February 01, 2015

Jigging style can make the difference between limit catches and only icing a few gills, but knowing how to work your lure to guarantee strikes requires good ‘ole practice and time on the water. So often, anglers hit the ice with the latest equipment, pop-up shanty, Ice Armor bibs and parka, Vexilar electronics, but fishing success often hinges on the lure you use, which bait you select and how you make the offering dance. This was the case in the following anecdote.

I was fishing one of my sweet spots, a bump on the bottom that sticks up in a shallow bay where gills congregate during first ice. I watched as a new angler arrived, drilled holes and began pulling fish at lightning speed. After watching several hand-size bulls hit the ice I eased closer to see what he was using. It looked like a larvae jig the model that is pre-rigged with Trigger X soft bait in UV lime green. But the angler’s jigging style was unorthodox, different than mine and profoundly more productive.

He was using yellow line tipped with clear leader attached with a Redwing ant or itsy black swivel. His leader was only about 2 feet long but his jigging style was completely backward from mine. He was dropping the jig in the hole and stairstepping downward while watching electronics. Some gills would slam the offering just a couple feet below the ice. He would set the hook, crank them up without disturbing the school found deeper in the water column.

I was surprised to see he was watching the yellow line for shallow bites, a bow or slack line indicated a strike from fish too high in the water column to see on electronics. If he didn’t get strikes up high he would dance the jig toward bottom in a stop-drop stairstep fashion. Once he hit bottom he would reverse the technique and stairstep the lure upward in the water column, drawing fish off bottom.

This fisherman was whipping me bad, catching two or three gills to my one. It goes to show that jigging style can be the key to success and this ice junkie was back at his truck with his limit while I was still struggling to hook fish.

Ice fishing has come a long way in a few short years and folks like Gentz have educated multitudes of fishermen, taught them the value of shelter, proper clothing, electronics, sensitive rods, spring bobber tips, super light line and fancy new lures to guarantee success. Sportsmen have finally uncovered the secrets to ice fishing success and today Michigan anglers are more productive at taking limit catches than any other time in the history of Michigan ice fishing. But there is still one important variable that separates the men from the boys when it comes to hefty catches, jigging style.

Gone are the days of heavy line and red/white bobbers. Modern anglers use premium ice line thin as spider thread tipped with itsy lures to outwit bluegills, crappie, perch and a host of panfish. But the trick to success often hinges on how you jig the lure. In most cases you need to make the lure swim, get the attention of lethargic fish, coax them close and entice them into biting. Perhaps the most effective strategy to accomplish this goal is a jigging technique that moves the offering upward in the water column in a stairstep fashion. Here’s why

Winter fish frequently sulk near bottom or midway between top and bottom. Begin by free spooling and allowing the tiny jig to drop to bottom. Start by twitching the lure close to bottom, and then jiggle it upward in an effort to get the attention of fish nearby. If no red bands appear on the electronics continue to jig upward/pause, jig/pause as you work the lure upward in the water column.

Usually gills will appear slightly beneath the lure and your goal is to move the jig upward very slowly with plenty of tip action to make it dance. Now, pause and allow the fish to slip kissin’ close, smell the bait. Hold still for a few seconds and wait for the spring bobber on the rod tip to indicate a strike. If the fish still is not biting lift the offering, jig it upward and entice him to follow. Then, stop and wait for a strike again. This jigging style requires good electronics to see the jig and the fish, sensitive rod tip and nerves of steel because fish are often within striking distance.

Bluegills are Michigan’s most popular ice fishing species. The author likes to hole hop by drilling several holes during midday and using electronics and stairstep jigging presentations to locate big gills. Author photos

In many ways the stairstep jigging action draws cold water fish into striking. Fishing this way can provide limit catches while other jigging tactics go dead. It is the golden ladder to fast paced ice fishing fun. Sort of like a stairway to fishing heaven, like climbing Jacob’s ladder through the clouds to heaven.

Stairstep jigging is my deadliest technique for any fish including panfish, trout, smelt, hawg walleyes and a variety of species. Learn this deadly method and I guarantee you are on the yellow brick road that leads to hefty catches.

Like the time I was over a large spindle of winter crappies. Rather than dropping the jig through the school I’d pick off active fish on top. Most fish that are suspended above the others are more active than bottom hugging brothers. The trick is to stop the downward falling lure, hold it slightly above the highest fish and get him to strike. This is also a great way to pick off schooled perch, one at a time, without spooking the school.

