Critical Jigging for More Panfish
By Noel Vick with On Ice Tour
We've all been out there when it didn't seem to matter what you gave them or how it was presented. The very moment aggressive to nearly hostile crappies or sunfish see it they thump it. Under such conditions you can jig a lure with every conceivable combination of motions and there will be dinner on the table. These fish are ON, or as On Ice Tour labels them, Gulpers.
But what about when they're OFF, behaving like Gawkers, or somewhere in between? By the way, naming rights for these "in-between-ers" is yet undetermined and On Ice Tour is open to suggestions… More often than not, hardwater panfish anglers must work through a variety of jigging motions, cadences, and lures to find something that triggers strikes.
Let's presume that through rigorous searching you've located a swarm of panfish. Lay down your auger, plunk down the flasher's transducer, and settle into your portable shelter; it's time to send a message. The first contact is vital. Tommy Skarlis and Chip Leer of On Ice Tour term it, The Initial Offering. After all, you never get a second chance to make a first impression.
The Initial Offering begins by rapidly dropping your lure to the halfway point between the surface and a glob of unsuspecting panfish, while of course watching the action on a portable flasher. From the midway point, slowly lower the bait toward them while maintaining a taunt line. Keep it smooth and subtle…be patient, remembering that naturally occurring forage doesn't smoke through the water screaming, "Eat me, eat me!"
Aggressors are the first to go, and frequently, they're positioned on top of the school. But the most gluttonous aren't necessarily the plump ones you're after; they need to be worked out. It's quite possible that none of the panfish you're camped over demonstrate immediate interest. The basic lift and fall, lift and fall, lift and fall, and pause regimen fails to motivate our finned friends. Prepare to improvise.
Err to the side of subtle over energetic in jigging sequences aimed at crappies and sunfish. Ice anglers oftentimes leap into exaggerated jigging motions in hopes of provoking a response. In the underwater world, panfish associate sharp, vertical movements with danger, warning, escape, and the like.
That's fine if hungry crappies are feasting on baitfish. But inactive fish and ones feeding on microorganisms (the majority) might flee from the commotion.
Most panfish-chow consists of slow moving critters, again, with the exception of minnows. Zooplankton and freshwater shrimp, which are dietary staples during the cold-water months, chug, pulse, and pump through the water in short bursts. Some advance vertically and others more laterally, but none swim fast enough to outwit a crappie or sunfish, so keep your movements leisurely.
Over the years, Chip and Tommy have developed a number of panfish-specific jigging techniques, or dare they say, tricks. Each one is designed to convince less than willing panfish to strike.
Here are the boys' favorites:
Teasing the Cat
This tactic is intended for panfish that chase but never commit. As a kid, remember taunting the neighborhood tomcat with a piece of yarn? If you pulled it past him quickly, old whisker face paid a little attention, but soon returned to watching birds at the feeder.
But when you slowed things down, dragged the yarn and paused…more dragging, pause, pause…sooner or later, that feline was compelled to pounce. Panfish behave similarly. And it makes sense, considering that they're both predators. So tease that cat!
Start by hovering a panfish-treat in front of Gawkers. For this technique, Chip chooses a Northland "Bug-Eye" Ghost Grub dressed with a Berkley Power Wiggler while Tommy prefers System Tackle's Fat Boy tipped with a couple of live maggots.
As the fish approaches your lure, as viewed on an electronic flasher, pull the jig up and away in small one-inch stair step or bouncing motions, halting the sequence after covering about a foot or so. More than likely the perpetrator will follow. But right before contact, take it away again. Continue teasing the fish or fishes; teasing makes a school of fish competitive and more aggressive.
Proceed drawing them higher into the water column because history teaches that the higher they swim the more likely they are to bite. Oftentimes, you'll establish a magic depth, and every time panfish achieve that level, out come the feedbags.
The teasing is in the taking away. Eventually, your quarry will become incensed and chase the lure two to three times faster than previous follows and strike. If they continue to trail but never attack, it's time to revisit the playbook.
The eyes on both sunfish and crappies are fixed toward the tops of their heads. This affords a distinct advantage for stalking prey from below, but it leaves panfish at a disadvantage when prey is lost below their line of sight. In fact, it drives them a tad crazy.
Take advantage of this panfish pet peeve. Again, set your lure right in front of a Gawker. Let 'em get a good look and smell. Then, without warning, drop the lure in a free fall below the Gawker's view (about a foot) and pause.
Sometimes fish will follow it down only to gawk again (unintended response). Others will lose contact, become something between confused and enraged, and spin around searching for the lure (planned response). Now that you've got their attention, launch into a little Teasing the Cat and let the catching begin.
