn close sometimes reject them.
Meanwhile, with the Kastmaster, most anglers don't understand that spoons like this usually fish best with a short quick stroke (a lift of one foot) as opposed to a high lift and long fall. That way it does its flash dance quickly, only spinning on its axis a time or two before coming to rest, the illusion in action, or should I say "inaction." You're better short-stroking twice to attract fish, as opposed to making a high lift and long fall, except when you're ripping, and even then a 1.5- to 2-foot rip is enough.
All of the rest of the spoons in play pretty much fall between those two design extremes. Years ago the Blue Fox Tingler had even broader shoulders than the Slender Spoon and a thinner butt end, so it produced even more extreme vibration and flash. It worked like magic at times, which is the way it often is with spoons on the edge. Then, for a long spell, it was off the market in the U.S., but still available in Canada. Now it's back in the VMC lineup in the U.S., and it's worth having a few in your spoon box.
One might also vote for the Bay De Noc Swedish Pimple as one of the best fundamental designs of all time, but it's one I never had a lasting affair with. That's the way it is with ice lures, at times. The way you think, the way you work lures, the way you approach the fish, at times it becomes a personal thing with some lures working better for some anglers than others, so luckily we have a lot of choices today. My favorite ice lure of all time, the Rapala Jigging Rap, which I'll talk about in a bit, is magic for me and many others, but for the life of some people they cannot catch fish with it.
Going back to the Swedish Pimple for a moment, I can never forget my first time fishing for walleyes on Lake Erie, back when the water was a lot dirtier than it is today. I walked up to a small shanty to ask how the anglers inside were doing, although I could see they already had a couple 9-pounders on the ice. Both of them had on red #7 Pimples, which are big enough to knock out a 10-pound walleye should you hit one on the head. I walked away knowing the #9 Jigging Rap that I had on wouldn't be too big for those Erie eyes.
By comparison, some lures, particularly spoons without extreme action, are hard to fish so wrong that you won't catch anything so long as you at least give them a good pause. That's the case with the Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow, which in earlier times was one of the most popular spoons of its day. That's not the case anymore, although it fishes as well as it always did and today is marketed by HT Enterprises. I always have a few with me, particularly in some of the old color patterns. I loved the gold plating on some of the older models, with either chartreuse or a hot-orange head.
But then I almost always use some sort of gold pattern in all the waters I fish that have any color to them, which is most waters I fish, from Ontario to Illinois, from Michigan to Montana. The Rocker Minnow falls in the same basic slab category as the Kastmaster, but its slightly bent banana shape gives it a bit more action on the lift-fall.
Many great spoons like the Rocker Minnow are on the market today. The Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon gets a lot of play, with its compact design and distinctive rattle chamber. My own approach to most applications on ice is toward rigging for silent running.
The Northland Forage Minnow is a similar design, ever-so-slightly bent, not quite so bulky, so tinkering with both options in the early days I settled on the Forage Minnow, and have never looked back. You could tie on a Gold Perch pattern Forage Minnow and never take it off the season long, going a bit smaller for perch and crappies, a bit bigger for walleyes, although a small Forage Minnow can be one of the best things on ice for hesitant walleyes.
On most spoon designs, including the Forage Minnow, I usually tip the treble hook with a minnow head for walleyes. For perch like those scud-eating cinder blocks in Northeast South Dakota, fill the tiny treble hook with maggots and add fresh maggots on every drop. You can never have enough sweet maggot essence in the water surrounding your spoon.
For crappies that works, too, but I often prefer a softbait trailer like a Berkley Gulp! Minnow or a Maki Spiiki trimmed back by half. Run the softbait around the bend of one tine of the treble hook so it hangs perpendicular to the rest of the spoon. The slightest rod-tip movement makes the softbait dance in the fish's face. The Super Glow Red fishes well, too, especially in low-light conditions for crappies. The newest option in this category is the Clam Blade Spoon, which likely does what the Forage Minnow does just as well.
As an aside, Gary Snyder designed the Rocker Minnow back in the day when he started the Jig-A-Whopper company. He's been in the business more than 30 years and I imagine has designed more ice lures than another other person. Many of those lures are fundamental designs like the Rocker Minnow, Candy Drops, Hawger Spoon, various Tears, and many more.
But he's also the "bling master" on the scene these days, famous for adding tiny blades to many of his designs like the Big Shaker, the Walleye Snack, and, his newest, the Stripper. The Stripper is a bent spoon, thin blade with a nub of lead at the head end. There's a blade on the shaft at the head end, but it's unique in that the blade can be fished in normal fashion, or can be lifted up over the hook eye to be fished backward for more flash and erratic dancing. It's a rare ice angler that won't include some of this bling in their boxes.
