Icing More Panfish With Plastics

Finally, no more getting your maggots mixed up with your chew! The author says to leave the live bait at home and bring the plastics when panfishing on the ice.

Anglers in the know have made the switch from live bait to plastics for winter panfish.
Photo by Ted Peck

There are few serious hardwater panfish anglers in the northcountry who haven't heard the plaintive call of a snowsnake rattle followed by an outburst of profanity from a disgusted bucketsitter trudging off the ice.

We've all seen waxies, maggots, spikes and mousies in 35mm film canisters and chewing-tobacco tins morph from viable bait into snowsnake calls when exposed to freezing temperatures. The biggest wail of despair is found in the call of the "Maximus frozenwaximus" -- when the $20 cottage cheese tub full of waxies sounds like a maracas full of hard beans and sawdust. Cue the singing fat lady, because your day of ice-fishing is over.

Until just a couple of years ago, some kind of larvae was the critical component for icing a mess of crappies, bluegills or perch. Sure there were times when small Swedish Pimples, Jigging Rapalas, Hali Jigs, Rembrandts, Purests and Little Cecils could get your string stretched even better than live bait, but almost every panfisher out there either had a tin of spikes close to the vest -- or forgot to bring 'em along.

A few years back the Ratso jig started raising eyebrows as this marriage of a Rat Finkee jig and a small plastic tail quietly led panfish to a rendezvous with the frying pan. Sometimes you could catch fish on tiny tube jigs, even pieces of medical latex glove. Several entrepreneurs started pouring "nailtail" profile plastics specifically for winter panfish.

These plastics caught fish with a degree of consistency for those who believed in them. But the plastic was a little stiff. And many bucketeers found themselves back digging through the sawdust looking for a little maggot with some meat on it. The temptation to resort back to the old live-bait way is strong, even though plastic technology continued to improve, finding quiet favor with tournament and professional hardwater anglers alike.

A series of panfish tournaments called Trap Attacks that have been held across the Upper Midwest the past several winters has been a real eye-opener for serious ice-fishers. Top anglers waved a tin of waxies around for all to see while pre-fishing for these events, then they dug out the plastics in the solitude of portable shanties when the time came to jig for money.

Trap Attack events are put on by the Ice Team, a loose affiliation of hardwater anglers who freely exchange ideas and techniques. At the core of the Ice Team is a corps of winter fishing pros known as "power sticks" who work with manufacturers and the general ice-angling public in promoting fishing's "fourth season."

Head fish among them is ice-angling legend Dave Genz, who is more responsible for advancement and popularity of ice-fishing than any other human. Genz designed the Fish Trap tent, created a smorgasbord of ice-angling lures and is primarily responsible for other technologies like high-tech graphite ice rods and cold-weather lines evolution in portable electronics for hardwater use.

For less than $1,000 you can purchase all the trappings of a professional ice-angler, including portable tent, power ice drill, electronics, rods and tackle. Genz calls this package his "winter bass boat."

Unlike anglers who are tethered to the comfort of a permanent ice shanty -- or flat out whipped after grinding a few holes through 2 feet of ice with a hand auger -- those who have adopted the entire winter system have mobility and ability to locate active fish. In many cases these fish are holding in less than 8 feet of water where the latest generation of plastics will outfish traditional live bait every time -- if visibility under the ice is 5 or more feet.

I make this statement after three winters of serious research on dozens of lakes across the Midwest. Last winter I didn't even buy a single tin of live bait, and I iced as many -- if not more -- panfish than during any winter I can remember over the past 25 years.

Several factors combine to make plastics a better choice than live bait under the ice in clear, shallow water.

First, consider the metabolism and general nature of fish. They are cold-blooded creatures with limited feeding requirements and considerable wariness under these conditions. The active feeding window under the ice is small, perhaps less than an hour, maybe once a day, and typically under lowlight conditions or ahead of an approaching front.

At other times, the fish are simply hangin' out in a negative, or at best, neutral feeding attitude. Although these fish don't want to eat, they will strike at something nearby that is irresistible. The new soft plastics have this characteristic, with little animation of the lure required by the angler.

Trying to hold the rod perfectly still will often generate crushing strikes as these lures exude a lifelike fluttering action, even when essentially "deadsticked." There are times when constant animation is what it takes to trigger strikes. When this is the case, the fish you catch tend to run a little larger, perhaps because movement of the bait intimidates smaller panfish.

Although it is often possible to look down the hole and see how fish are responding to various techniques, the shadow of a big pumpkin-pie face or an ice shanty can often cause survival instinct to override striking response in shallow-water situations.

I like using a 48-inch graphite rod with a coiled spring bobber at the tip on 1/2-pound-test Berkley Micro-Ice Line with a small horizontal-presentation ice jig and plastic tail generally fished above electronic blips on the Vexilar FL-18 flasher. Although perch will readily attack ice jigs fished at their level, bluegills and especially crappies like to ambush from below. A sensitive flasher will telegraph this attack before it can be detected on the most sensitive spring bobber or float.

Most of the time, panfish want their potential dinner presented in a horizontal orientation. Some ice-fly designs -- like the Marmooska, Genz Worm and Lindy Fat Boy -- will remain in a horizontal orientation without need to adjust the knot. The Marmooska is my favorite bait under most shallow-water conditions, with the Fat Boy great in deeper water because it "fishes heavy." Other "killer" lures like the Demon and venerable Rat Finkee often see the knot slide around in response to gravity when a fish is lifted out of the hole, requiring adjustment before you go after another fish.

In clear wa

ter, I've had much better luck with dark colors like black, purple, Kelly green or gold. Orange, chartreuse, pink, glow and fluorescents tend to work better when visibility is less than 3 feet.

Plastic bait profile and color choice is equally important, with innovations continuing at breakneck speed. I can hardly wait to get on the ice with the latest evolution of Lindy Munchie Tiny Tails -- the main reason I swore off live bait forever in 2004. Back in 2003, Lindy president Ted Takasaki listened to his pro-staffers and introduced new colors, scents and bait profiles into the company's fledgling line of winter plastics.

"Lindy has always been a company run by anglers who listen to anglers," Takasaki said. "The new shapes and colors have been good for the company and anglers alike."

Lindy markets their Munchie Tiny Tails in four different bait profiles -- split, spade, nail and micro-minnow. Although black- and purple-colored baits are consistent producers, the red tails that resemble bloodworms have won me several friendly wagers with dedicated larvae users.

The latest evolution is permeated with fish-attracting scent, creating a plastic lure that is approaching near perfection.

In a coldwater environment with plenty of time to ponder the world around them, panfish prefer a natural presentation. A wax worm that is impaled sideways on a hook after multiple encounters with fish simply doesn't hold the appeal of a molded plastic bait.

Another appeal of plastics is the ability to stash them in a compartment of your ice jig box, right beside your favorite ice jigs, with no need to scavenge through sawdust to find your next bait.

Ah yes, the sawdust. The only thing more aggravating than seeing your bait freeze into a snowsnake rattle call is having a brisk breeze sprinkle sawdust in your eyes while trying to bait up. There is a better way to ice a nice mess of panfish. And the constantly evolving technology of soft plastics is a critical component in the fast-growing sport of ice-fishing.

Get Your Fish On.

Plan your next fishing and boating adventure here.

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