By Fish & Tackle Editor Vic Attardo
Tim Slater and I were cleaning panfish in his basement after a long day out on the Pennsylvania ice. It was late January, and several days of unseasonably warm weather had reduced the ice from 7 inches to maybe 4 inches. It was still plenty safe; during the night the holes refroze and the surface water disappeared. But during sunny afternoons, the ice face was getting wet and mushy.
When the work was done, we started poking around with the tips of our knives into the messy entrails left on the board. We were curious about what the fish had eaten. The perch and crappies were mostly empty except for some half-digested minnows and a glop of gluey things there was no easy way to identify. The minnows looked suspiciously like the little fatheads many ice anglers use for bait.
The bluegill guts showed some of the same half-digested goo, minus the minnows. But a couple of the biggest fish were stuffed with red, wormy-looking things that I recognized as midge larvae.
Apparently, increasing daylight penetrating thinning ice had awoken some of the creatures buried in the lake’s soft bottom. Emerging midge larvae had exposed themselves to these bluegills, and they had feasted on them.
The quarter-inch squishy larvae were dark red with an even darker red head and not much else by way of distinguishing characteristics, but looking at them gave me an idea. A bunch of us were going ice-fishing again the next day, so I decided to visit the local grocery store and pick up a little something from the baking section, a bottle of red food coloring.
After arriving back home, I went to my basement where I kept a bunch of live spikes and wax worms in sawdust. I picked out a day’s supply of spikes—soft, white, wormy larvae—and divided them into two containers. Into one I squeezed an ample amount of red coloring. I shook it into the sawdust and onto the bait, and then I put both containers away.
Sometime the next morning, during the early drive or the drilling of the ice holes, I forgot what I had planned, opened the bait that hadn’t been dyed, and started fishing with that. The bluegills were not especially responsive.
But then the cold light bulb went off, and I opened the container with the doused larva. I was rather dissatisfied with what I saw. Instead of acquiring the dark red color I had hoped for, the spikes were mostly pale pink. It was tough to tell if they had turned color from the inside out, whether they had ingested some of the colored pulp or had simply come in contact with the food coloring. Other than that, they didn’t show any ill effects from the dye job.
I tied a 1/64-ounce black jig to the 3-pound-test Stren Ice line on my jigging rod and added three pink wax worms as bait. The black head jig made the whole offering look darker. No sooner did I lower the bait into the hole—where I had previously fished a white jig and a colorless wax worm without any takers—than a bluegill took the offering and I reeled it up.
At such times, I experience a moment of breathlessness, like I’ve just discovered the secret behind cold fusion or something like that.
Another jigging rod sat in a holder less than 3 feet away. It dangled a chartreuse jig, and it, too, had not been touched. I lifted it out of the hole and dropped in the half-chewed pink offering. Another bluegill took the bait.
For the next hour or so I enjoyed doling out the dyed spikes to my friends and watching them connect with fat gills. I smiled through every comment from, “Where did you get this stuff?” to “I didn’t know they made pink bait.”
When the doctored bait ran out, so did the great fishing. We still caught bluegills, just not nearly as many. Of course, we all had switched to jigs and trailers that were red, pink or purple, and that helped. But the tinted bait had been the hotticket.
As the ice season lengthens more insect larvae crawl out of the muck and debris of the bottom. This can start anytime from late January through March. In the southeast corner of Pennsylvania where I often pursue bluegills, mid-January is usually the time. In the Pocono Mountains of New York, the bugs on the bottom don’t get going until later in the year.
Regardless of when it occurs, mimicking the color of the emerging larvae with doctored baits, soft plastics, or jigs of the same color has proven it’s worth time and time again. It’s an easy way to improve late-winter ice-fishing.
Searching through the entrails of caught panfish is a messy operation, but it has revealed mayfly, midge and caddis fly larvae as the winter ice has waned. The caddis fly worms are puffier than the midge larvae. So far, I’ve found cream, tan, apple green, and dark green caddis worms in the innards of winter panfish. Green food coloring is a workable addition for the latter larva.
