January 26, 2022
- This article was featured in the Midwest edition of the December-January issue of Game & Fish Magazine. Click here to subscribe.
Live bait has long dominated the ice fishing arena, especially for panfish species, which often key on small insect larvae.
However, in recent years a wave of new miniature soft plastics has emerged. More ice anglers are testing these promising plastics to see if they offer any benefits over their go-to live baits. Many have enjoyed the results, with some even suggesting these fakes offer an upgrade to their traditional live-bait approaches.
So, what makes these new soft plastics so attractive? Much of it may boil down to efficiency and a general change in the tactics of ice anglers. With quality lightweight drills and advanced electronics, many are adopting more mobile strategies that aren’t conducive to lugging around bait. Others just want a more streamlined process.
John Crane, a renowned Bemidji-area angler and tackle designer for Clam Outdoors, describes a natural evolution among anglers and a desire to be more efficient on the ice.
"Live bait is getting to be old-school," he says. "Quality live bait can be tough to get, and it requires care and maintenance. With plastics, fishermen are spending more time fishing—and often out-fishing the live-bait angler."
Plastics are also usually available in whatever shapes fish are feeding on at the time. The same isn’t always true at the local bait shop. Stores may run out of one high-demand bait, forcing anglers to choose less-desirable alternatives.
Some believe these faux baits are even more realistic than the squirmy wax worms and spikes they mimic. Live wax worms and spikes can become notoriously limp when threaded on a hook; many times, they fall off, too. Plastics, however, often look livelier in the water. And their advocates say these artificials look incredibly natural when fished with compact tungsten jigs. Meanwhile, for hard-to-find live baits like bloodworms, artificials may be the only option.
Brian "Bro" Brosdahl, a veteran Minnesota ice fisherman and bait designer for Northland Fishing Tackle, believes in the power of plastics. Years ago, he convinced John Peterson, the founder of Northland Tackle, to make a plastic bloodworm for ice anglers. It worked well and became a precursor to the Impulse line of plastic baits now sold across the country.
READ: 2022 Ice Fishing Gear Buyer's Guide
"[The Impulse baits] catch crappie, bluegill and perch and are even better than live bait because they look like what fish are foraging on," Brosdahl says. "The movement and silhouette of soft plastics better represents life in its purest primitive form. A soft plastic undulates like a living thing. A chunk or clumpy piece of bait doesn’t."
When evaluating soft-plastic baits for panfish, he suggests examining three key attributes: profile, action and scent. Does a bait look like the real thing? Does it move like the real thing in the water? Does it have a similar smell that entices fish to bite?
Many of today’s plastics seem to check all these boxes.
Panfish gorge on a host of different critters beneath the ice, many of which are difficult for us to even see. Bloodworms, wax worms, mealworms, spikes, euro larvae, mousies, nymphs, fish fry, plankton, freshwater shrimp or scuds and various minnows all are consumed by cold-water panfish. Thankfully, many great plastics imitate these micro-sized live baits very well. Most fall into different styles or categories, though they are also pretty nebulous, often mimicking several food sources simultaneously.
Larvae are top fodder for winter panfish. The bloodworm is a particular favorite, but fish like larval forms of many flies and moths. The Impulse Bloodworm that Brosdahl helped devise years ago remains popular today. The company’s newer Impulse Skeleton Minnow is another solid bloodworm mimic that also resembles tiny baitfish, tadpoles and various insects.
It has a forked tail, segmented body and a ringworm head that makes for easy hooking. Clam Outdoors’ Maki line of soft plastics offers one more bloodworm candidate with its Bloodi, which also simulates various worm and plankton shapes when its pronged tail rides the shank of a jig hook.
DeLong Lures’ Pre-Rigged Corn Borer is a solid wax worm option. For mousies, look to Northland’s Impulse Slug Bug or Custom Jigs & Spins’ Ratso and Tutso—which can also resemble small minnows—and their Original Finesse Plastic replacement tails.
Shrimp, Scuds and Crayfish
Everybody loves shrimp, but panfish really do! Clam’s Maki Scudi XL imitates tiny freshwater scuds (shrimp) that panfish feast on in winter. Northland’s Impulse Scud Bug is another scud pattern, featuring lifelike antennae, legs and a hinged flitter tail. Custom Jigs & Spins Shrimpo and Purest, which also imitates Daphnia, are other good choices.
Crayfish are popular for panfish (and many other fish), too. Clam’s new Maki Chunki is a solid match for the crustacean and is deadly on a tungsten drop jig.
Panfish enjoy nymphs, the immature form of certain insect species, almost as much as trout do. A Hexagenia (mayfly) hatch ignites fish and angler delirium alike in summer, but seasoned ice anglers know panfish feed on mayflies long before the bugs take wing. Northland’s inch-long Impulse Mayfly mimics the nymphal stage very well, as does the new Clam Maki Wammi, which features tiny, writhing appendages.
The Wammi also imitates shrimp well. While it doesn’t represent any nymph specifically, the 3/4-inch Digger’s Jig Tails Skeleton Bug is a very buggy-looking bait that has a lifelike fluttering action.
Wedgees and Stingers
While not specific food sources, wedgees and stingers suggest various forage, including microorganisms like zooplankton and the ever-popular bloodworm. Other plastics also mimic these foods, but these two bait types work particularly well.
