Live Bait Rigging for Winter Panfish
February 22, 2016
The percentage of winter fish caught on lures pales in comparison to the success rate of anglers who use live bait. Why imitate a live creature when it is just as easy to use the real thing?
It's probably safe to say that ice-fishermen under the age of 16 learned how to catch fish using some form of live bait. At some point the typical angler will acquire a tackle box, which he then feels inclined to fill with all manner of artificial lures. In later years some anglers have two, three or more suitcase-sized boxes filled to the brim with spoons, plugs, spinnerbaits, crankbaits, jigs and plastics, but do they catch more fish, especially in winter?
Call it old-school, but fishing with live (or cut) bait is the best way to keep the flags flying over frozen lakes and ponds wherever safe ice forms. Ice-fishing has been touched by technology to a point, but in the end it's the maggot, worm, shiner or grub at the end of the line that gets the job done.
Here's a look at how to select and rig live baits for the hottest panfish-catching action near you.
Winter panfish species (bluegills, crappies, yellow perch, etc.) are easy marks for small, well-presented live baits. Traveling in schools and always on the alert for an easy meal, these abundant winter targets make anglers glad they showed up with a good supply of fresh bait.
A good rule of thumb is to set baits such as worms, maggots, mousies and goldenrod grubs about a foot off a rubble bottom, or just above existing weedbeds. Add a spinner or small flasher to grab the attention of passing fish and check baits frequently for signs of bait thieves.
Use light monofilament (2-pound-test line is plenty for panfishing through the ice) and adjust reels and flags to their most ultra-sensitive settings. Large fish, those hand-sized and bigger, will have no problem tripping a flag but smaller specimens may take a bait and run in circles with it for some time without generating a flag.
Most bait shops in areas where ice-fishing occurs offer good supplies of fresh panfish baits. In some cases bait may be purchased in grocery stores or even in vending machines in gas stations and convenience stores close to popular fishing spots. Mail-order companies also offer freeze-dried baits for purchase online.
Larger fish may be taken on a wide variety of baits during winter, but the all-time favorite among veteran anglers is a minnow that ranges in size from 1 to 2 inches. Minnows are readily available from bait dealers wherever good winter fishing can be found, and many anglers keep a minnow trap in a local pond to provide a supply of fresh bait on a moment's notice. Some dealers raise their own minnows for sale while others purchase them from wholesalers, but the most important consideration is that minnows be shiny and lively.
Rigging with minnows requires small hooks similar to those used for maggots and worms, plus some method for keeping the bait relatively stationary and close to weeds, structure and rocky outcrops. One trick is to use a three-way swivel attached to the primary line, and then a 12-inch leader with the bait attached and a second 16-inch leader to which a 1/4-ounce weight is attached. The weight keeps the bait in position while allowing the minnow to swim freely, doing its best to attract passing predators.
Adding weight is important when fishing with free-swimming minnows because an energetic baitfish can swim upward far enough to hide itself under the ice. Most panfish species cruise along about a foot below the ice or just above the weeds at varying depths, so a minnow that can wiggle away just under the ice may not produce a flag all day. Allow the minnow to swim freely but be sure it maintains its desired position at the appropriate depth.
Panfish are notoriously aggressive fish and rarely require additional attractants, but winter panfish may hit faster and more often when spinners, flashers or brightly colored beads are added to the rig to help catch the eye of passing schools.
There are several productive methods for rigging minnows but the most common technique is to pierce the fish just behind the dorsal fin, which allows the bait to swim naturally for hours with little or no stress. Some anglers prefer to hook their baits through the lips or just ahead of the tail, but care must be taken not to injure the bait.
It's always a good idea to check minnows every hour or so to ensure that they are working hard for you. Replace any dead or listless minnows with a livelier specimen. The rejects can be used for chum (where legal) or try jigging them at various depths.
Fishing with cut bait can be productive when ice covers the water to depths of 2 feet and more. The old adage, "big bait for big fish" isn't always true because many panfish species can be considered tentative nibblers.
Panfish prefer bite-sized morsels, chunks of bait no larger than a penny. Anything larger will be whittled down by smaller fish nibbling at it, resulting in a lot of lost bait but few catches.
Flashers or spinners are not necessary in most situations but a weight (1/2 ounce is fine) will keep the bait where it will do the most good. Set cut bait just off the bottom where rubble or rocks, logs and other structure exists, or just above weeds, grass and other vegetation near points, dropoffs and channels.
It is often a good idea to reserve one hole for jigging cut baits. Start at or very near the bottom and then work your way slowly up the water column till a target species responds. Drop all remaining baits to the same depth while the action lasts, and then continue jigging to keep tabs on other schools of fish that may move into the area.
When fishing with live bait it is important to plan ahead. Use containers that are insulated and well oxygenated to allow the bait to breathe and move about. Worms, maggots, mousies, grubs and other panfish baits survive well when kept in a foam container stored inside a coat or pants pocket.
Rather than place several dozen minnows in one bucket, use a cooler or aerated tank to keep small baitfish alive and lively. Insulated units are always best. Check the status of live baits at least once per hour and add fresh bedding or clean water as necessary.
On long trips, consider using several aerated coolers to store baitfish and only bring as much bait onto the ice as you'll need for the day. Most motels and hotels in ice-fishing country allow anglers to bring coolers into their rooms to help keep their supply of baitfish fresh during the trip.
If jigging and chumming don't seem to be working for you this winter, try using live bait. It takes a little more effort to gather, transport and use natural baits in winter but the rewards are often more than worth the effort.