Tiny Often Takes It

While big lures catch fish, the fact of the matter is the majority of what a fish eats is infinitesimal aquatic insects and crustaceans

By Mark Martin

Open up the tackle tote of most any ice angler and you’re bound to find an array of large lures for jigging.

But while big lures are known for catching big fish, the fact of the matter is the majority of what any fish eats, no matter the size and species, is tiny aquatic insects and crustaceans. Even full-size fish like walleye, lake trout, bass, pike and more you ask? Oh yea…

And this is why fishing with tiny jigs tipped with a tidbit of live bait or scented imitation often works so well. Especially so when the bite is slow.

There’s an awful lot that goes in to catching fish on tiny offerings and ultra-light rigs than meets the rod tip, however. Without the right equipment, a fish on can turn into broken line and a fish off in an instant. To boot, if the offering is not rigged correct to begin with, fish will turn tail without as much as taking a nip.

Imagine that

The trick to catching fish on minuscule baits is to make your offering not only look like the real thing, but wiggle like it as well.

Ponder, if you will, the tiny mayfly larvae; also known as a “wiggler” when you go searching for them at your favorite bait shop. The bug’s nickname has a lot to do with what I’m talking about here. If you have ever seen one you know the never-ending action these little critters employ, even when they are at “rest”.

When wigglers are moving from spot to spot or burrowing into a silted lake bed, they have an action similar to that of a spring-loaded car-dashboard hula dancer – pivoting wildly about midpoint their body. Unlike the dashboard bobble-body, however, even when sitting still on bottom or while grasping onto foliage, their feather-like gills are always pulsating as they breathe. In short: There’s never a motionless moment for these little bugs.

In fact, all aquatic insects and crustaceans are constantly stirring, whether they are bloodworms, water daphnia, freshwater scud (shrimp) and every creature in-between that all fish eat. And it’s this always-on-the-move action an angler needs to emulate at all times. Without it, fish aren’t as likely to strike. Because these creatures are what all fish eat, they know the real deal from afar.

It’s all because fish can not only see the movement of these creatures with their eyes, but feel the motion via their lateral line. You know, the nerve that runs from behind their eye down the side and through their tail. The lateral line is why they can hear… er, feel any movement pulsating through the water. And this “feeling” is how fish zone in on forage in stained and muddy water. And, yes, they use their lateral line in clear-water conditions, too.

Going down?

What’s the biggest trouble with getting tiny offerings down and in front of any fish’s face that I am marking on my Lowrance Elite-5 Ice Machine before they swim away? The lack of weight of the average miniature jig. And when coupled with the added water resistance from being skewered with live bait or fake can make for a very slow decent.

But with the right jig and gear it’s not as hard as one might think.

Take the latest alloy to hit the sporting goods store’s shelves: tungsten. This heavy metal is more than just a popular phase in ice-angling history. It’s much heavier than the jigs poured of lead many of us are accustomed to; thus it falls faster through the water column.

Take Northland Fishing Tackle’s Mooska Tungsten Jig, for example, with its tapered body that comes in three diverse weights and eight different glitter/color combinations, and all sporting huge life-like painted eyeballs. These jigs, when tied to the right line, fall like a rock before fish scatter from under foot.

What’s the right line, you ask? Either an ultra-light monofilament line of 1- to 2-pound test for panfish or 4-pound for larger species. One that is manufactured to stay soft in cold conditions, however.

By far the best monofilament line I have found for ice fishing is Berkley’s Trilene Cold Weather—which has the same flexibility at 32-degrees Fahrenheit as other lines do at 70 degrees—or Berkley’s FireLine Micro Ice Fused Crystal or Fused Original. Both are formulated to withstand the brutality ice fishing can bring on. And all have an extremely-thin diameter, which is crucial for making small offerings come alive with the lightest jiggle of the rod tip.

No matter the lure, all obtain their best action when tied to the lightest pound test you can get away with. For instance, one of the small jigs I am talking about here when tied to, say, 20-pound test, would have very little life-like movement. Simply: It would not “flow” to and fro with any current below the ice like live forage would. Those same jigs when tied to the abovementioned line tests have the most action a little lure could be allowed.

Nipped, not tipped

To add the most action to a tiny tear-drop-type jig possible, live bait or scented imitation should be nipped onto the hook, not tipped.

This means when I add a wax worm, spike or wiggler fresh from my Plano Small Worm/Leech Lodge (yes, perfect for tiny bugs in cold weather, too) or when adding a single Gulp! Fish Fry, Maggot or 1-inch Gulp! Minnow Alive! to a petite jig, all should be just barely ‘nipped’ through the tip of the body onto the hook, not impaled. This allows the abovementioned “jointed” action to your offering; the pivoting action imitating most any minuscule forage fish feed on.

Smooth sailing

Do you have an ultra-light rod that bends efficiently without the angler fearing line breaking under the strain of a large fish? How about a reel that has a smooth-as-silk drag for when a fish makes a run?

Overall, an ultra-light ice-fishing rod fixed with a reel that has a drag that flows smoothly—like the ABU Garcia Orr SX spinning reels I use that balance perfectly with most any ultra-light ice rod—can handle most any fish that swims under the frozen surface of a lake.

I, for one, tend to crank the drag down on any reel so that no line come out unless I back-reel the handle. if you are not used to back-reeling yet, However, a reel with a smooth drag will allow large fish to run when they want, thus lessoning the chance of you losing them.

Little is a lot

When jigging little lures, I find a very modest action is the best you can give your offering.

Again, head over to your local bait-and-tackle store and observe the bugs they have for sale. Although they are wiggling and waggling all over the place, their movements can be measured in millimeters, not inches. And this is how you should be presenting your offering.

Just vibrating the tip of your ice rod will add a whole lot of action to your jig. And a jittering bug has a more natural movement than one given several inches of rise and fall.

Strikes, too, are often very light; nearly undetectable if you’re not paying attention. Time and again, a bite may be telegraphed as nothing more than when your rod tip stops moving while you’re wiggling it.

No matter what, anytime something feels out of the ordinary when you are jigging, set the hook.

Tip, jiggle, set

Looking to land a whole lot of fish this ice-fishing season, especially during those days the bite seems to be off? Just tie on a tiny jig, nip it with live bait or fake, and send it down to the same depth you are marking fish on your sonar. Just give your lure a little jiggle to allow your offering the same action as the forage, and set the hook at the slightest hit.

You’ll be surprised at the size and species of fish you catch throughout the winter months.

Mark Martin is a touring walleye tournament professional, as well an instructor with the Ice-Fishing Vacation/School. Check out his website at markmartins.net for more information on any equipment mentioned above as well the Fishing/Vacation Schools offered throughout the Midwest.