Speaking of genius, I give you my two-for-one choice of the PK Spoon and the PK Flutter Fish, designs by Pat O'Grady, as complementary must-have spoons, two of the most beautiful designs in fishing. The PK Spoon is a compact teardrop-shaped slab spoon with smooth mirror-plated finish on one side, and dimpling like a golf ball on the reverse side. The body is biased in the butt end with a slight bulge on the mirror side that adds weight so it settles butt-first. The head of the spoon, which is slightly thinner than the butt, gives off a subtle pulsing wobble.
This is the same basic design as the Acme Kastmaster; but the unique construction of the PK makes it tip on its side and shimmy and shake as it drifts down through the first half of the fall, at which point the butt takes control and it settles like a rock, with only a little swing back into position from where it first settles. It's genius — a compact spoon that fishes precisely yet crosses over into the world of flutter spoon.
I interject that it's impossible to know how a spoon or any other ice lure actually fishes without dropping it in a tank and putting it through the rounds. I've been lucky to always have near me in our office a large observation tank to test-drive lures. At a minimum, drop those you are considering as part of your repertoire down an ice hole and watch how they work. I've been surprised to read testimony from other anglers about how specific spoons perform only to find the opposite with tank testing.
In perfect contrast, the PK Flutter Fish is shaped like a flattened peanut, with a drawn-in waistline midway between each end, the stamped metal relatively thick and bent into a slight concaving arch. The thick stamping allows the spoon to fish heavy for its size and shape. The unique concave elongated shape with the pinched middle makes the spoon lay on its side throughout the fall, shimmying, flashing, flickering, with the mirror side up, the divot-side down, as it also rocks left-right, right-left like a falling leaf. It too is genius, a flutter spoon that fishes precisely.
The Williams lineup of spoons may be the best in the world, with beautiful 24K gold and silver plating. I'm sure their Ice Jig is their best selling winter lure, but it's the Nipigon that caught my eye about 10 years ago and has a been a near-secret walleye option for me ever since. The one size available measures 2.5 inches and weighs 1/3 ounce. The thin cut of the spoon gives it a lot of flash on the lift and fall, but it's just heavy enough to provide a medium cycle time, a nice compromised between the slab and flutter categories.
This one is made more deadly by removing the factory hook, adding a #0 or #1 Stringease Fastach clip, and replacing the hook with one of my favorite replacement hooks for larger predators, the 4X strong Lazer Sharp L774. The 2X hooks that are on most factory spoons (and lipless lures) often bend on the hookset, allowing them to slide across flesh and roll free as the fish arches its head up and swings it back and forth as the mouth opens. The L774 won't bend, bite's quickly, and won't let go.
The Fastach clip gets the hook to hang just far enough away from the spoon to provide a pronounced "pivot point," allowing the hook to move easier into a fish's mouth when it inhales the baited hook. My favorite platings are: gold; half-and-half gold and silver; and orange-gold. Take this one to Lake Erie or Lake Winnipeg and watch the 10-pounders roll. But most of the time I just put it into play on a water close to home when a walleye dinner's one the line.
I started using dropper rigs for perch in the mid-1970s, by removing the treble hook on a 1/12-ounce Kastmaster and replacing it with a mono leader measuring 2.25 inches, with a tiny leadhead jig on the end. The weight of the Kastmaster allows one to fish this fast and deep, the spoon providing attracting flash and wobble, while the jig loaded with maggots does the triggering once fish get close. The short leader is important in keeping the lure from tangling.
This was before I learned that European anglers were using similar rigging, with dropper chains and a hook on spoons. The first import I saw was the Pilkie, which I believe was for a time marketed by Rapala. The more lasting option on the market in the U.S. the last several decades has been the Hali, by Nils U.S.A.
I tinkered with making larger dropper rigs for pike, walleyes, and lake trout. They catch fish, but never to the point that I'd want to spend much more time working with those riggings when so many other better options are available. The Hali, though, is proven for perch, crappies, whitefish, bluegills, and trout. Other companies now offer similar options, two that come to mind being the Clam Pro Tackle Speed Spoon, and the Shuck's Lures Jigger Spoon.
I don't get into ranking smaller panfish lures in this article. I also didn't put my Top 10 in any specific numerical order, other than my Top 1, which has long been the previously mentioned Jigging Rap. I started fishing it early in my career, in the mid 1970s, first wrote about using it in Fishing Facts magazine in the late 1970s, and have been catching fish with it ever since. I've caught more pike and walleyes with it than any other ice lure. It's also magic at times for lake trout, perch, crappies, channel catfish, trout, largemouths, and smallmouths.
The magic is in the manipulation of the lure, which falls into a broader "swimming lure" category. The Jigging Rap is a tubular-shaped swimmer with a minnow profile, a single nose hook and a single tail hook, plus a treble hook hanging below the midsection. Lifting the lure is the main way to give it life, propelling it up and off to the side of the hole via a plastic V-tail at the back of the lure. The lure turns abruptly at the outside of its arc and slides back into place nose-first, before settling in place, sometimes resting nose-first from where it began, other times resting tail back, or to the side. Most times the jigging motion is just lift and let the lure swing back into place, before pausing to let the fish hit.
