As March draws to a close, the end of this particularly long, brutal winter is in sight. Late ice delivers some of the season's best action as fish are frequently active and eating. Days are longer, the sun's stronger, and meltwater is trickling into lakes and rivers. All of these cues tell fish to get chewing. During this time, using moderate to big baits is rarely a bad call.
Upsizing baits has many virtues, including that bigger profiled lures can appeal to trophies at late ice. On my recent outings, 2-inch tubes and 2.25-inch finesse minnows iced good sized crappie and perch. Both baits are a far cry from maggot-tipped ice jigs, micro-spoons, and 0.5- to 1-inch plastics I was jigging in the dead of winter. Although the soft baits I was using were on the large size, I rigged them on a 1/32- to 1/16-ounce jig head. This gave them a slow, low-key fall that helped seal the deal and prompted interested panfish to pounce.
Also, consider vibrations in the equation when upsizing hard baits. When rattling spoons, darters and lipless crankbaits are jigged aggressively they emit heaps of noise. This creates a wide auditory footprint, making these lures "fish big," so to speak.
Noisy lures can also stimulate reaction strikes from aggressive fish. Last March I almost had my ice stick pulled from my hands when a northern pike slammed the Rapala Clackin' Rap I was rip jigging. While not a gigantic lure by any means, it sure is loud. The pike attacked the bait so quickly that there was barely any lag between the arrival of its signal on the sonar screen and when my ice rod bucked over from the impact. That's high-octane fishing — and that's why late ice is so much fun.
I suppose a caveat, or a confession, is in order: I have used small lures at late ice. This is typically a tough-fishing strategy, such as when fish are sluggish during a cold front or when they're ultra-wary after sustaining heavy angling pressure, which can happen when word gets out about a hot late-ice bite. While it's unwise to ignore compact offerings completely, come late ice I reserve dainty baits for special-ops while bigger ones get fished more frequently.