Just about any jig will work but because you are making the offering come alive by swimming the lure it is a good idea to select a jig that has a horizontal profile. Art Day makes a wonderful jig for this technique. The Tungsten Tubby works great for deep water perch and Larvae jig or Wax Tail jig are perfect. One of the hottest new jigs going is the Waxie jig with vertical format, large eye and ribbed body to match a wax worm. Jigs that have a horizontal profile are flatter on top and give off enhanced sonar echo making them easy to see on electronics.

Great catches begin with seeing your lure first, and then watching fish and how they react to your jigging style comes next. If you are not getting strikes try different lures, a variety of colors or sizes until you hit on the hottest combination. Gills can be finicky, some days they want glow jigs tipped with two waxies. The next they want brown or black lures rigged with one bait. Some days they want a falling jig; more often than not a slowly rising lure that dances horizontally and moves upward is the key to impressive catches.

A variety of baits work well for this presentation and I like to leave a tail hanging off the hook to wiggle, wave and pulsate in the water. Some folks are sold on the mayfly Impulse with micro plankton scent. Sometimes the wax tail with Trigger X will out perform real bait. My top choice is a waxworm. In deep water I like extra-large waxies but for most situations I prefer relatively small waxies.

Here’s the trick to fishin waxies: pin two small waxies on the hook and leave their tails hanging off to vibrate in the water. Neutral fish cannot resist pecking at the flailing tail and eventually get a taste of the bait and they gulp the hook. Active fish will key in on the movement of the waving tail, swim close and vent or inhale the presentation at lightning speed. Make certain to use fresh waxies. Keep them from freezing and store in your coat pocket to keep them warm and lively while fishing. Most folks store waxies in the frig but I keep them at room temperature, sort out weak or dead bait and give them oak meal to keep them eating, growing and healthy.

The stairstep method with live bait mimics the swimming action of small insects, freshwater shrimp and a variety of freshwater creatures. Each day can be different and the speed and distance you raise the jig must be experimented with to hit on the hot combination. At times fish will only move a certain distance off bottom and few strikes come higher in the water column. Other times gills will keep chasing the jig upward and strike close to the ice. Experimentation is the key to success.

A zillion years ago while fishing with the late Fred Trost, he approached me with a gasp and serious look on his face. “What are you doing?”was the question he asked regarding the growing pile of panfish taken from Lake Of the Hills private pond.

Apparently Fred didn’t understand ice fishing, using 8 lb. line with red/white bobber and froze his butt off for few fish. He was simply awestruck to see me tuna-fishin’ gills, pulling them one after another using light line, itsy hook tipped with bait and rod with spring bobber tip. Hey, don’t be naive about ice fishing, get with the program, use a sensitive spring bobber on your rod tip to detect strikes and make jigs swim.

Have you seen the new rod blanks where the line runs through the rod? Do you understand ‘long-rodding’ tactics that is a staple amongst tournament fishermen? Ambidextrous balanced rods with line running through rod blank, integrated spring bobber and technique specific action rods are the new fishing wave of the future. Don’t be stuck in the past about ice fishing like Fred Trost, take a peek at the new Frabill Black Ops Rod. Some say it offers the most sensitive bite detection available.

With any fishing it is important to select a location that holds fish. The idea is to begin with a Michigan lake that has plentiful populations of fish. Begin by starting in coves or bays and relatively shallow water come first ice.

Next move to drop offs, deeper structure like weed beds, rocks, stumps or anything that will attract and hold fish. As winter progresses and Old Man winter sends bitter cold and arctic conditions search out deep water liars where the water is somewhat warmer and more stable. Gills are often scattered throughout the water system but if you want the big bulls you need to drill plenty of holes, spend time searching and experimenting until you find the mother lode. Big bluegills often congregate where there is structure like clam beds, weeds, drop-offs, rocks, humps or bumps and more.

So if you want the golden gates in ice fishing heaven to swing open and provide unrivaled limit catches try a stairstep jigging presentation. The idea is to make your lure look like it is a live swimming organism. Tip it with bait to add smell and experiment with jig size and a variety of jigging speeds or rod tip actions to keep the lure dancing. Follow these suggestions and I guarantee you are on the road to heavenly catches, bigger fish and plenty of them.