January 15, 2020
I have a deep curiosity about catching fish and, to that end, have spent hundreds of hours over 30 years, looking at how various lures work in the big tanks we have had in our In-Fisherman offices. I surmised early on that one has to put an ice lure through the paces in a tank to see how it really works. Of course, eventually, promising designs still need the fish to approve in vivid practice out there with your back to the wind.
Success is a matter of a combination of fundamental ice lure design factors; but there is a tactical side to the issue, too. Some anglers do better than others at playing the game of illusion. These days, the talent pool runs deep. A curiosity is that you see some great anglers able to work their magic with one design but not so much another, even though the other design proves just as deadly in the hands of another gifted angler. One often sees this at work on the same body of water.
Making sense of it all in order to make lure choices to catch more walleyes on the waters you fish depends on understanding fundamental design factors and tactical approaches at work with at least two grand general categories—spoons, of which there are scores, and swimming lures like the once lonely lure in it’s class, the Jigging Rap. Today, the Jigging Rap is one of a pack, too, in part because it has also proven to be a great design for open water. Perhaps, though, great ice designs are more likely to transfer effectively to open water than vice versa? We’ll talk about it later.
One of the industry’s most prolific ice lure designers once told me, early in his career when he was still considering design submissions from outside sources, that he realized the average new spoon creation was as likely to fish well upside down as right-side up. “Never trust a spoon with a big butt,” he said. “Yes, there. Turn it upside down and put the hook on the skinny end. Now cup the head end—the end that now has shoulders—and bend the skinny end in a bit, too. See how it bites the water nicely on the lift—and has lots of action on the fall?”
That basic design represents one end of the spoon spectrum. It results in a spoon like the Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon. Those designs lie on their sides as they fall comparatively slowly, shimmying and shaking, and often kicking out erratically. These flutter spoons have a slow cycle time from beginning of the lift, through the fall, to the time when they drift back into place directly below the hole, and then spin four or five times on their axis before coming to a stop.
You don’t necessarily need shoulders to get the flat, fluttering fall after the distinct initial “bite.” The Williams Nipigon accomplishes the same thing with a standard spoon shape, thin stamped metal, interior cupping from head to tail, and a slight tail bend. The Nipigon is one of the best spoons out there, but mostly overlooked.
At the other end of the spectrum are the straight spoons, or spoons bent ever so slightly like a banana. With these spoons you tinker with where the main mass of the spoon lies to create different actions. Usually, the mass is near the center of the spoon or the butt, to anchor the spoon as it rises and falls, usually quickly and precisely (fast cycle time), without a lot of wild action. It’s a hint of what the spoon might be, not an in your face full-meal fluttering deal. And, sometimes—actually oftentimes—less is more than enough to get fish to bite. These are spoons like the Acme Kastmaster, or, on the slightly bent side of things, the now somewhat forgotten Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow, or another classic design, the Bay De Noc Swedish Pimple.
Most spoons fall into one category or the other, or somewhere in between, with countless design tinkerings that add this, that, or a little something else to the mix. The Snyder’s Lures Walleye Snack, for example, is a nifty slightly bent spoon with two tiny flapper blades on the split ring that holds the hook.
Overall, many of the best spoons are compromise designs, which we’ll get to in a moment. First let’s skate a bit farther down the road to further understand the difference in designs and how they fish.
Metal on Big Water
One place where the metal meets the water in search of walleyes the past decade is Lake Winnipeg. We’ve watched the unfolding drama there, seeing it develop into a winter-long derby, as opposed to a singular March Madness. I get a first-hand report from In-Fisherman Digital Editor Jeff Simpson. He usually fishes the big lake on our behalf, shooting TV with one of the most astute anglers in that area, longtime In-Fisherman friend Roger Stearns.
Stearns helped put fishing on the big lake on the radar of ice anglers, starting about 10 years ago. He and his friends also pioneered the fishing there with lipless lures, starting with the Livetarget Golden Shiner, which represents a third fundamental lure category for walleyes.
No surprise, after the initial (and continuing) love affair with lipless lures, anglers are back to also relying on one of the most fundamental lure categories for walleyes. Stearns: “A couple years into the fishing with lipless lures, we were getting back to also using spoons, often on a dead rod near where we were actively jigging either a lipless lure or another spoon. It was Simpson who first showed up with spoons like the Williams Nipigon. That’s when we started experimenting with bigger spoons.”
