Lace up the right lure at the right time and you’ll put more fish on the ice. To help you do so, ICE FORCE enlisted four top pros to share tips for using the top-four ice-fishing lure styles – spoons, jig-and-plastic combos, rattlebaits and minnow-imitators.
As popular as spoons are, many anglers still struggle with when and how to use them, and which type to use where. “Too many people simply use spoons as a bait-delivery-method, but there’s a ton of nuance and action to each spoon type,” says ICE FORCE pro Joel Nelson.
Many anglers fish spoons too erratically, moving them too much and too far. “They never quit moving them,” says ICE FORCE pro and Freshwater Fishing Hall of Famer Tom Neustrom. “The bite will happen and they don’t even know they had a bite.”
Nelson, Neustrom and fellow ICE FORCE pro James Holst favor three VMC spoons, the Tingler [Product 'Tingler%20Spoon' not found!], Tumbler [Product 'Tumbler%20Spoon' not found!] and Flash Champ [Product 'Flash%20Champ%20Spoon' not found!]. They tip them with minnow heads, wax worms or Euro Larvae. “Minnow heads for larger species and Euros primarily for bluegills,” Nelson says.
Nelson slowly lifts a Tingler, drops it just above a fish, then lightly shakes it. Neustrom cautions not to jig a Tingler much higher than two feet. Also, “don’t let it fall with a loop in the line,” he instructs. And don’t jiggle the spoon continuously. Let it rest a bit between jiggles.
While the Tingler is a flutter-type spoon, the Tumbler is “more of a drop spoon,” Neustrom says. He usually fishes the latter in water 25 feet and deeper.
“As soon as I drop it down to a fish, I’ll lift it about a foot and a half to two feet, bring it back down, bring it up, bring it back down, and then I’ll just jiggle it until he bites it.” He shakes it about four to six inches off the bottom – not right on the bottom. “Because walleyes are not going to go down after a bait,” he explains.
Also try banging the Tumbler into the bottom a few times. “A lot of times, that’s really a good triggering mechanism,” Neustrom says.
The Flash Champ Spoon is designed to get down quickly to deep-dwelling fish. Beveled edges and a tapered design give it an erratic, fluttering fall. “That tight wobble makes it easier to fish in deeper water,” Neustrom says. Nelson jigs Flash Champs in place, and more aggressively than he does Tinglers and Tumblers.
To catch panfish, the first few pieces of the puzzle are location, location, location. Next comes color, color, color. That’s why VMC’s new jigs and plastics come in all the colors of the rainbow – and then some.
“Panfish, especially big ones, can be ultra-color specific, one day to the next and even one hour to the next, as light levels and weather conditions change,” Nelson says. “So a wide array of colors and shapes of jigs and plastics helps you solve the puzzle more rapidly to catch more pannies.”
VMC’s extra-wide Pug Bug Jig [Product 'Pug%20Bug%20Jig' not found!] creates an enhanced sonar return, making it easier to mark in deep water with lower-sensitivity gain settings on your sonar. Pairing it with a Trigger X Mustache Worm [Product 'Mustache%20Worm' not found!] is a “deadly combination” for crappies and bull bluegills, Nelson says.
With an easy-to-rig egg sac and two tapering appendages, the Mustache Worm resembles a small fry or micro-plankton. “The ‘mustache’ action is created by jigging the bait slightly up and down, undulating the appendages, which brings the bait to life,” explains Holst, host of In-Depth Outdoors TV on the Fox Sports North channel. “It has proven itself to be one of the best big-fish soft baits I’ve ever dropped below the ice.” The Pug Bug’s wide-gap hook accommodates the Mustache Worm’s egg sac with plenty of room left over to bury the hook-point deep.
When finicky basin crappies or weed-line bluegills are feeding on tiny insects and invertebrates, Holst will tie on a Larvae Jig. Ready to go right out of the package, Larvae Jigs [Product 'Larvae%20Jig' not found!] come pre-rigged with Trigger X Larvae [Product 'Larvae' not found!] soft baits.
“Modeled on Euro Larvae, a main staple in panfish angling for decades, Trigger X Larvae matches the size and texture of the real thing,” Holst explains. “Fish one Larvae for a finesse presentation, or stack them up to create the traditional ‘chandelier’ profile that big panfish can’t resist.” Holst will tie on a pre-rigged Larvae Jig when clear water, intense fishing pressure or cold-front conditions “have the fish in a funk,” he says.
Pre-rigged with a Trigger X Wax Tail [Product 'Wax%20Tail' not found!] soft bait, VMC’s Wax Tail Jig [Product 'Wax%20Tail%20Jig' not found!] is a deadly combination for weedline-hugging bluegill and open-basin crappie. Holst slowly twitches a Wax Tail pairing in place when fish are in a finicky mood. “The subtle action turns lookers into biters,” he says.
The Wax Tail Jig comes in 1/100, 1/50, 1/32 oz. sizes. “Fish the 1/32 oz. jig when fish are keying on larger prey,” instructs ICE FORCE pro Brad Hawthorne. “Drop down to the 1/100th oz. when the bite gets tough or the fish are feeding on micro-invertebrates.”
Nelson considers a Glow Red 1/32 oz. Wax Tail Jig rigged with a Bloodred Wax Tail soft bait the number-one crappie combo in the VMC/Trigger X line-up. “I can consistently catch big crappies with this combination, which often outperforms a variety of live-bait offerings.”
When fishing live bait under a float, dead stick, or tip-up, rig it on a VMC Tear Drop Jig [Product 'Tear%20Drop%20Jig' not found!], which mimics baitfish and other aquatic food. Holst rigs one when predators are looking for a meal, but unwilling to chase a lively, untethered minnow. “It pins the bait in the strike zone,” he explains.
