February 18, 2021
February has long been an ice angler's August. Instead of dog-day heat, it's frigid weather and finicky fish. There are times when you can be marking fish—even be on them like glue—but not get them to do more than window-shop the artificial offerings you drop down the hole. This is when it's time to go stealth with live-bait presentations.
By February, ice on most systems is at its thickest, and anglers have covered many of the best spots. Fish have been there and done that. They've seen everything, and they've been pushed around with constant vehicle traffic and drilling overhead. Aggressive presentations might draw them in during peak feeding periods, but even then they rarely seal the deal like a properly presented live bait.
Oddly enough, live bait—especially the good stuff—gets tougher to find this time of year. For panfish, this includes a variety of euro larvae, wax worms and small minnow species. Crappie minnows are the easiest to find, followed by wax worms and euros. For walleyes and perch, shiners are the premium bait, followed by rainbow and other chub species, then your average fathead. Again, with all of these, availability can be a challenge. If you're serious about getting bit during these dog days of winter, consider farming or at least tending your own bait.
For panfish, that might mean a bulk order of 1,000 to 5,000 red or other euro larvae early in the season. These can sit in a just-above-freezing refrigerator. Waxies are more easily found and can be kept in the same fridge. Crappie minnows should be treated the same as your walleye bait, as outlined next.
As a general rule for the swimming bait species, the larger the minnow, the trickier they are to deal with. Suckers might be the exception, at least compared to ever-so-fragile shiners. However, even they are less hardy than crappie minnows or fatheads. Cold, frequently changed well water, along with a good diffuser stone on an adequate aerator, conquers most minnow evils. After-market livewell and bait tank additives, like G-Juice—which removes harmful substances such as chlorine and ammonia while adding essential electrolytes—and oxygenation tablets, like OTABs, should also be considered.
Employ a bulk storage system with larger receptacles in the garage and a roving scout system approach with smaller, more mobile bait storage units when going out to fish. There's no need to carry several dozen of any minnow species onto the ice. All you're doing is stressing and killing more of your valuable bait supply. Take only what you'll use.
Bluegills love a euro, especially when it's still fresh and wriggling. To accomplish that, keep your euros and waxies in separate bait pucks close to your body so they don't freeze.
For a euro, you'll want to hook it in the head with whatever jig you're using. The small dots and flat end on the forward part of the worm indicate the head end. Small wire hooks keep your bait livelier, and don't hesitate to load a few euros on a single hook.
Waxies are more easily shredded and pulled off the hook, so experiment with both head-hooking and threading them onto the hook. Sometimes threading can be the only way to actually put a hook in wary panfish. Other times, you won't even get a look without dangling the length of a head-hooked waxie below a small piece of tungsten. Head-hooking allows the waxies to move naturally and impart more action. However, they often die more quickly on a hook than euros do.
Re-bait often, especially if fish are in view and don't commit. The great part about having fish on-screen is that you're basically running a natural testing scenario. Offer different live bait looks until a fish commits and a pattern emerges.
For finicky ‘gills, color can play a big role on difficult days. All panfish species are into natural colors, especially in clear water. Black has been a go-to in recent years when the bite gets tough, as have the increasingly popular fly-fishing-style tungsten jigs that add soft hackle and detail to the lure. These baits more accurately mimic the larval species panfish are scouring mud bottoms for and offer an advantage over certain teardrop or other jig types.
Think too about vertical versus horizontal presentations. Tip each of them similarly, but realize that, like us, panfish are creatures of habit. They get used to eating specific meals in certain ways. Depending on the prey available, fish will usually display a willingness to eat one version over the other. It's up to you to find fish, give them multiple looks and tip with lively bait that pulls the whole presentation together.
While walleyes are a favored target throughout their range, the following advice also pertains to most predators that chase minnow species, including perch, pike and bass. All fish seem to love a good shiner, and that ranges from the heartier species of the Erie and Ohio Valley areas to the upper Midwest, where spottails and emerald shiners are the species of choice. Each locale has its own varieties, and each are a little different in terms of care and availability. No matter the species, shiners can be crucial to bringing in fish come February. Last winter, they were so important to the Mille Lacs Lake bite in Minnesota that anglers paid double or triple the usual price to clean out available stock at bait shops.
No matter how you do it, take care of them both above the ice and below it. That means light line and fine wire hooks appropriately sized (not oversized) for the species of interest.
Hook shiners below the dorsal and above the spine, so as not to kill them. If you do happen to kill one, you can still fish it. I've seen times where a dead shiner outproduces a live fathead. Still, the goal is to keep them alive at all costs. Change water when it becomes stinky, or before minnows die inside the tank and kill the others.
Rig lively ones with as much as a 1/8-ounce sinker clipped on or sliding no more than 6 inches above the bait. If you go higher, an erratic baitfish can swim up and tangle in the rest of your rigging. That's usually truer for chub species or suckers, but either way, don't give a heavy-thumping minnow too much chain.
For dainty shiners and ultra-finesse presentations, a small crimp-on sinker 12 inches above the hook works just fine. Small gold or plain hooks can reign supreme over bright red ones, but experiment with these and even teardrop-style lures to see what fish like. In February, I'm usually running almost all plain hooks.
Whether presenting below a rod and reel or a stationary set like a rattle reel, use the smallest bobber or line marker possible to detect a bite. I strongly prefer a dead stick-style rod that can telegraph bait movement, indicate a slow take and demonstrate a pickup-and-drop just by the way it behaves in a rod holder. However, it's nice to keep hands and eyes free when busy and instead rely on the audible tone of lightly set rattle reels to tackle a tough bite.
Whatever species you're pursuing, observe a few live-bait rules and you'll improve your success in February, no matter where you fish. Source a good supply of quality bait, care for it in your garage and take only what you need to the ice. Then, employ finesse rigging on the lake to deliver the most lively, natural presentation possible. These small details really pay dividends in February, or any time the bite goes south.