Live bait is like a security blanket’ you feel lost and all alone without it. Time was when I never ice fished without live bait. But times have changed. With the recent advances in plastic, lure and scent technology, I feel confident traveling on nearly any body of water without bait. In fact, I think anyone can learn to ice fish without bait. Much as you fish for bass, walleye and panfish in the open water, the same principle applies to ice fishing.
Fishing without live bait
Fishing without live bait is a weaning process. At first it's best to take little baby steps. You should fish with bait and then once your confidence builds (after catching a few fish), then switch to a no-bait presentation. If my father, Poppee, can fish without live bait, anyone can.
One morning last winter, Poppee and I were chasing after crappie on a favorite lake. We were doing our usual routine where he stays in the shack with the light and heater on at full blast while I pop around outside trying different holes that we drilled around our lucky spot from the weekend before. I hit a good hole and flopped three nice crappie right away and had my piece of plastic swiped by a decent fish. So I went back to "the sauna" to get another piece of plastic from my jig box and Poppee was all questions. Where did you get them? What color was the lure? How many maggots did you use? You know, the usual Poppee questions.
Then I told him that I was using plastic, which was nothing new, so he switched to his other pole rigged with a tiny Shrimpo jig tipped with Finesse Plastic. He gave it a try and nothing happened. So I gave him my pole rigged with a black Wedgee hooked, do-nothing style on a rocker spoon.
At first he looked at it in disbelief, "what the heck is this?" he asked. "Just shut up and try it." And so he did. But being a non-believer, he fished it half-heartedly and gave me that look he gives meaning, "no, you try it.”
So I grabbed the pole and worked my magic. I raised the rod about six inches and allowed the Rocker to flutter fall and on the next lift a crappie was on. Then I went back outside. Poppee snatched six more crappie out of that hole before we decided to move and a new technique was approved by the Poppee man.
Plastic baits are not new to pros
Plastic presentations are nothing new to seasoned ice anglers who ply the backwaters of the Mississippi River, Wisconsin River and Wolf River systems. But to us lake-bound anglers, in some areas, plastics have been slow to catch on. So far, I have yet to find a lake that doesn't have fish in it that won't respond favorably to plastic presentations.
While there are a lot of options out there as far as plastic is concerned. My favorite is Custom Jigs & Spins brand Finesse Plastic, since I helped design it. Finesse Plastic now comes in three different styles: the Original in sizes six and 10, the Wedgee, and the Noodel along with its smaller version, the Micro-Noodel. All of these styles have slightly different actions in the water and each has their time and place.
Obviously, larger presentations are best suited for aggressive fish, but sometimes switching to a larger size will produce more fish when they only responded to smaller presentations.
I remember when we were in the testing phases where we set up an Aqua-Vu camera on an open patch in the weeds we were fishing. Bluegill would move in and out of our area and we would catch them on various presentations. There was a point where three or four small gills were staring at the small Shrimpo, so I pulled it away and dropped in a larger Noodel rigged on a Shrimpo jig head. From out of camera range a larger gill appeared and engulfed it. Three more drops produced three more gills. So the point is, keep switching until something good happens and then switch some more.
The best way to make changes is to have a few rods rigged with different presentations. One spoon that I am really excited about this year is the Slender Spoon. Originally designed and distributed by Scott Stecher or Reef Runner Tackle, the Slender Spoon is an ultralight ice spoon with an attitude. According to Scott, "The Slender Spoon fills the void of a truly ultralight spoon. These spoons possess profiles, color, flash and action that are all their own."
Of course, the Slender Spoon can be made more effective by rigging it with a wispy piece of plastic like the Wedgee, which would not effect its action and actually make it fall more slowly. The Slender Spoon comes in three ultra-light sizes: 1/16-, 1/8- and 1/4-ounce and also a heavyweight 5/16-ounce made from the 1/8-ounce die.
The larger sizes can be tipped with multiple pieces of plastic. You can experiment with multiple colors or color-match your lure to your every whim. One nice thing about Custom Jigs & Spins current line-up of products including the Slender Spoon is that with the wide range of sizes available, you can increase or decrease the lure size (while keeping the same color) and match the hatch or the fish's mood. So next time you're in your favorite tackle shop, pick up a wide variety of sizes of the same hot color and you'll be surprised at the results.