Friday, January 27, 2012

On the Hardwater - Jigging Soft Plastics for Panfish

I started out typing up the second post in this series with the intention creating a follow up to the last one, "On the Hardwater - Ice Fishing Basics I".  It's currently a work in progress and I'll post it in a few days, but I decided instead to post something more detailed, a subject that is truly my passion when fishing for panfish, and that is fishing with artificials, specifically soft plastics.
This yellow perch fell for a Bass Pro Shops one inch pumpkinseed Squirmin' Grub.  Soft plastics can catch a lot of fish in a hurry, especially in early and late season. 
Years ago, my go to rig included a 1/80 ounce jighead, either chartreuse or orange, rigged with a one inch Bass Pro Shops pumpkinseed Squirmin Grub, fished on four pound monofilament line on an ultralight 24" fiberglass cheap fishing rod.  In fact, my first fish on the ice came on that jig.  I tore them up that day on them, and became hooked on ice fishing at the same time.  Since then, that jig has caught many a crappie, bluegill, yellow perch, trout and bass amongst other species through the ice.  Over the years, my soft plastic arsenal has grown, mostly as a carryover from fishing for panfish during open water season, then taken to the ice.

Why fish soft plastics?  There are times when fish of all species can't stop hitting them.  And, you don't have to worry about changing old bait, or replacing bait stolen by fish, and you can quickly get your lure back down to them.  And, there are even times when they won't hit anything else, for reasons I have yet to understand.  During a hot bite, I can catch an extra fish while my buddy is baiting a hook.

So, what kind of soft plastics work well on panfish?  In general, I think small and light, although there are times when bigger is actually better.  When it comes to color, I mostly use either natural colors when the water is gin clear and there is a lot of light penetration below, or bright or glow colors when it's dark or dingy down there.  But, there are times when they need to see something different, and a glow or bright color may work when the water is clear.  I'm also a fan of red and black, red when the water is clear, black any time but especially in dingy water.  As you might expect, glow colors work great at night.  Basically, try different combinations and let the fish tell you.  One way to do that is to fish two jigs in tandem, with different soft plastics on each one, and let the fish choose.
This rod is rigged with two Ratsos, about nine inches apart.  The color choice here includes glow pink and glow blue, both hot colors for crappie and bluegills on the lakes that I fish.  If they both work, I leave them both on.  If one works better than the other, then I try two of the hot color or try something different altogether.  These Ratso jigheads are glow color too.
One of my favorite rigs has two Custom Jigs and Spins size eight Ratsos rigged about eight to ten inches apart.  Preparing this rig involves a small swivel with a three foot leader.  Using your favorite fishing knot, tie a jig about ten inches from the end of the line, but do not cut the tag end.  Then, at the end of the line, tie on the second jig.  Then, add two different soft plastics and see which ones work the best.  Once you determine that, double up on that color, size, or style because you might hook up two fish at a time!  The swivel prevents line twist.  You can tie this rig without a swivel.  I'll go into the advantages and disadvantages of using a swivel later.
This is the rod tip of my broken South Bend fiberglass cheap jigging rod.  When it broke (slammed in the lid of my box), rather than tossing it in the trash, I made a spring bobber out of light spinner wire and a plastic bead, and used fishing line and shrink wrap to attach it to the end of the rod.  The spring helps me detect the lightest bites.  Notice the swivel that attaches to the leader and main line.
My plastics selection can be divided into two categories, scented and non-scented.  The non-scented plastics are the traditional types that you find that are effective when fishing open water for panfish.  The scented types are soft plastics that are biodegradable or have some sort of scent mixed in with the plastic that have really gained in popularity over the past several years.
These non-scented soft plastic baits are among my favorites and have iced many a crappie, bluegill, or yellow perch.  The left column includes external tube jigs and insider head tubes.  The middle column includes twister tails or grubs, and Ratsos.  To the right are various colors and styles of jigheads used to rig these hot baits.
This lure is called the Shrimpo, basically,
it's a verticle version of the Ratso.
Make sure when rigging this lure that
you keep the tail rigged as shown, you'll
get more bites that way.
I usually carry tube jigs, grubs and Ratsos as my staple go to baits for non-scented plastics.  In addition to the Ratso, I carry Kalin's two inch grubs, Bass Pro Shops one inch Squirmin' Grubs and 1.5" Squirmin' Tubes.  These are very effective on the hardwater and in the soft water for virtually any panfish.