Stingers (also called "nuggies") feature an inch-long plastic tail that narrows to a teeny tip at one end with a ball head at the other. These plastics resemble sperm under a microscope. However, crappies and other panfish love them, especially glow-colored ones during low-light periods. The Clam Maki Polli, Digger’s Jig Tails Ice Stinger and Little Atom Nuggie fall into this category.
The wedgee, or wedge, meanwhile, is basically a tail that tapers to an incredibly thin, wispy tip. This plastic creates a ton of subtle action with very little rod movement. It can also be trimmed to any desired length. The Custom Jigs & Spins Wedgee, Little Atom Wedgee and Digger’s Jig Tails Slab Wedge are good picks. Whichever one you use, always align wedgees evenly on hooks to ensure proper action.
Many plastics resemble minnows, minnow heads and other baitfish. Some of those previously discussed also imitate these forage fish well. A few specific options, however, include Northland’s Impulse Mini Smelt, which suggests young-of-the-year minnow fry, and Clam’s Mino, Mino Head and Mino XL.
Spiders, Ants and Oddballs
There are several different plastics that might not mimic specific insects but are still really buggy-looking and catch fish. Some include spider or octopus patterns with splayed-out legs or tentacles attached to a grub or rounded core. Examples include the Little Atom Spidgie, Digger’s Jig Tails Ice Spider, the Clam Maki Neki and Maki and the Custom Jigs & Spins Nuclear Ant and replacement legs. Small tube baits like Berkley’s new PowerBait Pre-Rigged Atomic Teasers also drive fish crazy with their tentacles and teaser.
After finding the right plastics, hit the ice, determine where the fish are holding and properly present your baits.
BLUEGILLS and SUNFISH
Bluegills and related sunfish family members become incredibly popular when northern lakes don their ice caps. While bluegills get most of the love, all are fun to catch—and tasty to eat.
Brosdahl says bluegills are creatures of edges, structure and weedbeds, especially in winter. He likes carrying various colors to suit water color and light conditions and “selling” bluegills with bait action.
"A jittery, jerky action triggers their aggression," he says. "A shimmying action can get the most tight-lipped bluegill to open up and eat it."
He feels bright colors like orange, pink and gold draw more strikes. Once one fish in a school bites, he says, anglers can capitalize on bluegills’ wolf-pack mentality for fast action. Like crappies, ’gills and similar sunfish have binocular vision, and what they feed on is difficult to see with the naked eye, which is why micro-sized baits often work well.
Mike Albano, another veteran ice angler, often likes a "finesse" approach, using light line (1- to 3-pound test), tiny jigs and natural-color baits. But, he says, some days a tungsten head with gaudy diamond sparkles draws aggressive bites.
He often finds his biggest fish near bottom in thick vegetation. While he looks for holes in those dense beds to fish, he also creates his own by pushing a piece of PVC conduit into thick mats. He then lets the spot rest, returning later to fish the pocket with high-vis glow baits.
The best time to start ice fishing for crappies is the fall. That is, fall is when you should start pinning down winter crappie spots. Clam’s John Crane likes finding the open-water areas that produced from September through November and then investigating them in the ice season. Brush piles fish favored in autumn often remain crappie magnets in winter. Also, check deep edges of aquatic vegetation in 6- to 18-foot depths.
While daytime surges of crappies into shallow water are not uncommon, the most consistent bite is at dawn and dusk. Albano, who prowls the ice of northern Illinois and southern Wisconsin, says he often arrives just as others leave.
Bait-wise, he likes Dan Langenfeld’s supple Digger’s Jig Tails line of soft plastics. He usually fishes these on 1/32- to 1/16-ounce round jigheads.
Whatever you fish with, presentation is key. Brosdahl suggests a slow lift-and-fall presentation and subtle twitches between pauses. He keeps his jig above the fish set up highest in the hole. Crappies will move up to grab a bait but rarely pursue one below them. He says the fish located highest in the water column often is reluctant to move, but once it does, as with bluegills, it can yield a feeding frenzy.
Glow plastics shine (literally) for low-light crappies. At these times, Crane swaps from standard to fluorescent colors, favoring pink and glow orange, which suggest shrimp and crayfish. Glow white and chartreuse produce, too.
Sunfish species may dominate ice-season discussions, but ears prick up with whispers of "jumbo perch." Yellow perch rival their cousin, the walleye, in table fare, and their elegant barred flanks and sunset-orange fins add to the delight of icing them. Hungry, aggressive perch mean torrid winter action.
"Perch often act like a swarm of bees," Brosdahl says. "One hits your bait, and another is there trying to take it away."
Crane says he often finds perch in three separate tiers: 7 to 9 feet of water, 14 to 32 feet of water on mid-lake rock piles and humps, and suspended in deep water below 32 feet. This final group he describes as roamers—schoolies working pelagic baitfish. According to Albano, perch also like sand grass (chara) and a dark bottom. He says that combo often leads to the bigger perch.
PITCH A PLASTIC
Live bait won’t exit the ice-fishing arena any time soon. It still catches lots of fish, and remains a "go-to" for when the bite gets truly tough. Even hardcore plastics advocates sometimes hang a wax worm fragment beside their plastic for more scent and flavor in challenging conditions or when fish get lockjaw.
But today’s writhing, undulating plastics are here to stay. These eye-catching artificials have a power all their own—one that can turn a school of lazy panfish into a raging mob.