To prevent your minnow from swimming further than a walleye will chase it, thread the Tear Drop’s wide-gap hook through its dorsal fin or tail. “You need to anchor that minnow down a bit because, in cold water, these fish aren’t moving around much,” Neustrom explains. “They don’t want to chase anything.”
Many anglers allow their deadstick minnows to be too active. “Everybody says ‘I need a lively minnow,’” Neustrom says. “But if it gets too active, it could be a turn-off to the fish, because he just doesn’t want to chase it. Sometimes they’re very lazy. They want the easy meal.”
When fishing after dark or in stained water, rattling baits help draw fish to you. Rapala’s Rippin’ Rap [Product 'Rippin%20Rap' not found!] and VMC’s Rattle Spoon [Product 'Rattle%20Spoon' not found!] are among your best options.
“Rattling baits are hard to miss, so they’ll bring fish in from a long ways,” Holst explains. Such lures are always the first type Nelson ties on. Fishing aggressively with them “pays dividends,” he says, “because you can cover more area under the ice.”
Rattle baits often yield bigger fish as well – especially Rippin’ Raps. “They tend to sort out some of the smaller fish,” Holst says. “You don’t get a lot of four, five, six-inchers when you’re fishing a bait like this. You put a minnow down there under a bobber, those little ones just drive you nuts!”
When there’s not one fish visible on your sonar screen, “drop a Rippin’ Rap, give a few rips and watch what happens,” Holst says. “You’ll often start seeing fish show up from all over the place.” Nelson compares the tactic to how a trout angler will use a dry fly to get a fish to rise and reveal its location. “A lot of times, we’ll just try to move fish, get them on the screen, show up on the flasher,” Nelson says. “From there, we know the fish are active and present, we can go back and fish them a little bit more methodically, slow it down a little bit and then put it right in their face.”
Loud, aggressive baits like Rippin’ Raps often produce “as well, or better” at early-ice than a minnow under a bobber, Holst says. Fish them much higher in the water column than you other baits. “Although people assume that walleyes will only hit a bait right off the bottom – six inches or so,” Nelson says, rattle baits are more effective two to five feet off the bottom. “What that does is allow the bigger walleyes to literally come up and ambush these baits from below – which they love to do,” he explains.
The Rattle Spoon’s multiple-bead resonance chamber makes a racket with just a subtle jig stroke, while still imparting action to the lure. “With that noise factor, you can be bouncing it off the bottom on sand, rocks, mud and you can agitate the fish into hitting,” Hawthorne says.
The Rattle Spoon “has more rattle than any other rattling spoon available,” says Neustrom, who fishes it in 20-plus feet of water. “That’s what’s going to make them bite.” He drops it to about two to four inches off the bottom and then alternates between jiggling it and letting it rest, never moving it more than about three inches. From time to time, he will bang it into the bottom then lift it back up and resume shaking and pausing.
Nelson, Neustrom and Holst all tip Rattle Spoons with minnow heads, but fish Rippin’ Raps “nekkid,” as Nelson says.
Minnow-imitating baits like Rapala’s Jigging Rap [Product 'Jigging%20Rap' not found!] and VMC’s Minnow Jig [Product 'Minnow%20Jig' not found!] are among Nelson’s “go-to” baits for clear water. “While they put off some vibration when swam aggressively, these baits excel in visual appeal to many species of fish, requiring moderately stained to clear water to be the most effective.”
Among the Jigging Rap and Minnow Jig’s greatest assets is that they “cover real estate,” Nelson says. “They can swim off to the sides and cover some ground, while behaving very naturally in helping to corral circling fish.”
Some bodies of water “exhibit a definitive preference for these baits over all others,” Nelson says. “So I leave at least one rod in my lineup permanently attached to a Jigging Rap all season long.”
Jigging Raps are weighted and balanced to perfection. No other ice fishing lure better simulates the erratic characteristics of a wounded baitfish. When walleyes repeatedly” false-charge” Nelson’s bait, or rise and then fall up and down on his sonar, he’ll drop a Jigging Rap “to counter that tendency.”
Although the Jigging Rap is a “very simple bait to use,” Neustrom says, “guys fish it wrong all the time,” lifting it too high and moving it too much. “With all winter baits, you have to stop the bait sometimes, don’t constantly move it,” he says. “Especially when the fish comes in and he’s looking at that thing and you see him on your flasher. You gotta stop that bait and let it sit there right in front of him and shake it. And then stop it. They can’t stand that.” And don’t raise it “way above the fish,” he cautions. “These fish don’t have gym shoes – they can’t chase it around all day,” he explains. “They want something that’s right in front of them.”
Always tie a Jigging Rap to a leader line attached to your main line by barrel swivel. “Otherwise, its going to twist your line,” Neustrom explains. Three feet is a good leader length.
When jigged, a Rapala Jigging Shad Rap [Product 'Jigging%20Shad%20Rap' not found!] moves with a circling motion on both the rise and fall. The sharper the upward snap is, the tighter the bait circles. At fixed depths, a vibrating action can induce strikes from lethargic fish.
“The erratic action really gets fish going,” Holst says. “Little flicks of your wrist will make it dart all over the place.”
Both the Jigging Shad Rap and Jigging Rap feature single reversed hooks on their nose and posterior and a center treble hook hung from a belly eyelet. “So no matter how a fish attacks, it’s running smack dab into a hook!” Holst says. He and Hawthorne, Nelson and Neustrom usually tip the belly trebles with