Ice fishing is at the forefront of innovation within the sport of angling, and while each new summer sees much the same gear on the water, the short days of winter witness new gear every year.
On the hard water, for instance, the days of long rods are finished. Today you’ll see most ice anglers sporting short, ultralight rods only about as long as their arms. And while ripping is still an effective option for pike, finesse presentation is more popular than ever for eliciting a strike from sluggish fish.
That’s not all, though. If you take a close look at the jig heads and hooks you’ll find on the ice, you’ll see that live bait is giving way to plastics that are just as effective but much easier to use. The soft bait revolution is here, and it’s set to transform winter fishing as surely as plastic worms changed summer angling forever.
We love our cold-weather plastics, and with a wealth of options waiting for you to try, there’s no reason not to switch gears this season. We’ve rounded up some of our favorites, and below, we’ll offer reviews of each and some tips and tricks to get you ready for the ice.
Take a look at these awesome ice angling soft baits and see if one (or more) can tempt you to try something new:
Table of Contents (clickable)
Berkley’s Gulp! Alive! Minnow, like many soft baits, comes from the factory soaked in a tantalizing scent and taste. These additions are effective at triggering a strike and encouraging fish to really hold on while you set the hook.
Shaped like a tiny baitfish sporting a sensitive split tail, we like these one-inch plastic baits for all panfish, including large crappie. That tail design vibrates and dances when given a gentle twitch, attracting predators to what looks to them like an injured minnow.
When fished without a jig head, and rigged Texas style with a 1/0 or smaller offset hook like the Berkley Fusion, the Gulp! Alive! Minnow slowly sinks, allowing you to gently jig and then let it slide deeper into the water like dying prey. That’s an effective technique, and bites are often triggered right after you stop working it and let these little guys sink.
When combined with a small head like some of the Celsius Panfish Assorted EC5C-5A Jigs, you can add a touch of color and some weight, causing this soft bait to sink more quickly. Either technique will produce strikes, and there’s really no bad way to rig these minnows.
“Emerald Shiner” and “Smelt” are great colors, but don’t forget “Luma Glow” for low-light conditions.
video explaining how to Texas rig a fluke
Berkley’s PowerBait Honey Worms are ideal for ice anglers hunting panfish. When added to a tiny jig head, these one-inch soft baits imitate insect larvae and other tiny prey items that bluegill and crappie love.
To fish these effectively, you’ll need to be gentle. Try tapping your rod blank to send your jig prancing under the ice, pausing every few seconds to let it settle a touch. You can use the same techniques and rigs you would with waxworms.
Three colors are available: “natural,” “yellow,” and “red,” and we like all three for different conditions. Easier to keep on the hook than waxworms, you won’t need to “reload” as often--though they’re just as effective.
These tiny plastics can also be used to sweeten a larger lure, adding a dash of color, smell, and taste.
Gitzit tubes have been a summer staple for years, and their ability to trigger strikes in bass is well known. What’s not as widely recognized, however, is that they’re just as effective over the ice for everything from crappie to lake trout. In fact, these lures are loved by pretty much anything with a mouth and fins!
If you’re not familiar with these soft baits, tubes are just what their name suggests: short cylinders with a fringe skirt. Not only does that skirt dance and wriggle, attracting fish, but the tube itself encourages a slow spiral as you jig, acting like badly injured bait.
The slow movement and active skirt combine to offer predatory fish an irresistible strike trigger. We especially like the white option for dim, overcast days and dark water, but a variety of colors are available.
video explaining how to rig tubes on jig heads
Another summer staple you can still turn to when the weather’s cold, PowerBait Power Grubs are murder on everything from crappie to pike. Like other PowerBaits, expect flavor and scent to draw fish in and keep them biting longer.
If you’re new to soft baits, the name might confuse you, as these plastics look nothing like larvae. To anglers, “grub” means a slightly ribbed cylinder with a long, curved tail that waggles enticingly with just a tiny bit of input.
Available in lengths from one to three inches, you can use these on anything you want to catch. “Chartreuse,” “white,” and “black” are always safe bets, but these grubs come in other effective colors as well. Don’t be surprised if a big fish hits these small grubs, however, as these soft plastics have a reputation for calling up some real monsters!
We recommend rigging these with a jig head of the appropriate size and weight, and we especially like the Bait Rigs Oddball Jigs for the erratic action they create. Again, finesse is the key to these soft baits when jigging.