Tommy and Chip have secret weapons for this instance. Tommy clips off the swirling tail of a Berkley Power Grub and threads it, cut side forward, on a System Tackle Coped. Chip takes the same hunk of Power Grub and slips it on a Northland "Bug Eye" Creep Worm. In both cases, the tantalizing tail flicks and flutters driving panfish to the point of no return.
The Pendulum and Swimming the Hole
The act of jigging is stereotyped as a series of up and down motions. The Pendulum does away with the established by offering only side-to-side movements, as well, Swimming the Hole employs strictly circular actions.
The Pendulum is initiated by first holding your rod tip in a fixed position at either side of the hole. Next, slowly swim the lure from left to right, back and forth, while varying speeds but not pumping vertically. Make four to six swings and pause. Each time your line pushes off the side of the hole it produces a miniature pendulum swing, like a clock. And the hands on my clock say that it's time to eat!
To Swim the Hole, casually swim your lure, via the rod tip, around the hole. After two or three revolutions, hit the breaks, pause, and reverse directions while intermittently dragging your line against the side of the hole.
In both The Pendulum and Swimming the Hole, vibration is created when your line touches the ice, enhancing the presentation. Panfish react favorably to subtle stimulation. As expected, attacks usually come to pass during the pause.
Lure selection is important for performing these two techniques. You need something that swims horizontally and will spin a one-eighty at The Pendulum's apex and stall phase while Swimming the Hole. Two fantastic choices are System Tackle's Genz Worm and Northland Tackle's Micro Minnow. As a dressing, both Chip and Tommy hook a single wax worm through the tail and pinch off its head. The leaking waxy leaves an irresistible scent trail.
If The Pendulum and Swimming the Hole draw fish in but don't spur strikes, Chip and Tommy continue thumbing through their mental archive.
Wagging the Tail
Hold the rod tip above the center of the hole and violently shake your wrist back and forth in one to two inch increments. This causes the rod tip to wag from side-to-side in roughly eight-inch strides, and below the ice, your lure hovers and quivers erratically.
Work in a few pauses. Still no response? Continue wagging while raising the rod tip ever so slightly. Nothing? Let's reach further into Tommy and Chip's bag of tricks.
It took Tommy's eight-year old niece from Florida to come up with this one.
"Uncle Tommy, I thought you were supposed to be a professional fisherman", she asked in utter disappointment at the day's results.
Likely bored from the slow bite and frozen from head to toe, she rested her arm on her leg while Uncle Tommy searched for ways to impress his visiting relatives.
Unknowingly, an involuntary shaking of her knee caused the rod tip to Jitter, sending panfish into a frenzy. The sort of frenzy which members of the ice fishing party couldn't duplicate by hand jigging. Guess what? Before long, everyone was Jittering and catching panfish, and Uncle Tommy salvaged his professional status.
Best lure to use? According to Lindsey, "A pretty one."
This is the last resort. You've thrown everything in the Fish Trap at them. Nothing. Set your lure on the bottom and brutally rip it off the lake floor five or six times (one to two-foot high strokes). Bring her to rest a half-foot above the bottom.
Yes, Chip and Tommy have been pounding "subtle" into your head since the get go, and although this tactic seldom works, it's a great stress reliever.
In fact, it might drive those tight-lipped buggers right out of the flasher's screen and possibly to another lake. At this juncture, it's time to look for Gulpers anyway…
Method and Equipment Refinements
When panfish get ultra-finicky they might be "line shy". If that's the case, it's wise to spool-up one of the new and nearly invisible flourocarbon lines. Tommy and Chip have experimented with several flourocarbon lines and they believe that Berkley Vanish performs the best, mainly because it remains limber in icy water.
The use of electronics has been surfacing throughout this article. Chip and Tommy never hit the ice without one. A quality flasher shows them depth, structure, bottom content, fish, and even their lure. Most importantly for jigging, a flasher reveals fish moods and behavior by how they respond to lures.
A good piece of sonar must meet three basic requirements: 1.) It needs to display in real time. Meaning, the screen's images of your lure and the fish and the actual lure and fish have to parallel one another, without delay. 2.) It must be portable. 3.) Simplicity. It has to be easy to use. Both Chip and Tommy agree, and they rarely do, that Zercom's LCF-40 is the cat's meow. The Zercom LCF-40 is also one of the most reasonably priced flashers on the shelf. Fishing without sonar is like driving a car without an instrument panel.
Cold water panfish aren't always waiting with mouths agape for any clumsily offered morsel. Having an arsenal of jigging techniques at ready for the tougher times can make or break an outing.