Actually, the Nipigon isn’t that big, at 2.5 inches and 1/3 ounce, but it fishes big because of its fluttering action on the fall, giving walleyes a chance to make visual contact and go and investigate.
Stearns: “The flutter spoons we’re catching fish with are from that size up to 5 inches. I fish the Luhr-Jensen Coyote, a 4.5-inch spoon, quite a bit. I also use the R.J. Lures R-N-R, which is a new one I designed for them. It’s available in three different metal thicknesses, the thinnest a flutter spoon, the thickest and heaviest a compromise that fishes more precisely, with less flutter on the fall. As you say, it has a faster cycle time. I fish the 3-incher most of the time on Lake Winnipeg.”
In contrast to the action of the flutter spoons, Stearns also uses the ReelBait Plane Jane, a slab spoon that, like the Acme Kastmaster and other spoons in that class, doesn’t have much action. It cycles quickly and usually falls, especially after a short (1-foot) stroke, right back into the place from where it began. It doesn’t end up far off to the side of the hole, having to drift back into place and then spin slowly on its axis four or five times before becoming dead still. The Plane Jane does what a Coyote spoon does in one-third the time, with one-third the action, and almost no final drift. The final spins are quick, too.
“On Lake Winnipeg,” Stearns says, “with the increase in vehicle traffic the fish aren’t liking the commotion, and spend more time tentative instead of gung-ho aggressive. One trend is for more anglers to be heading out farther into the lake, looking for schools of walleyes that aren’t being bothered. This is water that often is deeper than the standard 10- to 20-foot depths we’ve been fishing the last years. Sometimes these anglers are looking for structural elements, instead of just fishing the endless basin.”
But, no surprise, even out there sometimes anglers often face tentative fish. And sometimes even aggressive fish prefer less action, especially once they get in close. Admittedly, though, it’s tough to beat a flutter spoon for calling fish in.
Stearns: “Slab spoons give you control. You can fish them quickly, but you can also slow them down by giving them a short stroke and dropping them on a semi-tight line. They can also be good on fish that aren’t tentative. A lot of times, fish move in quickly and then stop. I might make a quick short lift-fall right back into the fish’s face and then lift the spoon several inches. I might add a nod or two to barely get the shiner on the treble hook to wave in the fish’s face. Or I do a lift-fall, dropping the spoon so it stops several inches above where the spoon began. The fish starts to reposition to stay with the spoon, so I do another short stroke and drop, and lift slightly again. By that time the fish is usually all over the spoon and you have a fish on.
“That’s hard to do that with a flutter spoon. The lift-fall-drift takes too long and often the spoon kicks out too far, further increasing drift time. So, as you so often say, every day’s an experiment. Some days, or during portions of some days, the flutter action not only brings them in but they’re all over the spoon when they get there. Sometimes when we’re working with three or four other anglers in the same area, one angler uses the flutter spoon to help draw fish in, while the other anglers use something that fishes more precisely to get fish to go more consistently once they get in close.”
So some days those Lake Winnipeg walleyes are acting much like walleyes act wherever they swim, and Stearns and friends are mixing it up with lipless lures and various spoons from two ends of the spoon spectrum, doing what they can to read the attitude of fish when they come in so they play the presentation game appropriately. They also work on the fish, adding scent to spoons by wrapping a shiner around the treble hook. On lipless lures, they hang a shiner lengthwise on the two hanging trebles.
Compromise Is Cool
Some of the best spoons on waters large and small everywhere walleyes swim are compromise designs, one being the previously mentioned Williams Nipigon. It’s more flutter spoon than slab, but it cycles fairly quickly and usually doesn’t flare off far from below the hole, so drift time is reduced—and it usually doesn’t wind itself up so tight that it takes long to unwind once it stops. I’ve used it extensively on a variety of waters for eater-sized fish and big ones to boot.
The Nipigon also bites the water nicely on the lift, which is to say that because of its design it digs in and begins wobbling immediately on the lift, which doesn’t just cause flash, but also sends low-frequency vibrations into the water. The vibration patterns of ice spoons is little talked about as a factor in getting fish to bite, but it is one of several elements that predisposes fish into thinking this thing that looks like nothing they actually eat is something they should eat—or at least sample out of curiosity.
