When the Going gets Tough, the Tough go … Small?


We’ve caught thousands of bluegills and crappies through the ice and have yet to grow tired of it. While many ice anglers prefer gamefish, we’re the panfish guys—they are great to eat and fun to catch on a light rod.

I like to drill a lot of holes and Poppee likes to fish in them, so we make a great team. And I’ve never really liked a gas auger. They’re too heavy, smoky and loud. I never really liked the hand auger, because it was way too much work. So the solution was an electric. With a quality electric auger, you can drill all the holes you need for a day on the ice and it won’t smoke, stink and break your back in the process.

If you want to catch a bunch of fish, you have to find the school. The more effort you put into finding the school, the better the end result will be. It starts with researching the lake, checking a map, talking to anglers and scouting the area before drilling a hole.

This is where Poppee comes in handy. He can walk up to anyone in the bait shop or on the ice and they will give up the goods. When I try to get a sliver of info I get the cold stare.

Once on the ice, the quickest way to find the school is with electronics. Drill a bunch of holes until you get tired, then drop the transducer or camera down the hole and check for fish. One fish won’t do; you want to first find a series of marks indicating more than one fish in the area, or, if using a camera, you’ll want to see a few. Once you’ve found a busy hole, make sure to drill a few more in the general area.

Once a school is found, it’s time to get serious.

Set up the tent, heater, locator, and begin fishing in earnest. We like to set up our behemoth Frabill Hub at this point over the hot holes and then drill a few more to fill up the tent. The beauty of the electric auger is that you can drill holes in the tent when it is set up without smoking out.

A good jig to start with is a size 8 Gill Pill. This is a great lure for actively feeding bluegills and crappies when tipped with a waxworm, with spikes or a small minnow. The design of this jig permits easy hook-ups with fish. The size 8 is a good search size and will affect the aggressive fish in a positive way.

Suspended fish are easier to catch than bottom-huggers and different species do suspend at different levels. We’ve caught bluegills suspended 3 to 6 inches off bottom in 20 feet of water and crappies suspended 8 to 12 feet down out of the same hole. This is a good problem to have, especially when you try to drop your jig to bluegills on the bottom and it gets “picked off” half way down by a 12-inch crappie.

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Work that size 8 in sharp, repetitive twitches above the fish you see on the locator screen. This motion will usually tempt a strike. When things go well, you can catch them one after the other. You might want to switch up colors and change holes when the action slows though.

When it comes to a screeching halt, most anglers—as do we—grab smaller and smaller jigs until we are putting the waxworm on with tweezers while staring at the jig under a microscope. Just kidding—but you get the idea.

When the action slows, smaller is better … or is it? Custom Jigs & Spins makes Gill Pills in sizes from 8 to 14, and switching to smaller will work most of the time.

But other times, changing up to a totally different option that makes no sense will make all the difference. Switch to a Ratso or a Demon, which are totally different profiles, and see what happens. That’s why we have several rods rigged with different lures, just to make a quick change.

We have found that catching fish attracts fish. So switching sizes, styles, and colors is a great way to keep them in your area. We have also found that by jigging a large spoon like a 1/2-ounce Daredevle will attract fish. This works best in water deeper than 10 feet, and also when the fish are taking a liking to the perch and the crappies are feeding on the minnows.

The final option is to move. Have a one-man ice shelter set up outside your big tent and take off in search of the school. You may only need to walk a few yards, or you may need to fire up the ATV and traverse the lake, but either way you need to find some active fish.


Walt Matan and his father Poppee are the chief lure designers for Custom Jigs & Spins. For more information on ice fishing and to see all of Custom Jigs & Spins tackle log on to customjigs.com or call 800-831-5535 for a free, all-new catalog. You can also log on to frabill.com to check out the Ice Hunter Series rod and reel combos and the Sentinel one-man tents.