I also carry a box of various soft plastics designed for ice fishing that include such interesting critters as the Little Atom Wedgies, Nuggies, Duppies, Skimpies and Micro Noodles.  While you're ice fishing, if someone approaches you with the intent of giving you a Wedgie, don't run away, it may help you catch fish!  Another new group of soft plastics from the Reel Good Guide Store broke onto the scene and promise to fill ice anglers boxes with plastics and most likely their buckets with a limit of panfish.  These lures hail in the names of the Ice Mite, Paddle Bug, and GoJo.

These plastics are carried in my "other" plastics box.  These are designed specifically for ice fishing, but can be used in open water with good success.  The top left and middle columns are soft plastics from the Little Atom company, while the column to the right are from Reel Good Guides.  The chartreuse jig to the left is made by a friend of mine, and the one below that is from Custom Jigs and Spins called the Purist.  The Purist is great in shallow water less than six feet.
There are other soft plastics out there designed for ice fishing or for open water panfishing, and the only thing that they need for them to work is for you to try them.  My advice is, that if you have confidence in a particular soft plastic when fishing for panfish during open water, chances are that they'd work under the ice as well.  I'm not loyal or biased toward any particular brand.  Rather, if I see something that I think will work, I'll try them.

So, what's another way to add some oomph to your non-scented soft plastic jig to further tempt finicky fish into biting?  Add scent.  There are many commercial brands of scent, including Fish Formula, Smelly Jelly, Bang and Berkeley Gulp juice to mention a few, and I'm sure that there are others.  Some people make their own using anise oil or cod liver oil as a base, then adding other flavors like garlic or other fish oils.  What works best?  I really don't know, but I use scent all of the time.  Scent, if anything, covers human scent and other things that might not appeal to the finicky taste buds of fish.  It's quite possible that fish might bite these scented lures because of the scent, but at a minimum seems to result in fish holding onto the bait longer.  That added time might be the difference between hooking up on a bite or the fish spitting the lure out.

Scented Lures, which include biodegradable lures, are claimed by their makers to outfish live bait.  I can sometimes say that about any soft plastic, but there are times that these scented ones out perform anything else.  Probably the most popular ones are made by Berkley, but also Yum and Mr. Twister make versions that are very tempting to panfish.  I carry a good supply of Gulp and Powerbait products.
The column to the left are Berkley Powerbait products, and to the right are Gulp products.  The Powerbait products are as follows, Power Grub, Power Wiggler, Power Spikes, and Power Trout Worms.  The Gulp products are, top to bottom, Gulp Minnow, Gulp Grub, and Gulp Maggot.  These are awesome for finicky panfish.

Can you tell that I like Berkley scented products?  I carry these on every ice trip, and use them!
When fishing soft plastics, sometimes the bite can be easily detected, but most of the time the bites will be light.  Using a spring bobber or a very sensitive ultralight rod really helps to detect the bites.  The best way to detect bites is to see them.  During the daytime, in clear water, I use an Aqua-vu underwater camera when I'm over a good number of fish that I've marked with my sonar.  I can see them inhale the plastic lure and set the hook before they can spit it out.  Sometimes these fish bite so light that you can't detect movement on your rod tip or from your line, but with a camera, you can nail them. 
Bluegills like this one often bite so light that you can't see the bite on even a spring.  That's when a camera comes in handy, set the hook when you see the bite.  Some anglers when fishing shallow water, will "sight" fish by laying on the ice and peering down the hole.  This is the same principle as when using the camera.
Night Time Crappie
One of my favorite patterns of the Ratso tandem rig is the night time crappie bite.  The camera isn't much use at night, I've found, because there's so much zooplankton activity at night that are attracted to your camera light that it blocks out most of your visibility.  So, two things are key, your sonar and the spring bobber (or a very sensitive rod tip).

Before I go on, in my last post I gave a lot of credit to my buddy Jeff Redinger.  I have to give him credit here too, for turning me on to the Ratsos.  Since he pointed them out to me, I've caught a ton of fish on them.