Anglers need to think of a spoon as an illusion they must make seem alive. Often the illusion is little more than a subtle delivery device for a tasty, aromatic morsel of something fishy like a minnow head or whole minnow. A little flash, a little vibration, a hint of color. It’s something injured, something struggling. And then it hangs there, for all purposes disappearing on the pause, except for what you’ve tipped the spoon with.
Important to our discussion is noting once again that flutter spoons take longer to disappear on the pause than slab spoons. But it is possible to have the best part of both worlds going for you with spoon designs that are a compromise between both extremes. The point can be made another way by looking at why it takes flutter spoons so long to disappear on the pause after a lift-fall.
At the end of the drift back into position, a spoon unwinds on its axis at the end of a cycle period. All spoons do this and at times it makes little difference to walleyes that are ready to eat. Other times, with hesitant fish, the longer the cycle time and the longer the spoon needs to unwind after it drifts back and settles, the less likely walleyes are to sample.
No surprise, flutter spoons usually take longer to unwind than slabs. Size also influences the process, with bigger spoons generally taking longer to unwind than smaller spoons. Small slab spoons tend to unwind quickest. Spoons lifted up high also gather the most twist on the lift-fall. Multiple successive lift-falls before the pause also usually mean more twist. A flutter spoon lifted up high four or five times in succession can get wound so tight that it takes five or six turns to unwind, at which point it takes another couple to unwind back the other way.
Multiple high lifts are good for getting a fish’s attention at a distance, but once a fish gets close you’re almost always better off with short individual strokes. A snap swivel seems to make a difference only with larger spoons, so for most applications in ice fishing, tie direct or use no more than a small snap to connect to the spoon.
Flutter spoons can be highly productive at times, but overall, over most of the season, in most situations with walleyes in various moods, slab spoons do better than the flutters. But, once again, we can also play the game with compromise designs that offer a bit of both worlds. Two other spoons I consider brilliant compromises are the PK Spoon and the PK Flutter Fish, the former more slab spoon than flutter spoon, the later more flutter spoon than slab.
The PK Spoon is a compact teardrop shape with a smooth mirror-plated finish on one side, and dimpling like a golf ball on the reverse side, producing contrasting flickering flash that blends color to become a hint of something. The spoon body is biased in the butt with a slight bulge on the mirror side that adds weight so it settles butt-first. The head of the spoon, which is thinner than the butt, cuts like a knife on the lift, while the butt gives off a subtle pulsing wobble. The design makes the PK 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.
In contrast, the PK Flutterfish is shaped like a 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. Meanwhile, the unique concave elongated shape with the pinched middle makes the spoon lay on its side throughout the fall, shimmying, flashing, flickering, with mirror side up, the divot-side down, as it also rocks back and forth like a leaf.
Because of its design, the PK Spoon offers prominent flutter qualities at the beginning of the fall, but still cycles quickly and fishes precisely. The Flutter Fish offers flutter qualities all the way through the cycling, but it cycles relatively quickly because of its thick body, which helps it fish more precisely than most flutter spoons. Both of these spoons also are heavy enough to pound bottom, where as the Nipigon is too light.
One other solid compromise is the 5/16-ounce Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon. Three of the four available Slender Spoons have thin bodies, but the 5/16-ouncer, which is 1.5 inches long, has thicker stamping. The thinner spoons are full-blown flutter options, but the thicker spoon cycles faster yet displays flutter qualities through the fall. At 1.5 inches you might think it too small for work on big lakes like Winnipeg and Erie, but remember that Stearns often relies on the Plane Jane, which measure only one-half inch longer.
Critical Smaller Spoons
Smaller spoons have a place in clearer water and when fish are tentative, which usually is the case most of the time. Indeed, walleyes in many waters won’t stand for spoons as large as some of those used on Lake Winnipeg or Lake Erie, although one can always fish a bit bigger during low-light periods. Early in the season, too, one usually can fish a bit bolder, especially during low-light periods—and sometimes at late ice.
As spoons get smaller, design features often play less of a role in triggering walleyes. True, walleyes have exceptional low-light vision. But in low light and even in bright light they can’t scrutinize detail well because they have such large cone cells in their retinas. They see the general features of our presentations, but not the specifics, like the fact that a PK spoon has a dimpled surface on one side and a mirror surface on the other. There’s even less to scrutinize on a small package, the reason design features are less important on small lures.