Midge larvae are thinner and even more delicate in appearance. They do not have the puffy bodies. The midge larvae I’ve found have been black or dark red.
Mayfly larvae are considerably different, and I suggest you locate either a high school biology book or a fly-fishing manual for photos or illustrations. Also, you might scan a fly-fishing supply catalogue to get a general idea of the characteristics of the dozens and dozens of mayfly larvae patterns. In a semi-digested condition, I’ve seen a narrow band of colors from very dark grey to black. The flattened shape and segmented body are more distinguishing characteristics than is the color.
Another improvement I’ve been making is the addition of fly-fishing flies to my ice lines. I tie one or two to the main line as droppers and use a tiny jig as the main weight. I connect the first fly only 4 or 5 inches above this jig while the other is tied on 4 or 5 inches above that. Unless the gills are very active, this is not the time for adding droppers a foot or two above the bottom hook.
I tie my own generic Gold-Ribbed Hare’s Ear pattern, but with small, puffy marabou tails rather than the harder biots the pattern calls for. Tied in this way, I get maximum motion with minimal movement. Dead-sticking with the slightest quiver brings these dropper flies to life, and the bluegills respond. The maxim “less is often more” certainly applies here.
When using a jigging rod for ice-fishing, too much emphasis can be put on the vertical jigging. We tend to raise and lower the rod several inches to a couple of feet. But bluegills often respond better to no vertical movement at all, just a slight shimmy.
I like to begin by showing gills a little up and down movement, but if I don’t get a strike, instead of increasing the action, I dead-stick the lure with minimal motion. This has paid off so often I consider it a proven technique for winter bluegills.
I allow a slight tremor in my hand so that the jig flicks ever so lightly. If you were standing a few feet away, you might not even see the slight shiver I put in my wrist to give the jig the minutest of horizontal movement. Seven feet down below the ice, the jig must shudder no more than a blade of grass in a spring breeze.
But based on results, I’m sure that tiny tempo is easily detectable by even a sluggish bluegill.
Another part of the technique is the strike detection and hook set. Most of the takes when dead-sticking can hardly be called strikes. If ever there was a time to apply the word “nibble,” this is it. If you’re lucky, you might feel a slight tap, but mostly it’s just a feeling of weight on the line because the bluegill has sucked in the bait and is sitting there, almost motionless. Sometimes I don’t realize I’ve hooked a bluegill until I lift the rod.
When I feel the fish, I use a short, quick snap of the wrist to set the hook. Too strong of a hook set only increases the chances of pulling the tiny jig or fly from the gill’s mouth. Think of the hookset snap as the speed you might apply to a bottle opener when popping the top off of a cold pop. It takes a little force to get the cap off, and if you go too slow the opener doesn’t grip the cap right. But too much force sends the cap flying.
When dead-sticking, I often don’t even hold the jigging rod. Instead, I place it in a holder attached to a bucket. With this set-up, there is no temptation to jig the rod. I simply stand by the bucket and wait for the rod tip to reveal the slightest movement. Setting the hook when a rod is in a bucket holder has its own technique, too, mostly a timing issue.
Generally, I wait until I see a strong or repeated downward motion of the rod tip before touching the rod. I don’t grab the rod at the first tiny tap. I’ve tried that, and more often than not, nothing is there. However, if I wait for the rod to make a sharp snap or pull, I pretty much know something is hooked.
When a quality jigging rod is placed in a holder, it makes the hookset for you. At some point, the gill will make a vigorous enough plunge that the tip springs down.When it springs back up, the hookset is complete. Just lift the rod quickly from the holder and start reeling.
Two years ago, I switched to a light jigging rod with a blank that goes all the way through an aluminum handle. Known as a Fraybill Amplifier, this rod has significantly improved my strike detection when dead-sticking, and it makes its own hooksets when left in a bucket holder.
It seems that no matter how many winters my friends and I ice-fish for bluegills, we concoct some new little trick to catch a few more fish. Some of these tactics go directly into the catalogue of things we do; others are forgotten between seasons.
I don’t think we’ll ever be completely satisfied—not until every drop of a lure produces a strike.