E. F. Schumacher coined the phrase "small is beautiful" to refer to economics, but his saying lends itself well to ultra-finesse tactics for panfish. Today there are an array of Lilliputian lures packed full of fish-catching goodness. From tiny tungsten jigs to micro plastics, there is an economical element to these itty bitty baits in that they deliver high fish-catching value in a small package.
|Going small — real small — has fish-catching value.|
In many lakes during winter, sunfish and crappie feed heavily on zooplankton. The dusk activity of these micro organisms commonly stimulates fish feeding and great fishing action at the day's end. On certain lakes I frequent, these creatures are so prolific that swarms cause flickers on a flasher and interfere with underwater camera visibility. I don't intend to wax lyrical about daphnia or other species of zooplankton here, but it's important to appreciate that panfish regularly dine on munchies less than a few millimeters in size. Putting fish on the ice frequently requires wading into the realm of micro baits.
"Matching the hatch" when it comes to zooplankton is more art than science in many respects. Lures that are exact carbon copies don't exist like they do for minnows or juvenile yellow perch, for example. At least not right now, anyways. Perhaps nano-baits will be the next lure craze; the natural evolution of downsizing tactics. The workaround is using the smallest ice jigs and baits available. These serve as a suitable substitute to pique the interest of panfish that are tuned-in to miniature morsels. Yes, the dimensions differ, especially once bait is added, but when presented properly you can beguile pannies to bite.
Micro Bait Bonanza
How small is small? We're talking dainty horizontal jigs, teardrops and ice flies in #8 to #16 size categories. Think featherweight too. Consider half an ounce a starting point with 1/64-, 1/80- and 1/100-ounces other weight classes. Using uber-light jigs makes for subtle drops that help impersonate the maneuvers of panfish peewee cuisine. Occasionally you can sneak by with a 1/32-ounce jig, but don't bank on it when up against persnickety pannies.
Some of my top ice jigs include JB Lures Candy Canes and Squiggies, Custom Jigs and Spins 2 Spot, Blue Fox Foxee Ice Flies, HT Enterprises Marmooska, and Northland Fishing Tackle Mud Bug. I also have a collection of tiny teardrops of unknown lineage acquired over the years from bulk buy display cases from various tackle shops.
The infusion of tungsten into ice jigs has also resulted in a new generation of teeny offerings. It seems most big-hitters in the industry are making at least one ice jig using this heavy metal these days. This is a good thing because a tungsten jig will be 40 to 50 percent smaller in size than a lead jig of an equivalent weight. Small is definitely beautiful when using teeny tungsten jigs to decoy zooplankton hors d'oeuvres.
Tipping jigs with live or soft-bait bolsters their appeal. Ice flies can be fished naked, but a piece of meat can help at times. Skin hooking one or two maggots boosts action and flavors a jig, helping trigger strikes from panfish. Micro soft baits and plastics are also deadly. These squishy add-ons bring olfactory appeal along with filament-flicking-like action. There are plenty of mites, noodles, tails and teasers measuring less than an inch from companies like Little Atom, Maki Plastics, Northland Fishing Tackle and Berkley.
Zooplankton aren't the only tiny dish being served at the Panfish Cafe. Other invertebrates also come into play. Bloodworms (i.e., midge fly larvae) and freshwater shrimp are common forage. Replicating these bulkier creatures is easy thanks to various soft-baits.
A Berkley Gulp! Fish Fry teamed with a tiny jig head, the Northland Fishing Tackle Bro Bloodworm Jig, or a Custom Jigs and Spins Ratso are three bloodworm options. Good freshwater shrimp fakes include tiny tube jigs in white and grey pallets, Northland's Scud Bug, the grey-green colored Blue Fox Foxee Ice Fly, and Custom Jigs and Spins Shrimpo. Realistic versions of hellgrammites, mayfly larvae and tiny minnows are also available.
Tiny jigs dressed with hair, feathers, and other materials are also growing in popularity, although many die-hards ice warriors have used them for decades. I expect this trend will continue to grow in the years ahead.
Gossamer Thread and Combos to Match
Fishing micro-baits isn't for the faint of heart. Two-pound-test fluorocarbon is my main line choice. To prevent break-offs, a small reel with a quality drag is a must to relieve tension and protect the line from hard hits and jarring runs. An ultra-light rod with a forgiving tip is also recommended.
A spring bobber is another must-have. These devices signal faint up-swimming hits that are common from panfish feasting on invertebrates. Another benefit of a bobber is it imparts a fluid, swimming motion to a jig that is more inline with the locomotive practices of their pint-sized prey. Rod snaps of a few inches do well to attract fish, but subtle moves or holding a jig still are often what prompt pannies to pounce.
Less is best for a hook set. I usually just raise the rod and start reeling. This is not the time for an aggressive wrist snap as this is likely to tear out the tiny hook or bend it open so it loses its hold. Take your time too when playing a fish to the hole.
Minuscule baits serve an important purpose in that they're the best thing in an ice-fishing toolkit for decoying the itty bitty creatures dine on. They're not a perfect match, but are often close enough to trigger a bite when presented properly.
A Couple Tips
- Pinch a tiny BB lead shot 6-8 inches above micro-baits to speed-up sinking speed.
- Gusty conditions wreak havoc on detecting faint hits with small, light baits. Seek refuge in a shelter or use your body as a windbreak to prevent the line from being blown around by the breeze.