Fishing on ice regularly puts anglers up against fussy fish and coaxing onlookers to bite is one of the fun challenges of this winter activity. Carrying a good selection of soft-baits and using them either as the main presentation or to tip a hard-bait are two reliable tactics to trigger hits from choosy customers. Soft-baits are also less messy and easier to manage in winter than certain types of live bait. Here are some recommendations on soft-baits to carry this winter.
|Berkley PowerBait Swim Shad|
Minnows & Swimbaits
Having a baitfish imitation in your tackle bag is a must on the ice. For big predators like lake trout, northern pike, and trophy walleye minnows and soft jerkbaits spanning three to four inches are lethal when fished on a 1/8- to 3/8-ounce jig head. Carrying white baits should top your list, but also consider shiner, smelt, and perch patterns as good second choices.
Swimbaits, like the Berkley PowerBait Swim Shad or Gary Yamamoto Custom Baits's Swim Senko, between two to three inches are also effective ice fishing presentations. The boot-tail appendage of these plastics works well to call in fish and when reeled up the water column portrays a fleeting, panicking baitfish that few predators can pass-up attacking.
Smaller baits of two inches or less are also good to have on hand. These micro minnows work extremely well for finessing walleye, trout, and panfish when rigged on 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jig heads. The Lunker City Fin-S Fish or Bass Pro Shops Baby Shad are two good examples of these lures.
If I could carry only one style of soft-bait on the ice I would choose a tube jig in almost all cases. Their profile and spiraling, injured-forage fall makes them irresistible to all sport fish. A 3 to 4 inch white tube on a 1/4- to 1/2-ounce jig is one of the best all-time lake trout ice fishing baits. It will also fool pike inhabiting the same deep-water habitat that are feeding on pelagic baitfish, like smelt or lake herring.
|Northland Tackle Slurpies Panfish Tubes|
Small tubes between one and two inches, such as Bass Pro Shops Tournament Series Squirmin' Squirts or Northland Fishing Tackle Slurpies Panfish Tubes, are also dynamite baits for panfish, trout, and whitefish. Off-white versions can be jigged throughout the water column to mimic an injured baitfish or to decoy a super-sized scud (i.e., freshwater shrimp). Another effective tactic is banging, quivering, and dead-sticking a brown or green tube on the bottom to replicate a nymph or a crayfish. This technique is particularly deadly at piquing the interest of yellow perch, given their affinity for these crustaceans.
It is also worth noting that small tubes work well for tipping spoons. Remove the treble, thread the tube on the hook shank, and then re-attach it to the lure. This modification dramatically enhances the action and triggering qualities of the lure thanks to the added tentacles and extra color.
One final tip when using tubes beneath the ice — be sure to tie-in a small swivel a few feet up the line as vertically jigging these soft-baits creates plenty of line twist.
Bugs & Other Creatures
Soft baits that imitate aquatic insects and invertebrates will regularly fool sunfish, crappie, perch, trout and the occasional fussy walleye. The good news is that there's a cornucopia of choice available.
One profile that's good to carry is a nymph, such as Uncle Buck's May Fly Rigged Soft Bait. Hellgrammite imitating soft baits will also appeal to panfish, although they're often earmarked as an open-water offering. On a recent outing I watched Pure Fishing pro-staffer, Paul Vrooman, land several slab crappie using a black Berkley Gulp! Hellgrammite rigged on a small jig head. The invertebrate impostor piqued the interest of the bigger fish in the school and out-produced more traditional offerings, like jigging spoons. The moral here is it pays to use buggy baits when ice fishing panfish.
Grubs & Finesse Tails
Small grubs, like the Berkley PowerBait Power Grub or Bass Pro Shops Squirmin Grubs, are also worth carrying for panfish and trout on ice. Working a bait using light hops and twitches will call-in fish, while rocking a rod slightly will get the tail dancing enough to trigger a bite from onlookers.
|Berkley Gulp Fish Fry|
When it comes to teasing fussy fish to bite, finesse tails are a phenomenal soft-bait presentation. Examples include Bass Pro Shops Baby Shad, Bass Assassin Shad Assassin - 1.5'' Tiny Assassin and Berkley Gulp Fish Fry. Like grubs, these can be rigged on their own on small jig heads. Another option with a micro version is rigging it on a tiny ice jig as a substitute for maggots.
Eggs & Heads
One consideration when coaxing fish to bite beneath the ice is that it's critical to give them a target, specifically the hook. Tipping a jigging spoon with a minnow head is a time honored example of this practice. The added meat enhances the smell and action of the lure. When fish attack they strike the minnow head and, in turn, the hook, which maximizes your chances of a quality set, boosting the odds of landing the fish.
The Berkley Gulp! Alive Minnow Heads work well as a real minnow substitute given that Gulp! is scent-infused and extremely durable. A Gulp! head can be skewered on a hook, but I prefer to remove the treble from the split ring on spoons and jigging minnows and thread the head on the hook shank before reattaching. This ensures a balanced bait and keeps the soft-bait on the hook longer.
A notable substitute for an artificial minnow head is a product like Berkley PowerBait Chromo-Glow Crappie Nibbles. These can be rigged in a similar manner as a minnow head and work well to bolster a bait's color and add scent.
Don't get caught without soft-baits on the ice this season. Whether fished as the primary presentation or used to amplify a lure's action, scent, and color, these squishy baits will increase the number of fish you land this winter.