Deadsticks Come Alive in Dead of Winter

Brian Brosdahl offers his go-to methods for mid-winter ice fishing strategies.

All species of fish slow down when the temperatures drop below zero. The dead of winter in my neighborhood often lasts from late December to early February. Anglers lose some of their mobility too during the extended periods of extreme cold weather.

When the weather gets nasty, most anglers want to stay inside and stay warm. They stick to their fish houses as if glued to the seats. They often stay in one spot and wait for the fish to come to them.

Fish still have to eat, even when conditions are bad. Fish can’t just go to the refrigerator to find something to eat; they still must catch something. If you put something good to eat right next to some fish and let it sit there, chances are good one of them will eventually eat it, even if they are in a negative feeding mood.

The concept of “deadsticking” goes way back in fishing and describes any technique of putting out a bait and letting it sit there. It can be simple or complicated, depending on how you go about it.

Anyone who has ever river-fished from shore probably used a type of deadstick without realizing it. Most anglers deadstick with a variation of a live-bait rig with a sinker, swivel, leader and a hook tipped with live bait.

Anglers put their rods in a rod holder or a Y-stick and watch the rod tip or put a bell on the rod tip and wait to hear a jingle. Anglers often use a baitcasting reel with the clicker feature, so they can leave the reel disengaged without getting a backlash. The clicks tell them when a fish takes the bait.

Tip-ups are another popular type of deadstick, with many variations and many different presentations. Anglers can use something like a live-bait rig setup with a sinker, swivel and leader with a hook or an ice jig. Anglers can dress them up a little with a small spinner, colored beads, colored hooks or any other combination anglers can dream up.

Tip-up anglers can go extra plain when fishing in shallow water, with just a split shot, a hook and a minnow. Larger live minnows must be set differently than a smaller minnow or a dead bait.

The trigger on the tip-up flag can be adjusted so it takes varying amounts of “pull” to set off the flag. Larger minnows need more tension, while smaller minnows or dead baits can be set on the lighter setting. Add a bell or a light to tip-up flags to help notice the bites more quickly.

Many anglers use tip-ups as bonus lines when they fish out of rental houses or wheel houses to deploy the maximum number of lines that regulations allow.

Rattle reels used inside most fish houses are also a type of deadstick. The rattles inside the reels make noise when they turn, so anglers can hear the bites and don’t need to use a bobber. Many times, a rattle reel or another kind of deadstick catches more fish than any type of jigging presentation.

I have used a different kind of deadstick in my winter guiding for many years. The Frabill Bro Series of rods includes several deadstick rods with exactly the features I want for the type of deadsticking I like to do.

I want a bright-colored rod tip to more easily see the bites. The rod tip must be soft so it bends like a spring bobber, but the rod also must have a good backbone, so my hookset takes up the slack in the line and still has enough power to drive home the hook.

I like to use a drop-shot rig on a deadstick for perch. I put a bell sinker on the bottom of the drop shot rig if I am fishing in sand or mud, or I use a wire sinker for fishing in rocks.

I put the hook of the drop-shot rig anywhere from 6 inches to 3 feet above the bottom, depending on where most of the perch are located. I like a longer shank hook for drop-shotting, so I can get the bait farther from the main line.

Anglers usually need to use a little heavier line on a drop-shot rig (8- to 10-pound-test) because the extra knots can weaken the line. I would rather get a few less bites because of the heavier line than have to constantly repair the entire rig.

Deadsticks with drop shots can be spread out like tip-ups, with anglers watching the rod tips for bites. I like to put the rigs on top of a bucket or in a rod holder to avoid losing any rods.

 To learn more about mid-winter ice fishing techniques, check out the February issue of MidWest Outdoors magazine, available the first full week of February at a newsstand near you, or by subscribing on our website.