Inside the shack, waves of heat unfurled from our iron stove’s belly full of hardwood. I looked like a half-peeled banana, sitting in my sweatshirt after shucking off the top half of my one-piece survival suit. Outside, the lake’s skin heaved, buckled and popped under the New Year’s first major cold snap. Dead center in a ten-inch hole below my feet, the light balsa float had suddenly shaken to life. There was a momentary pause before the whole works was drawn swiftly out of sight, taking heaping coils from the reel along with it. After a five count, I closed the bail and let the fish tighten the tip of the rod down into a good arc before sweeping the light wire hook home.
It took a few minutes, but the little reel’s guts slowly began taking over and the fish’s maneuvers became fewer and further between. I was sure we’d be seeing the gold and black of another nice walleye below the hole, but instead was greeted by the rolling flash of a fat whitefish. When you set up to fish slip-bobbers through the ice, you’ll find out pretty quickly that most fish are suckers for them.
Rigging and fishing slip-bobbers in the winter has it’s own special set of requirements and subtleties that set it apart from fishing them in open water. At the end of the day, you’re still hanging something at a predetermined depth, and fish will still show themselves by moving the float. But, the winter slip-bobber fisherman has other wrinkles to add and challenges to adapt to. Not the least of which are air temperatures well below the freezing mark.
You can use slip-bobbers anywhere. Inside an ice shack /enclosure or in the open air. Like other above-water systems, they’re at their best when the holes aren’t icing up too quickly. Bound by a skim of ice, their ability to transmit activity from above and below is basically lost. You can still fish them outside on a cold day, but keeping your holes open and clean takes more work. Obviously inside a shack, this is less of an issue.
What makes slip-bobbers so effective through the ice is their versatility when it comes to depth and rigging options, not to mention their overall sensitivity. Fishing from a vertical, stationary position makes adding two or more offerings to your line very low-maintenance. A simple and effective set-up usually involves an ‘anchor bait’ on the end of the line, with one or more baited hooks at intervals above it. The anchor bait basically does what the name implies, it holds the float upright and sits closest to the bottom. A leadhead jig of some sort is most common. Jigs with a 90 degree line tie are usually best when tied with a loop knot to keep them hanging perfectly horizontal. A larger minnow on the anchor jig can be used to add a lot of action to the entire line. Dropshot rigs have become really popular with bass fishermen, and this rig really isn’t all that different.
Up from the anchor, you can splice in barrel swivels leaving short, one to six inch lines with baited hooks off one of the eyelets. Tying off extra hooks with a short length of slightly heavier line helps it stand at a greater angle to the mainline and will reduce fouling. Twelve-pound abraision-resistant monofilament works well. You can also add small, brightly coloured floater beads. Sometimes fish will take the anchor bait, other times they’ll pick off baits suspended higher off the bottom. With panfish, it’s not uncommon to have multiple fish come up through the hole at once. Check local Regulations to see how many hook points per line are legal where you’re fishing.
Baiting up with this type of rig depends on what you’re fishing for. You can tailor the size and weight for anything from panfish to lake trout. Small shiners or maggots on the upper hook(s) work well for perch, crappie, cisco or whitefish, anchored with a 1/32 to ¼ ounce plastic or hair/feather jig below. A good rig for lake trout or ling is a ¼ ounce ball head jig with a dead smelt hanging below a pair of #4 baitholder hooks spread ten to thirty feet apart with live, emerald shiners. Don’t discount scented plastics for this application, either. Fish still eat them in the winter. No matter what you’re fishing for, spreading multiple presentations below a slip-bobber is a great way to pattern fish and cover water.
You can also refine your rigging to its bare essentials with just a single hook baited and set at one specific depth below the float. Weight placed closer to the bait restricts movement, more distance between weight and bait can give a lot more freedom. The beauty of a bobber rig is how well this all gets communicated back to the guy sitting on the ice, watching the float. And of course, slip-bobbers are fully adjustable, making precision depth changes very easy. When the fishing is tough, being off the right depth by as little as eighteen inches can make or break a day. Slip-bobbers allow you to set and re-set hot depths to stay on fish better than most techniques. And unlike hand-lining a fish hooked on a tip-up, slip bobbers give you the added sport and control of using a rod and reel. A five-pound fish on a seven foot rod is fun. On a three-foot rod, it can have your laughing out loud. It’s that much fun. Watching your float and then playing the fish on ice gear is simply awesome. Every bit as thrilling as that four-foot muskie smashing your lure on hundred pound line back in August, or fighting a big Great Lakes chinook.