There's another way to give the lure life. An overlooked design factor at play is the tubular shape of the lure, which allows it to roll slightly from side to side when the angler shakes it in place. I describe the moves an angler can make beyond just a lift-fall-swim, as a "nod" (angler barely nods or quivers rod), and a "shake" (angler aggressively shakes rod).
A nod is a triggering move after the lure settles. The lure ever-so-slightly rolls back and forth, maybe bobs nose up and down a bit, adding life to the lure, like it's a minnow getting ready to swim off. At times, the nod triggers a fish right then and there. Other times, a nod can roll right into a short shake, just before you give the lure another lift-fall. This mimics what a baitfish does just before it actually swims away, as it bends its body into an S. A move like that becomes part of the overall picture that eventually triggers fish, as the lure swims off and then settles back into place, which is when the fish bites, now predisposed to thinking the thing is something it wants to eat.
A shake, which makes the lure roll back and forth aggressively, also is used to call fish in. You want to shake the rod tip aggressively to pound the lure up and down in place in order to send vibrations into the water, along with the flashes the lure makes. The design factors that allow these moves are apparently unintended, because in each redesign of the Jigging Rap over the years the lure has taken on features that make these movements a bit more difficult to make. The newly introduced Flat Jig, with its broad flatter shape, makes it impossible to make this move. But then the lure is designed for other specific applications. The present, Jigging Rap configuration does just fine and remains one of the best lures for catching just about everything that swims.
Another lure outfishes the Jigging Rap from time to time. The Nils Master Jigging Shad performs similarly to the Jigging Rap, but has more of a shad, crappie, bluegill, or perch profile. I suggested the need for such a lure well before Rapala introduced their shad-rendition swimming lure, the Jigging Shad Rap, which is much lighter than the Nils Master Jigging Shad, and has never fished as well for me.
The Jigging Shad was popular for about a decade before becoming difficult to find in the U.S. It's back now and can be found at online tackle outlets like FishUSA. It often comes with a treble hook that's too big for the lure and needs to be replaced before you fish it. Actually, I often go without the treble hook on both the Jigging Rap and the Jigging Shad. In ice fishing, especially if you tip the treble hook with maggots or a minnow head, you are forever bothered by perch and smaller walleyes. If you're manipulating these lures correctly, bigger fish almost always eat the main part of the lure, so the treble hook is inconsequential.
And, about 20 percent of the time by my calculation, they eat these lures head-first, which is why I suggest that swimming lures for ice fishing need a nose hook. Many times fish move in close and are ready to be triggered by the next move the lure makes. So it swims off and when it swims back into place it's moving nose forward right back at the fish, which is when the fish eats the lure — head-first.
Finally, the Livetarget Golden Shiner makes my list as the lipless lure that put this category on the playing field in ice circles. Granted, these lures were being used from time to time by anglers across the ice belt, but it was longtime In-Fisherman friend Roger Stearns and his friends from Winnipeg, who started to fish the lure for Lake Winnipeg's giant walleyes. Our coverage of those exploits got the category going and convinced other anglers to experiment with other lipless lures. I don't know which of the many lipless lures actually fishes best in all of the many situations out there, but I can say the Golden Shiner has all the attributes of a winner. It rattles intensely as it rises and falls in a slow wobbling swim back into place. It's tough to do better than that.
The Rapala Rippin' Rap is another sweet one in this category. And certainly the Salmo Chubby Darter is a winner, without a rattle, the first lure of its kind designed by In-Fisherman Digital Editor Jeff Simpson. With the Jigging Rap and Nils Master Jigging Shad consolidating so much of my ice time, I've never had enough chance to fish it to consider it one of my Top 10.
There are a host of other lures that come close to making the list. There's the simplicity of the ReelBait Plain Jane, a beautifully designed piece of tail-heavy lead that flutters and shimmies and shakes it's way back into place and is particularly effective for pounding bottom and fishing in deeper water.
Another overlooked option is the ReelBait Flasher Jig dressed with a softbait body or a salted minnow. I've watched the Matity boys, Jeff and Jason, from the Regina, Saskatchewan, put on a show with this one, for big walleyes on the Red River, Manitoba, and on Last Mountain Lake, Saskatchewan, for walleyes, pike, and 'pout.
I'm not so sure that as a category "bead spoons" shouldn't make the list, too, although they remain mostly popular only in parts of Michigan. The Sebile Vibrato can be one of the best lures happening at times, a unique design. Few would have argued had I chosen the Bay De Noc Do-Jigger to represent the flutter spoon category in place of the Slender Spoon. The Lindy Rattlin' Flyer is special, fishing with just a bit more flair than a spoon like the Forage Minnow. The Lindy Slick Jig is another favorite for perch. And I'd have to toss into the mix a simple tube jig for it's undeniable appeal to lake trout. These days it's a matter of too many lures, and too little time.
Viva the chance to choose from among so many great lures. With more room, other designs deserve mention. But there can only be one Top 10.