Ice fishing bait debate

Bill Graves, Special to The County
5 years ago

Some ice fishermen walk into a bait shop, plunk down their bucket and their money and then happily head for the lake with whatever size, shape and species of baitfish the owner has dipped out. Other winter anglers stand over the bait dealer’s shoulder pointing out the exact minnows they want, or in many cases they actually select and net their own bait. Experienced ice drillers know that certain lakes and varied species of game fish require particular live bait to produce consistent action.

No matter where, when or for what quarry you’re ice fishing for, the species, size, condition and method of hook up of each live bait is crucial to success. As a general rule for bragging-sized trout, salmon and togue, smelts are the most dependable live bait. For most outings, 5- to 7-inch smelt are the prime size. Despite their effectiveness in attracting game fish, these shiny silver darters have several shortcomings.

First off, they’re noticeably expensive at about $12 a dozen compared to far less pricey minnows. Furthermore, they are often scarce since bait dealers keep far fewer smelt on hand than other species of bait fish. Smelt tend to be fairly fragile compared to minnows. They don’t travel well in bait buckets, they are susceptible to severe water temperature changes, and if grabbed and released by a game fish, smelt often won’t survive when other bait fish will.

It’s not unusual to use up twice as many smelt during an outing as you would minnows, but for many anglers that’s acceptable. Despite being a bit frail and fairly expensive, smelt are just more dependable when seeking big fish because they are a favored and familiar natural food source in most regional lakes. Check smelt baits often, at least every 30 minutes and at any decline in activity level, hook on a fresh smelt.

Josh Ash of Ashland uses a small insulated beverage cooler with a lock-top lid to transport bait fish. Change the water for aeration a couple of times and the minnow or smelt stay lively all day. (Contributed photo/Bill Graves)

When it comes to selecting minnow species for ice fishing, the variety is wide and the choice is mostly dictated by personal preference. Black nose dace, silver shiners and golden shiners are very popular, and all are very resilient and active once hooked up. Golden shiners in the 3- to 4-inch range have always been productive on brook trout, brown trout and splake for me. Silver shiners and larger dace seem to produce more salmon, and suckers top the list for musky fishing. One old timer with lots of ice drilling experience swears by tommy cod for enticing big fish to eat. Using them for years on East Grand Lake for trout, salmon and togue, he had photos to prove his success, but I honestly don’t know where to find and purchase this unique bait.

On all day outings, it’s important to keep bait buckets well aerated to keep bait fish active and healthy. If a small aerator isn’t available, changing about 1/3 to half of the water every four hours will do the trick. If a large number of bait fish is being maintained in one container, say between 40 to six dozen, proper aeration and water changes every two hours will assure lively bait all day long.

To many winter anglers, how a bait fish is hooked up is as important as species and size. Some swear a game fish grabs a minnow and turns it to be swallowed head first, therefore hooking the bait through the lips will assure a better chance to hook up. Hooking bait through the jaw also seems to allow very free, natural movement as the minnow swims about.

Another popular method of attaching a minnow is through the back muscle just behind the dorsal fin. This is popular for smaller bait that large quarry often grab from the side and swallow as the fish turns to swim away. I prefer this method and maintain a good hook up-to-flag ratio. The use of circle hooks can further ensure hooking a game fish, Gamakatsu are a very popular brand, and my personal preference are red or gold coated for a bit more flash.

A few anglers hook their shiners near the tail. This of course impedes swimming ability a bit, and gives the look of an injured bait fish, which supposedly further entices a game fish to grab the bait. No matter how a bait fish is hooked up, I’ve found that not setting the hook until a game fish has stopped taking out line works well. Once a run stops, gently take up slack, visualize the angle of the line and set the hook directly opposite. Keep a steady pressure during the tug of war with no loose line and your percentage of fish on the ice will increase.

The fact is, a small number of fishermen take the greatest number of fish, and their special techniques seem to work day in and day out on a regular basis. Some of their simple tricks may work for you too. Seasoned ice fishermen think strong and long when selecting line for their tip-ups. Average fishing line may work for most fish hooked, but sooner or later that 5- to 6-pound wall hanger trout or salmon will strike. For lake trout enthusiasts, it will be a brute over 10 pounds. Too short or too weak a line and the big one will never be brought out of the hole.

Use at least two feet of strong, clear leader, perhaps three feet when fish are extremely wary. Trout and salmon hooks should be no smaller than size 6, and a 4 holds even better, whereas togue need a No. 4 or No. 2. Check and double check all knots; frigid water and ice are never easy on monofilament splices and knots.

A maximum of five tip-ups can be set out per angler on most lakes and it’s imperative to suspend baits at a variety of depths. Salmon seem to cruise near the surface, trout at medium depths and togue fairly deep. Shallow bait are set at 3- to 5-feet, and increase by a couple of feet per set up. If one depth seems to produce regularly, it’s time to adjust all baits to that particular depth. The right depth seems to change from day to day and from lake to lake. Diversity is the key when setting up.

Reports of excellent fishing on dozens of regional lakes are circulating since the new year began, so get out to a local waterway soon and try some of these baiting options. Perhaps you can develop a technique of your very own. Above all, be aware and be safe every time you venture onto the ice.