Two things fascinate me about panfish. Their inquisitiveness and their fussiness in what they will and won't eat. When curious onlookers want to stay lock-jawed, I use a variety of dropper rig combinations to try to get them to open up.
|An example of the double tear (ice jig) dropper set up, with the top hook taking a sunfish.|
When they are aggressive, panfish have no qualms eating a spoon or jigging minnow, like a Rapala Jigging Rap, that's two-plus inches in size. But when they are fickle they rarely give an up-sized offering a second glance. Modifying these lures into a dropper rig; however, lets you keep the bulky profile to attract fish, while the dangling morsel will stimulate a bite from choosy customers.
To start, remove the center hook from either a spoon or a jigging minnow, then choose a dropper. One option is tying on a short 2- to 4-inch strip of 4-pound test monofilament or fluorocarbon. I like fluoro as its stiffer properties make it less apt to tangle; its near-invisible underwater trait provides a major stealth advantage. A bait-tipped hook, micro plastic or ice fly jig are all good dropper choices to attach to this set-up.
Clip-on chain droppers or 2-inch stinger hooks are another option and make it a snap to attach a dangling tidbit to a spoon or a jigging minnow. The heavier components and shortness of these droppers makes them unlikely to tangle in the lure, provided you don't overdo jigging moves. Single and treble hook options are available, and adding either a live or an artificial minnow head or maggots will sweeten the snack.
Sinkin' & Swayin'
One advantage of a spoon or a jigging minnow and dropper combination is that its weight and bulk quickly sink a bait near bottom on deep structures and flats where panfish frequent in winter. Once in the target zone the lure's flash, vibration and fish-like attributes will attract inquisitive panfish from far and wide.
Aggressive ones will readily chomp the dangling dropper without hesitation. Inactive species take more convincing, but this is where the dropper seals the deal. Toning-down jigging maneuvers causes the dropper to sway and stagger tantalizingly; a chain model adding a jingle-jangle audio trigger as well.
Two's Better Than One
When fish are extremely fussy the very presence of a big lure can turn them off or limit the time they'll linger looking at a bait. In these instances, a dual-jig dropper can crack the code on persnickety pannies. Jigged the same as a stand-alone ice jig, these droppers deliver more bang for your buck by letting you serve-up two snacks at a time.
There are no hard-and-fast rules for jig dropper distances, but generally speaking separating them somewhere between 8 to 20 inches is best. Unlike a spoon or a jigging minnow dropper set-up where the tight quarters of the combination helps trigger bites, the space between jigs on this rig is part of its appeal. This separation helps you sift through more of the water column to seek-out suspenders. Plus, when panfish won't rise-up to eat a bait, having two jigs quivering at different depths gives them multiple snacking options.
|A jig and fly hook dropper setup.|
These rigs also allow for different jig profiles and color combinations to simultaneously be presented to pannies, helping hone-in on their preferred palette. It's remarkable how some days a certain paint pattern or either the top or bottom dropper will get the majority of the bites.
There are a few different ways to tie a dual jig dropper. One is using a palomar knot to tie-in a vertical, "teardrop" ice jig. This method will change the orientation of the jig so its positioned horizontally with the hook point facing up. When tying this knot be sure to make a long tag end, as this will be used to attach the second jig. Both a horizontal or a vertical model will work.
A drop-shot approach can also be used, swapping out the upper jig for a hook tipped with a maggot or a finesse-plastic and exchanging the sinker for an ice jig. In all cases, the bottom jig should be the heaviest to prevent tangles when lowering baits or jigging.
Send 'Em a Stealth Line
Another technique can be used with ice jigs featuring a collar, such as a Northland Bro Bug or a Lindy Genz Worm. Tie on the jig direct, and then affix a dropper line around the collar using a loop or improved clinch knot. For an ultra-finesse approach, replace the bottom jig with a bait-tipped hook. This is as dainty as it is deadly for fickle panfish.
Use a 4- to 6-inch dropper for more aggressive fish, and a 12-inch lead for neutral ones in the 2- to 3-pound-test line range. At the business end, tie on a #16 to #20 fly hook tipped with one maggot or a tiny soft-plastic. Bluegill guru, Brian "Bro" Brosdahl of Max, Minn., showed me this fly-hook approach; it's ridiculously effective at fooling ultra-fussy panfish.
The trick to this rig is not over-fishing it; keep it slow with lots of pauses. This avoids tangling the stealth line and also makes the swaying bait appear irresistibly scrumptious.
Use a light rod raise or slow reel to set the hook. Play fish gently to avoid tearing the tiny fly hook from the panfish's lips.
Crank it Up
Compared to spoons and bulky ice jigs, small dropper hooks give off a faint signal on a portable sonar. Increasing the unit's sensitivity, or gain, will amplify the return of the dainty dropper on the display. This will help you keep tabs on the dropper's location in the water column and when it's in the vicinity of a fish.
|A spoon with an ice jig dropper.|
The All Important Landing
The advantage of droppers can also be their weakness. While spoon set-ups only feature one set of hooks, all the other rigs noted above feature multiple, separated hooks. The challenge is navigating a fish hooked on the bottom dropper through the hole without snagging the rig's upper hook. Patience and a gentle approach work best.
Gazing over the hole can help you maneuver the leading hook from catching on the hole's corner, but don't look directly down the line at the final approach. A fish coming unbuttoned is likely to send the rig whizzing straight up and out of the hole. Be mindful too of the dual barbs when unhooking a fish.
Integrate dropper rigs into your repertoire this winter. A dangling duo is a surefire way to hook more, fickle panfish through the ice.
Tip: Bang a jigging minnow or spoon on bottom to kick-up a silt cloud and attract fish. Then jiggle the dropper in the maelstrom to trigger bites.