Again, it’s the combination of elements that make up a spoon and how it’s used that predispose a walleye into thinking the spoon is something to eat. If you can get a fish to move in close, within inches, it’s all guesswork on the fish’s part as to what the thing is, because at that point they don’t see it well. At that point the trap has already been set. It’s then that a gentle nod of the minnow head on the lure, sending low-frequency vibrations into the water, which are felt by cells in the three lateral line arches on the fish’s face, often seals the deal to get the fish to bite.
Most of the smaller spoons that have a history of fishing well fall close to the slab category. Smaller spoons are harder for walleyes to read wrong when they’re tentative. There’s less to discern. They disappear easier on the pause after the lift-fall, in favor of the walleye concentrating on the minnow head or soft trailer. Spoons in this category that fish well are the Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow and the Lindy Flyer. Smaller PK Spoons (1/8 and 1/4 ounce) and PK Flutter Fish (1/8 and 1/4 ounce) also fish well. The Clam Blade Spoon is another good one. And the Johnson Shutter Spoon. So smaller spoons without a lot of action often key the fishing on many waters, especially as winter wears on and walleyes are tentative most of the time.
The Jigging Rap remains my overall favorite ice lure for walleyes. So, with all the new swimming lures hitting the market, many now designed for fishing on ice and open water, I note that it has been vital to have a nose hook for ice fishing. I kept track by count for at least 15 seasons of walleyes at first ice, when I fished about 15 evenings each year before New Year. Twenty to twenty-five percent of the walleyes I caught were on the nose hook.
When Northland introduced their first Puppet Minnow, a swimming design, many years ago, it didn’t have a nose hook. Knowing my love for fishing the Jigging Rap, John Peterson, who ran Northland at the time, asked me about the nose hook. I told him what I just told you. When the next generation of Puppets hit the market, they had a nose hook.
Some of the reason for the need for a nose hook is because of how I fish a swimming lure. It’s all sleight of hand. I don’t rely on a minnow head on the treble hook. Too many small fish bite a baited treble hook. So I work the lure more aggressively than many, playing keep-away with the fish until they eat—and often that’s when the lure glides right back into their face after they’ve been drawn close. Because the lure first drifts into the fish nose first, that’s how they often eat it. I wouldn’t want to be without a nose hook when ice fishing, although the lack of that hook seems to make little difference when fishing open water. There, the lure is forever darting forward, with walleyes following and finally eating by overtaking from behind.
The magic is in the manipulation of the Jigging Rap, which is a tubular-shaped swimmer with a minnow profile, a single nose hook and a single tail hook, plus the 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 a lift and let the lure swing back into place, before pausing to let the fish eat.
Generations of Jigging Raps
The first design was by Lauri Rapala and his son Esko in 1961. The lure had a somewhat bulky shape, with a body a bit like a CountDown Rapala. In-Fisherman reader Bob Hollingsworth shared an early design with Doug Stange several years ago, and recently Pete Meronek sent one of those original introductions, which has a flat piece of plastic glued at a slight angle under the tail hook to give the lure its swim. The next two generations had a V-shaped plastic wing set under the tail hook, while the present design has the wing above the hook. Stange notes that the early designs look “rough” by today’s standards, but still swim beautifully, if a bit lighter and with a lot of flash. They’d catch fish today.
But there’s another important 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 a lift-fall-swim, as a “nod” (angler barely quivers rod), a “jiggle” (angler nods rod more aggressively), and a “shake“ (angler aggressively pounds lure by rapidly moving rod tip up and down several inches).
A nod is a triggering move after the lure settles. The lure ever-so-slightly rolls back and forth, bobs slightly nose up and down, like it’s a minnow getting ready to swim off.
At times, a nod triggers a fish right then and there. Other times, a nod can roll right into a short jiggle just before you give the lure another lift-fall. This mimics what a baitfish does just before it 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 alive.
A shake, which makes the lure roll up and down and back and forth aggressively, is mainly used to call fish in. You want to shake the rod tip hard enough to pound the lure in place in order to send vibrations into the water, along with the flashes the lure makes.
Which brings me to my enthusiasm for the newly introduced Acme Hyper-Glide, a swimming lure with a set of hinged wings, one on each side of the lure. On a nod, the wings flap up and down ever so slightly. With a jiggle the wings flap up and down like a minnow finning in place. It’s the liveliest looking swimming lure I’ve ever seen. And I can hardly wait to give it a swim in fishy water—out there with my back to the wind.