OK, back to crappie.  The first thing to know is that, at least from my experience, crappie feed up.  What I mean by that is that they seem to respond to lures that are worked above them rather than on the bottom or below them.  That's not to say that they won't chase a lure down or hit them off the bottom, rather, they seem to be much more aggressive to lures presented above them.

Another trait of crappie, especially at night, is they almost always suspend.  If you're lure isn't where they can find it, then you won't get bites.  This is where a good sonar unit comes in handy.  As discussed in my last post, "On the Hardwater - Ice Fishing Basics I", you can see your jig or, in this case, both Ratsos, and you can see the fish.  With suspended fish, you know exactly what depth they are holding at because you can see them, so you can effectively drop that lure into your hole and jig it just above them.  Without sonar, you might drop the lure below them or fish too high, and the fish won't see it.

Crappie that bite "up" often push the lure up on their attack, creating slack in your line, resulting in your spring straightening out or moving up.  If you don't have a spring bobber, you need to really watch your line and make sure that any weird slack that all of a sudden appears is followed by a hook set, because that could be a fish!

When working the tandem Ratsos, most of the time the fish are focused on the bottom one.  When there's a thick school, you may see them surround both of them.  If you hook one, let it thrash a second or two and you'll often get a second bite, and you can catch two at a time that way.

 Using sonar, or a flasher, along with my tandem Ratso rig, allowed me to catch panfish for three hours non-stop on this trip.  I kept a few of them for a nice panfish dinner, the rest were released to catch another day.  My Ratsos have done this for me time and again.
How do I tempt them into striking?  First, the fish need to see the lures.  You've presented them because you're using sonar and you're keeping your lure slightly above them.  I also like glow colors at night, so I'm always using a light source to keep them "charged".  What I like to do is keep the jigs just above them, then lightly jig the lure and barely move it so that the Ratso tail is barely quivering.  As you do that, slowly raise, then stop, then raise, then stop and draw the fish up higher in the water column.  Eventually, they can't stand it and will hit before the lure escapes.  There are times when they may chase it all the way to the hole!  You really have to pay close attention to your sonar and watch their behavior.  When the fish finally are tempted to your lure and appear to be one with your lure on the sonar, take your eyes off the sonar and closely watch your rod tip for the bite.

Another thing to watch is when there's a thick school, after catching a fish, you may be in a hurry to get that lure back down.  So, you drop your jig in the hole and it's sinking then all of a sudden stops, and you may not see anything on your sonar.  That's usually due to one of two things.  Either it's hung on some ice frozen at your hole, or it's a fish swallowing your jig on the fall.  Set the hook.  Crappie are notorious for doing this.

What happens when the suspended school of crappie disappears?  They probably haven't gone far away.  The school is most likely nearby enough to see your jig but just outside of the cone of your sonar.  So, to get them back, jig your lure aggressively until they appear on your sonar, then go back to what you did earlier to get bites.

One more thing about using a spring with this Ratso rig, it really helps when it's windy to find shelter to fish.  For me, it's my flip over style Fish Trap, that allows me to fish out of the wind so I can easily see and detect the lightest of bites.

So, why do predators like crappie bite these micro sized plastics, especially at night when they feed so much on minnows?  These soft plastics, along with other ice jigs, are great for imitating small crustaceans.  Remember why I don't like the camera at night, because the zooplankton are attracted to the light?  Those are the critters that the crappie are feeding on at night.  Zooplankton become much more active at night, rising in the water column, and the crappie are right there with them.  See why crappie suspend now?  You can imitate them in your jigging technique, and it could trigger strikes.  What do they look like if you don't drop a camera down there, you might ask?  Well, just look into your hole.  The light from your lantern attracts them to your hole, and you can see copepods, amphipods, and daphnia flitting about in your hole.

One final piece of important equipment needed for a good night crappie bite is a lantern.  I bring out a propane fueled Coleman lantern.  In my shanty, it not only provides a great light source, but helps keep it warm in there.  It could be in the teens outside and windy, but in my shanty I could strip down to a flannel shirt and be toasty as can be.  Lanterns are great also for charging up your glow lures.  I really believe that the light generated by your lantern attracts zooplankton, and the crappie are drawn there as well.  Just don't let your line get too close to the lantern, or you'll be retying a new rig (speaking from experience there).  Also, don't let it near the canvas on your flip over shanty or you'll be patching a hole prior to your next trip.

