By far, the best education we can get to make us better ice anglers is by sight fishing. Sight fishing allows us to watch the reaction of fish and just as importantly, allows us to watch how our presentation looks in the water. When we can see the hook or lure in the water and watch how fish react, we can easily see the moves that trigger and attract fish. The body language of fish as they become aroused by a lure is fascinating to watch. How fish approach and hit a lure is also an education that can make you a much better angler.
Ice anglers often refer to jigging but often, a better description in regards to catching panfish is “quivering.” What sight fishing can teach you is just how subtle and fluid the jig has to become when attempting to trigger fish. Many of the best ice anglers often fish with subtle and soft movements that are tight and precise. Slow and easy so that fish can slide forward and suck yet with just enough movement to keep the jig from turning. What is sometimes surprising to some anglers is just how little of movement it takes on the rod tip to cause the bait on the jig to shake and bounce. The movements are often so precise and tight that the angler is essentially jigging in a one inch window when fish get close.
Manipulating line twist or memory is a very important piece of the presentation puzzle because less line twist or less jig spin widens the window of things you can do with the jig. You can still quiver or bounce the jig in place, rocking it seductively if you have a lot of twist in the line but once you back off on that movement, the jig begins to turn or spin and this seems to often turn fish off. Line twist can be controlled several ways. Some anglers use a plastic Schooley Reel or fly reel as these spools work less twist into the line than traditional spinning reels. Another option that works in some situations is to attach a tiny barrel swivel above the jig to take out some of the twist. Pay attention to the knot placement on the jig to make sure the jig is hanging straight. In the water, the jig should have a symmetrical movement when quivered in the sense that some jigs can also be out of tune so to speak, tracking to one side or spinning to the side which imparts a less effective action and also builds up unnecessary line twist. Lastly, stretching the line with your fingers can stretch some line twist out of the line. Dragging the line (with no lure or jig attached) across the snow and letting the wind take the line can also take out some of the coils and twists. The bottom line is that if you take good care of your line and pay attention to line twist you are going to catch more panfish.
Why is little or no spin on the jig so important? Because when you can stop quivering or jigging and that jig can just hang momentarily almost motionless, this is about the most effective trigger there is for close fish that are eyeing the jig… when the jig just hangs or stalls, essentially doing nothing at all. The less the jig turns on the stop, the subtler and smaller you can move the jig and still trigger fish and these small micro moves are the deadliest moves of all.
This is why high quality rods that are light in weight and sensitive are so important to the presentation, not just for feeling fish but for also fatigue. A good rod will feel like an extension of your fingers where you can vibrate and barely move the tip with precision without wearing down. Obviously, the more you fish, the longer you can fish effectively before getting tired and sloppy. A good rod will also give you the sensory clues as to how the jig is working and often, many bites are indicated by nothing more than a sudden lack of these sensory clues, the weight of the jig.
Using soft plastics for ice fishing has gotten extremely popular in some ice fishing circles yet slow to catch on in other regions. Plastics can be a good way to learn some of these movements that trigger fish because if you don’t have a good fluid rhythm to your “jig stroke” you are going to struggle with plastics but if you do have these movements down, you can catch more fish with plastics than you could with live bait like wax worms or spikes in many situations.
A picture is worth a thousand words as the cliché goes. To become a much better ice angler this winter, find a lake where you can sight fish. The fish don’t have to be big for the educational value. To speed up the process, use plastics and teach yourself what the fish like and don’t like by watching your jig and watching the fish. The lessons learned can be taken to deep water or shallow, stained water or clear. The mental picture you will have of your presentation and of fish will be invaluable when sight fishing isn’t possible