Finessing Crappies and Bluegills Through the Ice
By Walt Matan
Panfish are simple creatures. They eat, sleep and spawn to survive. In between these activities they look for better places to eat, sleep, and spawn; like I said panfish are simple creatures! Ice fisherman are simple creatures too, but times are changing and we’re getting more sophisticated and knowledgeable every day.
Spend some time in the backwaters of the Mississippi or Wisconsin River and you’ll learn a lot. There are a bunch of anglers who do quite well using rudimentary techniques. Any kind of pole will do, a small bobber, splitshot and a lively Shiner minnow on a number eight hook will catch Crappies most days. A number ten ice spoon and a juicy Waxworm is the ticket for Bluegill as the sun peaks over the trees.
Other days the conditions change; maybe a temperature drop occurs and most anglers draw a blank. The hardcore fanatics move around to different backwaters until active fish are found.
Then there is the finesses fisherman. Hunkered down and staring at the FL-8 locator next to his hole, the finesse fisherman seems to be sitting motionless. But closer examination reveals a oneness between man and nature. A quick flick of the wrist, the hook is set, and another 3/4 quarter pound Crappies is in the bucket.
The pole is then placed in a holder and another is grabbed. This time the angler employs a more erratic motion until a fish is visible on the locator screen. Another fish slowly rises inspecting the offering but backs off as shown as a fainter greenish band on the locator face. The angler knows by the reaction of the fish to his lure that it is another nice Crappie. He quickly reels up, grabs another plow and lowers the bait down to several feet above the fish’s head. An ever so slight bobbing motion is employed and this time the fish rockets upward even after the angler tries to take the bait away from her.
You’d have to see it to believe it, But on this day as most other anglers go home with only a few fish or none at all, our angler comes home with only a few fish or none at all, our angler comes home with a half bucket and has let twice as many go. This is the kind of day that he finds most satisfying, because to the finesses fisherman the thrill is not in how many fish he can catch but in how many fish he provoked to inspect his bait and then he finessed into his bucket.
The tools of the trade are nothing new to most ice fisherman but the stoic concentration employed is mend numbing. Think about keeping a fish interested in your bait for fifteen minutes before she finally gives in and sucks in the jig ever so lightly. Fifteen full minutes of total concentration devoted to tempting the fish to strike. Should you jig more, raise the bait higher, or drop it down? thoughts race through your mind as the world around you stops. Nothing else matters except you and the fish. One false move could spell disaster, but the right twitch will emit a jolt of electricity that will run from the line to your wrist, on up your spine and to your brain. Another one in the bucket, to the victor goes the spoils!
A good shallow water icefishing pole is of great debate amongst finesse fisherman. Some prefer a custom graphite model with a spring steal bobber. To others a fairly limber fiberglass model with a noodle tip, like a South Bend Polaris 12” or 24” works well. The third option is stiff through-line model with a coiled pen spring bobber tip. I employ all three in a three rod system.
Line watching is key to fish detection. At some point as you stare at the locator face, you direct your attention to where your lines meets your spring bobber to watch for a bite. Golden Stren in four pound test is the most highly visible line around. A good line watcher will outproduce and out fish any angler who waits for his spring bobber to tell the hit, because many hits occur as a lift or a sidewards movement. Two pound test magnathin is tied as a three foot leader so the fish sees nothing but jig!
To employ this kind of concentration you’ve got to be comfortable and free from distraction. Most finesse fisherman seek the sanctuary of a portable fish house. By keeping warm you can fish more effectively. On even the warmest days a shelter keeps you out of the wind which aids in detecting bites.
The FL-8 locator is an invaluable tool to the finessuer. Not only does it help you locate structure such as brush piles, but it lets you adjust your jigging motion to the mood of the fish. Sometimes, however, in shallow water hard bottom situations the locator actually spooks fish. In these cases it should then only be used to locate brushpiles; so that several holes can be drilled from different attack positions.
The lures used for this type of fishing vary in appearance and action. The first, a Rocker, has been around forever and it still continues to produce. But while most anglers use a Rocker as a finesse bait, I prefer to use it as my attractor. Rigged up with three or four spikes or Eurolarvae, the Rocker should be worked aggressively to attract fish into your area. As a fish approaches slow down the motion to 1/2” twitches. If the fish backs away it’s time to reel out.
Bait number two should be a small slight jig. Size 12 2-Spots or Demons, Ratfinkee’s or Marmooska’s work best in this situation. A single fresh spike is the key to getting the jig to dance nicely. Too much bait will spoil the action. A slight bobbing or jigging motion should be employed usually in the upward direction. Never lower the bait into the fishes face. Always dance it above his head.
The final option to the finesse fisherman’s arsenal is a fairly new concept; plastic. Enterprising anglers have been slicing their own from pieces of balloon or plastic worms for years. The key to plastic is to have a tail that is so thin it will move when even no jigging motion is employed. This is when a lot of hits occur. The angler slows his motion to a crawl and the fish is hypnotized by the tail and sucks it in.
This year Custom Jigs and Spins has developed Ice Plastic as well as two new lure designs made especially for it. The Shrimp is a vertical jig with a horizontal tail presentation. It’s round ball head anchors the jig in place and the slightest movement propels the tail into action. The Ratso is a Ratfinkee fisherman’s dream bait. It combines the horizontal presentation that Ratfinkee anglers swear by, with a plastic tail to tempt fish into striking.
The surprising effectiveness of fishing plastic became evident to me last year. I was fishing a popular lake in Northern Illinois and only catching potato chip sized Bluegills. The lake was known to hold good numbers of Bull Bluegills and I had a hot tip that they were hitting orange 2-spots. I faithfully jigged my 2-Spot and chip after chip was caught and released. Every once and a while a chipper would slowly move up to my bait and slowly disappear. Little did I know that this was a bigger fish off to the side not interested in my offering.
I flipped the lid on my Fish Trap and decided to go home. The I noticed another angler catch a nice size Gill, toss it in his bucket and leave. I decided to take his spot. As I dropped my 2-Spot down the depths, I noticed a piece of chewed up discarded orange plastic next to the hole. “What a Dummy”, I thought to myself.
I reached for my twelve inch rod loaded up with a prototype Shrimpo. A fish slowly rose up to the bait. I slowly jigged and the fished stayed with it for a full five minutes, before the red band grew brighter on my locator face and my jig was engulfed by a bruiser sized ‘Gill. After that, the action was slow but steady. Five Potato chips to one nine incher, but eventually enough were caught to make the day worthwhile.
The new breed of mobile ice anglers employ a style of “Run & Gun” icefishing. While this may be a sure cure for catching more fish that the casual angler, the bigger sized fish are actually passed over. It is these true trophy panfish that the finesse fisherman seeks. To him a successful day is not a numbers game, but in getting the most difficult fish to bite. Try some of the techniques I’ve outlined and you’ll be surprised at the results achieved by applying a little patience and concentration the next time you go icefishing!