By: Mark Anderson
Many ice fishermen around central Iowa spend the winter months targeting panfish through the ice. I am no exception; I love to catch big bull bluegills and slab crappies as much as the next person. Panfish are more than willing to bite during the winter and their sheer numbers allow anglers the opportunity to have a fun and productive day on the ice. However, starting a few winters ago, I thought I would try to target a different species of fish. It was mid-winter, the panfish had been pressured for a couple of months, and frankly I was looking for a bigger target through the ice; largemouth bass.
Now, I have certainly caught my fair share of largemouth bass while fishing for panfish. A typical panfish presentation such as a small jig tipped with either live bait or plastics is certainly a viable option to catch bass. But generally, the bites are not as vicious and time will have to be spent sorting through bluegills and crappies before catching a bass. Personally, while this approach does work, I would not recommend it if specifically targeting bass.
Below, I have laid out three presentations, which can and will put largemouth bass on the ice for you this winter. With some practice and a little time on the ice, you may find yourself spending more time fishing for bass during the winter.
The first technique is placing a minnow on a bobber rig or tip up device. This approach is the most passive of the three and is not my preferred technique, but will undoubtedly catch bass. I like to spice up my offering and instead of placing just a bare hook with a minnow I prefer to add, “flare”. This flare could include the use of colored beads as well as glass rattles. Bass are visual predators and adding that extra attraction will call the bass from further away and is especially helpful in dirty water. This entices the bass’ lateral line by the vibration of the struggling minnow as well as the glass rattle. The flare attracts the bass’ vision by the bright colors of the beads. It also allures the bass’ nose via the fluids and pheromones released from the struggling minnow. It is a deadly combination, which not many bass can resist, especially if they are in the mood to bite.
When using this technique, I prefer to use either a #2 or #4 octopus hook with a sharp point. Depending on the mood of the fish I will either hook the minnow in the tail or skin hook the minnow with the point of the hook facing backwards. By hooking the minnow in the tail, it allows more action from the minnow and is deadly when fish are active. If the fish are not as active and only mouthing the minnow that is when skin hooking the minnow is your best approach. Be sure not to pierce into the vitals of the minnow so that it can still swim vigorously.
By placing the hook facing backwards, the hook will be in the best position for the hook set when the bass takes the minnow from the front. I also place the hook more towards the head of the minnow, which has increased my hooking percentage significantly, when the bass are just mouthing the minnow and not taking the entire bait in.
If using a tip up and hand lining the fish in be ready for a strong first run by the bass, especially if fishing in shallow water. I have lost numerous bass when fishing in shallow water and I was not ready for the fish to make a big run right after setting the hook. You have to be ready to give those fish some line too, so pull a little line off the spool of the tip up prior to setting the hook. This gives a little buffer when the bass makes its initial run.
When using a dead stick on a rod and reel, the drag system on the reel needs to be set to the proper tension as well. You want enough tension on the drag so that you can get a quality hook set, but you do not want it so tight that the fish breaks your line either. Having the same tension on your drag as you use when targeting panfish probably will not be sufficient for most anglers. Make your drag adjustments before you set the hook on the first bass that way you can focus on fighting the fish while it is hooked up and not trying to adjust your drag while the fish is making strong runs. Losing a nice fish because your drag was not set properly is a pretty sick feeling and one, which can be easily avoided.
Jigging spoons are probably my favorite way to catch bass through the ice as I have had the most success with this technique. There is a large array of jigging spoons on the market and they all can certainly work. Sizes range anywhere from 1/16th of an ounce all the way up to 1/4th of an ounce, but most of the time an 1/8th ounce spoon will work just fine for largemouth bass.
There are some jigging spoons, like the Lindy Rattln Flyer Spoon or Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon, that incorporate internal rattles which can help in low light conditions or in stained water. Other jigging spoons, like the Clam Blade Spoon or Custom Jigs & Spin Slender Spoon, flutter horizontally when the rod is pumped. A different style of spoons, like the Clam Speed Spoon or Shucks Jigger Minnow, has more of a vertical pounding action when the rod tip is pumped. The mood of the fish that day will dictate what they want, so I find it best to carry some of each style of spoon and see what is working best on that trip.
I have found that either tipping your jigging spoon with live bait such as a minnow, minnow head, or wax worm will all catch largemouth bass. If the fish are aggressive, tipping the spoon with a soft plastic like a Little Atom Nuggie will also work well and you spend less time re-baiting than if you are using live bait.
Most jigging spoons come standard with small treble hooks. I have found that if you are tipping your spoons with minnows, minnow heads, or soft plastics that it is best to remove the treble hook and replace it with a single hook. Your hook up percentage is much greater with a single hook and the larger gap between the point and shank of the hook helps hold the fish on your hook better than a treble hook does.
This presentation is one that is often overlooked by many anglers. I personally only started using the technique a few years ago but found to have very good results when targeting largemouth bass. The technique involves the use of forage-based baits such as a Salmo Chubby Darters, Clam Psycho Shad, Lindy Darters, or Rapala Jigging Raps. All of these baits involve a darting action when the rod is pumped which often fools bass into thinking that your lure is a fleeing baitfish. The bass’ natural instinct is to strike the lure, no different than when a fingerling baitfish is fleeing from them. How many anglers throw crankbaits during the summer to catch bass? It is a similar presentation as fishing blade baits during the winter; you are trying to mimic a bass’ natural forage like crankbaits do during the summer. Also, much like crankbait strikes during the summer, the blade bait strikes are vicious during the winter!
I have found that it is best to sharply pump the rod tip upwards about a foot or so and try to keep the line tight while the lure is returning to its starting position. Most fish will strike the lure as soon as you lift upwards or they will strike the lure as it is returning to its starting position. This is why it is best to have a solid connection between your lure and your reel at all times. I also like to have a short pause between pumps as that allows the bass time to address your lure.
Much like fishing spoons for bass, you will want to tinker with your cadence and presentation with blade baits. What was working one day or even earlier in the day, may no longer entice the bass to bite. So try to experiment and switch up your presentation if the fish are no longer interested in your bait; doing so will result in more bites.
Catching bass through the ice is a lot of fun and provides more of a fighting opportunity than their smaller brethren, the panfish. While bass are not as plentiful as panfish, they are generally more than willing to investigate your presentation and bite. The misconception that bass do not bite while ice covers the lake is far from accurate. Couple that concept with bass being not as pressured during the winter months and you will find an awesome opportunity to catch fish.
So, the next time you decide to hit your favorite lake or pond this winter and feel like catching something other than your standard bluegill and crappie; be sure to not over look largemouth bass, I promise you that you will not regret it!