Ice Fishing Mid-Winter

When the going get’s tough…..the tough get dropping. “Dropper rigs”, that is.

By Fishing the WildSide On Ice with Chip Leer

WALKER, Minnesota -- Mid-winter got you singing the ice fishing blues?

Are you ready to fold up the Otter, store the StrikeMaster and curl up in front of a crackling fire because your last ice fishing outing didn’t provide you with a torrid bite?

When the going get’s tough…..the tough get dropping. “Dropper rigs”, that is.

Let’s consider the ecological changes that take place as winter's grip tightens across ice fishing country. At first ice, oxygen levels are high because of the mixing that takes place throughout a body of water in late fall and the presence of vegetation.

During early winter most of those aquatic plants are only beginning to die off and decay, so they still attract aquatic insects, invertebrates and other forage that give game fish a virtual smorgasbord of dining opportunity and we find lots of very active fish.

As winter progresses, green plants continue to wilt and rot in ponds, lakes and river backwaters; a process that consumes oxygen. Furthermore, with a cover of ice and snow on a body of water, there isn't any new oxygen being added in the system. Only areas with springs or current such as inlets, outlets or sloughs enjoy consistent oxygenation throughout the winter. These can be great spots to fish, but they can also be the most dangerous areas on a body of water with extremely thin ice even when the main lake has a three-foot lid on it. Eventually on most of the lakes and ponds we favor to ice fish, the fish will settle where the remaining oxygen is. This area is usually in the deepest portions of the lake. There the fish will be forced to conserve energy with depleting oxygen in the lake making them very timid and sluggish. As ice fisherman we are faced with a challenge, sluggish fish in deep water.

It may seem like an impossible task to entice these stubborn mid winter fish, yet if you drop-in on them carefully you can have them eating out of your hand, well you would need a long arm, but you know what I mean.

Keep in mind fish must and will continue to eat all winter to survive. As fisherman we must know that they will however severally reduce their effort put forth to consume a meal. So we should offer them something that they can consume with a minimal amount of effort, while keeping the offering heavy enough to reach the depths and attract fish. So how do you get a smaller offering to deep water with a lure large enough to attract fish? It’s called a “Dropper Rig” and it catches fish, lots of fish, most of all stubborn, less aggressive fish.

I first started using dropper rigs when fishing for tullibees and whitefish and quickly learned adaptations of this rig were extremely effective for walleyes, perch, crappies and bluegills. The dropper rig is simple and very effective because when fish are sluggish or negative they do not inhale volumes of water to eat their prey. The dropper rig allows fish to inhale very little and still end up with a hook in their mouth.

What is a Dropper Rig?

Basically, a dropper rig consists of three elements: 1. A “dropper weight” (such as a jigging spoon with no hook that the dropper line can be tied to). 2. A “dropper line” (a piece of fishing line that connects the “dropper weight” to the “dropper lure”). 3. A “dropper lure” (historically a small ice jig or hook). Sizes of these elements will vary depending on the species you are targeting.

The “dropper weight” gives the rig weight to reach the depths while acting as an attracting device to call fish to your offering. In clear water use a spoon with lots of flash and vibration, in darker or stained water use one with Super-Glo color. Regardless of water clarity, rattles will help alert fish to your offering. Below the spoon a “dropper line” is applied. For the “dropper line”, I prefer Berkley Vanish 100% Fluorocarbon line, because it is virtually invisible to the fish. I usually use 2- to 6-inches of line length for most applications, but the fun part is that you can customize the length to fit your situation. Then on the end of the “dropper line” tie a “dropper lure”. This lure is what the fish is actually going to eat. Small jigs like a “Bro-Bug”, “Jiggle Bit” or “Spider Ant”, work great for panfish. When targeting perch, walleyes or crappies the best solution is a plain hook.

I have had awesome success with the new Super-Glo Dropper Hooks by Northland Tackle, which were specifically designed for this fishing situation. I feel the main reason that they are so effective is the Super-Glo feature that allows each hook to glow in color: I.E. red glows red, chartreuse glows chartreuse, etc. The best part is that they’re simple too; simply snap the Super-Glo Dropper Hook onto the jigging spoon and you’re good to go. Northland has made it even simpler by offering the new Buck-Shot Dropper Spoon Rig. These are ready to fish, complete rigs that are now available in retail stores.

If you are creating one of your own rigs, keep in mind the small lure or hook on the business end of the “dropper rig” will be most effective when it is kept as small and simple as possible. You do not want to make it heavy or difficult for the fish to inhale. The “dropper spoon” will hold the lure in place and the small hook on the end will then “pendulum” into the fish’s mouth with even the most minimal amount of inhalation from the fish.

Here is where bait options come into play. You can continue to use your favorite bait or consider downsizing a bit. It often works to use a whole live minnow for walleyes or crappies, yet if the fish are still sluggish, try using just a minnow head. A great trick for triggering walleye strikes is to load the hook with maggots, wax worms or Gulp! grubs. For bluegills and sunfish, I usually use a mix of artificial bait like Berkley Gulp! maggots with one or two live maggots. The bottom line is to play around a bit and see what the fish prefer, both in terms of bait choices and “Dropper Rig” configuration. After all, this is fishing, playtime and fun. Why not experiment a bit? You just may find yourself with plenty more fish coming through the ice this winter.

Over the last five years or so the “Dropper Rig” has become a necessary part of my ice fishing attack. I know you will find that this simple rig will have you catching more and bigger fish this mid to late winter than you have ever caught before. So let everyone else pack away their gear and sweep the garage while getting the mid winter blues, because you’ll be catching fish they thought were “uncatchable”.

Editors Note: Fishing the WildSide On Ice, co-founded by Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis, is an extensive effort focused on generating excitement for the great sport of ice fishing.