Rod length depends on whether you’ll be doing most of your fishing in a shack or outside. Inside a shack, a shorter rod is the way to go, from eighteen to thirty inches in overall length. When you’re outside, rods of thirty six to forty eight inches can be better, with some fishermen even opting for standard five-foot ultra-lite style rods. Rod action and line type come down to personal preference and what size or species of fish you’re after. No-stretch lines and long, medium action rods are great for deep water or fish like pike that can peel out a lot of line after hitting. A pike can be a city block away but with no-stretch line, keeping tabs on him is easy. You’re always in direct contact. In shallow or clear water for brookies, rainbows or panfish, you might opt for four pound mono and a light, twig of a rod. Just like slip-bobber fishing in open-water, the rod needs to help quickly remove the bow from the line and sweep the hook home. Many ice rod manufacturers are now marketing actions specifically for bobber fishing. The line of St.Croix products that hit shelves for last season is outstanding, as are G Loomis rods. Shimano, Mitchell, Berkley, Quantum, Browning and HT-Polar also make very good ice rods at lower price points.
Spinning reels with a smooth drag and solid anti-reverse gear are the norm for fishing these rigs and like rods, many companies offer products geared specifically for icefishing. For panfish or smaller gamefish, the reel’s basic function is nothing more than storing and managing line. Smooth drags and line capacity become more important with heavier, hard-running fish like pike or lake trout. Micro-series reels are more than enough for smaller fish. You may want to step up to a 2000or 4000-size model for larger targets. There are even specially formulated, cold-weather lubricants for winter use that resist thickening and stiff operation.
As a rule, foam floats will support a lot more weight and are harder to submerge than balsa wood floats, making them a good choice for larger baits, heavier rigging and larger fish. A thumb-sized foam float with a few splitshot will normally suspend and control live baitfish from five to seven inches pretty handily. For lighter baits and smaller fish, small, steelhead floats work great. They’re easy to submerge, and can be precision weighted so that even the lightest takes will register. Both types will gather ice when it’s cold outside, with foam being slightly more susceptible. A blast of oil-based cooking spray or fish scent slows down water absorption and icing. Thill and Blackbird make excellent balsa floats, and there’s many companies that sell foam versions.
Add a few packs of neoprene or Dacron bobber-stops, and you’re in business. It’s common for stops to slip during the fight. Carry a black magic marker to mark your line to re-set the stop. A small plastic bead threaded between the stop and where your line enters the float keeps the stop from jamming.
Like on any live bait rig, your hooks need to be unobtrusive and super sharp. Egg, ‘octopus’ or baitholder models along with longer shanked Aberdeen-styles will cover just about any bait or species. Leadhead jigs are excellent under a float fished alone or as part of a multi-hook rig. Phosphorescent paint finishes on hooks and jigs can be magical at times. Pike rigging with a legal wire quick-strike or plain treble on a twelve to eighteen inch wire leader also works well. The best terminal rigging is always whatever you’re most comfortable using, from lines, to hook sizes or styles. A season’s worth of multi-species rigging can be stocked in an 8″x8″ plastic tackle case. Add your baits of choice and start the experiment.
Anytime you’re allowed more than one line, working a slip-bobber while you jig is a deadly option. And unlike tip-ups, moving your live bait rig from hole to hole is dead easy. Reel up, walk over to the new hole and bomb it back down. It’s no different than hole-hopping with your jigging rod. It’s portable live bait fishing at it’s finest. Working around a piece of structure with tandem holes is a great technique for all species. Cut holes in clusters of two or three and work your way around showing fish a live or dead bait set while you jig nearby. Jigging rod in one hand and a bucket of bait and your float rod in the other.
The drag’s tinny belch when you set the hook on a short rod with a slip-bobber is a beautiful thing when the boat’s in storage and the lake’s frozen over. It might be a bucket of perch you’re after, your first ten-pound walleye or a forty-inch pike. You can use slip-bobbers to catch anything, and the enjoyment found in the pursuit and fight is tough to beat. If you haven’t tried this system through the ice, you should. You probably already have all the rigging needed to get started. Tailor your gear to the species you’re after and give the technique a solid trial this winter. It’s unbeatable for getting kids into icefishing (how many of us started fishing with a bobber and bait as kids?) and best of all, it flat-out produces. Perch and crappies are my first target once the ice is safe, and slip-bobbers are in a league of their own at this time. From mid-winter through March, many a fifteen pound-plus pike has fallen for live and dead baits under bobbers for me. Here’s hoping you get on a hot bite using slip-bobbers in the cold months ahead!