Before I forget, let me mention the advantages and disadvantages of using a swivel, as promised earlier in this post.  The swivel prevents line twist, and also adds a slight bit of weight which helps to load your rod tip when using light lures.  Line twist causes lures to spin.  Huh?  Well, when watching your lure with an underwater camera, if you jig any lure with spinning tackle, you will twist your line.  When you stop jigging, the line unwinds, and your lure twirls or spins under the water.  Fish will approach the lure and look at it, but most of the time won't bite a spinning lure and will eventually swim off.  Sometimes, but rarely, they'll wait for it to stop spinning and then bite.  You can reduce this twist by using a swivel, or, keep jigging the lure.  The lure won't spin as much if you keep it moving.  But if you have fish that will only hit whne you dead stick your lure, if it spins, you'll lose a chance at that type of bite.

The disadvantage of using a swivel is that it's another thing to see on your sonar, and sometimes the fish will actually bite it.  I've been tempted to put a small jig on it, but have never done that.  I wonder if it will work?  Hmmm...  Another disadvantage is that you have to keep changing your leader as you retie your jigs or change lures.  That's not a problem at home, but on the ice in the elements it's kind of tricky, especially with my old age and poor eyesight.  Oh, you're laughing eh?  Well, just wait until your my age and have to tie up a new rig with one or two pound test in a shanty in icy weather!  Obviously, the advantages outweigh the disadvantages.

Another thing that you can do with plastics is to use them to tip any of your ice jigs or spoons.  I really like doing that with the Berkley Gulp products, adding a Gulp Minnow Head or Minnow to a spoon can tempt bigger panfish or even bass, pickerel or walleye!
This Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon tipped with a Gulp Minnow Head will not only tempt jumbo perch, but may put a nice walleye or bass on the ice for you.
Which leads me to my next topic, bigger plastics.  Bigger baits catch bigger fish, right?  Well, that's sometimes true with panfish.  If the common forage of a lake is larger, and fish are feeding often on minnows or crayfish, bigger soft plastics might work even better than the micro ones mentioned above.  You can really clean up on slob bluegills, slab crappie, and jumbo yellow perch by giving them something a bit bigger and more tempting.  I've caught jumbo perch and crappie while jigging three inch soft plastics.  When the fish are aggressive, sometimes your best catches can result from going big.

Bigger can be better.  These jumbo perch and a bonus pickerel fell for three inch Gulp minnows on a 1/16 ounce jighead.
So, next time you go out on the hardwater, have a rod rigged with your favorite soft plastic lure for panfish, and give it a try.  You may find that you may catch more than you ever imagined.  This isn't the only or always the best way to catch panfish, so make sure to bring what you're comfortable with out on the ice, but give these a try, you may be pleasantly surprised.  Think of soft plastics like you would any other time of year, as another tool to catch more fish, a tool that I never leave behind.

For more ice fishing tips, techniques, talk and fishing reports, please visit


Anonymous said...

Hey FB, its BoutTime again.

Another good article as usual. I have used swivels with heavier spoons a little this winter, but couldnt put down the micro plastics long enough to give them a fair test. I dont use a swivel with micros, but I may rig one rod up with one next winter.

Ive also had the jig stop as its dropping, but wasnt fast enough to get the bail closed or grab the line to get a hookset. Alot of the stops were from a loop in the line that fetched up in one of the eyes, but some were for no reason that I could figure out. Probably a hit and spit.... I started dropping the line little by little by pulling it out by hand against the drag.

Keep the good articles coming buddy!


Fat Boy said...

Thanks BoutTime, much appreciated! Also, sometimes the line stops when ice builds up in the guides...I hate that. I usually spray some silicone on my line guides and it works most of the time, but wears off as the day goes on.

Anonymous said...

Fishing plastics is my main bait selection for both hard and soft water. They produce well and hold up great through many fish!

Fat Boy said...

Thanks for the feedback dbice, I agree 100%. When my buddy's are "baitin' up", I've got my jig down there catchin'! :)