Like the soft plastics from Berkley and Zoom, PowerBait enhances its baits with flavor and scent to keep the fish on the hook until you have time to set it. That scent also helps trigger bites--never something to overlook.
These baits are essentially long, ribbed grubs featuring a characteristic curled tail that excites predators. But those ribs add a little extra, trapping air as they sink while helping to create gentle action that drives fish wild. They also increase the surface area of these baits, allowing them to emit more scent into the water.
Four inches long, these soft plastics are best fished on a jig head for walleye, where they’ll imitate slender prey items like fatheads and smelt. If you want to fish them smaller--no problem!--just snip off a bit of the forward section of the bait until you have the size you like.
“Chartreuse pepper,” “fire tiger,” and “oyster shell” are great color options, and we like to rig these to heads like the excellent Bait Rigs Oddball Jigs, which impart fantastic action to these baits.
We’ve never seen a more realistic looking soft bait than the WildEye Swim Shad from Storm. Available in a range of real-life colors including whites and yellows, this is a killer soft bait for clear water and brighter days. Its action is excellent, too, mimicking gentle tail flutters, starts and stops, and the erratic motion of injured prey.
These baits are available in a range of sizes from two to six inches. It’s important to keep in mind that each pre-molded swimbait is weighted for its size. In practice, the larger the Storm bait, the heavier, and it can be tough to fish the larger guys shallow.
That said, walleye and pike strike these baits aggressively, and in contrast to our general advice to “go small,” we recommend that you size up and jig aggressively. If nothing bites, decrease the motion slowly and decrease the bait size until you hit the sweet spot.
For crappie, look for the two-inch baits, as hook size will limit what they can bite.
Armed with a single, preset dorsal hook, just take them out and tie them on. We especially like “fire tiger” and “bluegill.”
Last but by no means least, Zoom’s Salty Super Fluke is a live minnow alternative that’s easier to deal with, easy to fish, and among the most productive soft baits on the market. They’re saturated with salt to give them flavor, encouraging fish to keep them in their mouths while you set the hook.
Shaped like a minnow with a delicate split tail, these flukes turn finesse presentations into strikes. That slender tail will quiver and twitch with the lightest flick of your wrist. Given the vast range of color choices, finding the best option for your conditions is easy. “Watermelon red,” “albino,” and “black” are great choices, but don’t be afraid to experiment.
Everything from walleye to muskie hit this large soft bait, especially if you learn to let the fluke sink between gentle jigging sessions. We recommend that you fish this bait weightless to improve its action, and we like to Texas rig these guys with Gamakatsu offset worm hooks before dropping them below the ice.
If there’s one mistake we see over the hole, it’s aggressive jigging. While there are circumstances and species that demand the erratic action you get when ripping, these are the exception rather than the rule.
Especially when the water’s clear, realistic presentations are more likely to seduce a fish into a strike. As Mark Strand, an expert on ice fishing, explains, the best jig anglers know that jigging is a two-step process.
Finesse is easier to talk about than to achieve. But the quickest route to soft bait mastery is to find some clear water and watch your bait carefully. Study how your wrist and rod work together to create motion in the bait, and learn to mimic minnows and other food items.
This takes practice, but the reward is immense!
If you can get the attention of the little guys, there’s a good chance the big guys are watching, too.
Experienced ice anglers like to see minnows and immature fish taking a close look at their bait. As the prey items collect around your line, the predators will take interest. Again, finesse and realistic presentation are key, and you want the big boys to choose your bait rather than that tasty minnow next to it.
As the water cools, the ecosystem changes. Big, fast-moving prey items are gone, and smaller, slower options multiply. Especially for panfish, you want to go as small as you can with your jigs and baits.
If you’ve been looking at soft bait options, you’ve noticed the proliferation of tiny plastics. To trigger a strike when the food is small, you need to be just as tiny. That may seem counterintuitive, but the large meals of summer just aren’t there for crappie and bluegill--and that’s not what they’re hunting for.
When using micro-plastic on the end of your line, it’s often enough just to gently tap your rod blank. That will send your soft bait wriggling, and the panfish can’t resist a tiny, delicate presentation.
Video illustrating really tiny jigs and plastics catching crappie
Once limited to jigs like the Acme Kastmaster or Rapala Jigging Rap and live bait, ice anglers are quickly warming up to soft baits. As summer anglers can testify, plastics work well and are pretty much hassle-free.
The trick to making plastics work for you is color selection and (usually) a gentle touch. But if you do your part and learn to make these baits enticing to fish, you’ll realize why they’ve come to dominate the lazy mornings of summer.