Opt for live bait
Gord Pyzer’s 4 secret tricks for making your minnows irresistible
I rarely use live bait in winter. It’s not that I dislike it—I just catch more and bigger fish with artificial lures on most days. Still, there are a few times each winter, typically during the dog days of February, when live bait excels. But here’s the rub: I’m more fanatical about the way I rig my live bait than I am with any other presentation. Indeed, I’m convinced the reason so many ice anglers fail miserably in the winter relying on live bait is that they think it’s so natural it has to work, and they don’t pay attention to details.
If ever there was a need for delicate, spiderweb-like line, super-sharp, wafer-thin wire hooks and negligible weight, it’s when you’re presenting live bait beneath a float or noodle-tipped deadstick rod. For tight-lipped black crappies, brook or rainbow trout and perch that I can see on my sonar screen, I drop down ultra-limp one-, two- or three-pound-test line (above). For bigger walleye and saugers, I’ll consider going to four- or five-pound test. You simply can’t believe the difference a one-pound change in line strength will deliver.
It also makes a big difference when you knot a thin-wire, needle-sharp, #4 to #8 splitshot or drop-shot hook (above) to the end of your line. This terminal tackle will only work its magic, however, if you hook on the minnow properly. To do that, slide the end of the hook under the skin above the minnow’s backbone behind the dorsal fin so the point is facing toward the head. Done right, it should look as if your minnow has a tiny sliver under its skin.
Another detail: If I’m fishing in a permanent or portable ice shack and my holes aren’t freezing over, I’ll suspend a minnow under the lightest, most precise slip float possible. For tough-bite crappies, I’ve even used wooden toothpicks (above) for floats, giving new meaning to the word “sensitive.”
Whatever float you use, it’s important to remember that you want at least 75 per cent of it hovering below the waterline—it’s just that delicate of a balancing act. When they’re rigged right, you’ll see as many or more fish take your bait when the float rises up slightly and comes to attention as when it dives down and out of sight.
How you weight your line is also important. I like to stagger several small splitshot (above) a foot or two above my hook the same way steelheaders do, rather than use one clumsy sinker. And adding too little weight is always better than adding too much. Remember, you want your hooked minnow to be able to try to swim away excitedly, then get pulled back beneath your hole by the weight.
From time to time, I’ll dispense with the splitshot and experiment with 1/48- to 1/16th-ounce jigheads so I can incorporate some fish-attracting colour—red, chartreuse, yellow or fluorescent orange—into the scheme. It’s a deadly combination.
Fishing editor Gord Pyzer hones his ice-fishing skills near Kenora, in northwestern Ontario.