Best Ice Fishing Rigs for Mid Winter: What to Do When the Bite Slows Down

Written by: Pete Danylewycz
Last Updated:
SHARE: 

While you can catch your limit of perch, walleye, crappie, and bluegill with nothing more than a good jig, experienced ice anglers know there are rigging options that produce even when the bite slows down or turns off.

Creative methods like running flies on stiff leaders offer something new and subtle, and dangling a big spoon above a dropper line armed with a micro jig calls in fish that would never notice a tiny jig on its own.

Savvy fishermen adapt. Can you?

If you want to know more about the best ice fishing rigs, keep reading!

We’ll cover some of our favorites, let you know how to set them up, and discuss the best techniques and times to use them.

Related: 

Best Rigs for Ice Fishing

The Dead Stick Rig

Dead-sticking is a technique as old as fishing itself.

The idea is to drop bait in the strike zone, whether that’s the bottom or somewhere in the water column, and leave it there. Curious fish will approach and hopefully take your baited hook.

Offering a subtle, natural presentation, the Dead Stick Rig is a great option for times when the fish are finicky, lethargic, and uninterested in flashy jigs.

Here’s how I set up my Dead Stick Rigs:

  1. Run your main line to a barrel swivel using a Palomar knot.
  2. Tie on 1- to 2-feet of leader using a Palomar knot.
  3. Attach a hook with a Palomar knot.

Panfish

To make the most of this rig, use the lightest line you can. For bluegill, trout, crappie, and perch, I’ll typically spool up with 2- to 3-pound mono like Berkley Trilene XL. I run my main line to a tiny barrel swivel, typically a #0 AMYSPORT, and then run that same 2- to 3-pound test as leader line to an appropriate hook. 

12 eagle claw

Small, sharp hooks like this #12 Eagle Claw are essential under the ice.

When you're chasing perch-sized fish, you’ll need small hooks for your Dead Stick rigs, and I use Eagle Claw’s #12 with waxworms, spikes, and other common live bait. If I’m offering minnows, I’ll step up to a Reaction Tackle drop shot hook in 1/0 or #1, but be aware that bluegill will find that size hook hard - or nearly impossible - to take. 

But Crappie won’t have any issues if you size up to a #4 to #2 Aberdeen hook.

Walleye and larger species

When I’m looking for walleye under the ice, I switch to slightly heavier main line while still trying to keep it as light as possible. 4- to 6-pound Berkley Trilene XL is just right for this, but you’ll need tough leader to resist all those sharp teeth. 

While not ideal for resisting a mouth full of razors, I recommend 8-pound mono as leader material because you’ll have a lot more bites on light line than anything heavier. To me, that provides the best chance of landing good fish, and if I lose one every now and then, that’s a trade I’m willing to take!

My hook of choice when dead sticking for walleye is a Reaction Tackle drop shot hook in 1/0 or #1.

Dead Stick Rig tips

  • Fish actively - Dead Stick Rigs are often used on a second rod, allowing the angler to actively fish a jig while the dead stick sits and does - well - nothing. That certainly works, but I recommend trying a more active approach.
    Especially when the bite is slow and the fish are lethargic, hold your dead stick rod and watch the tip very, very closely. Even the tiniest movement at the tip can be a fish, and when you think your bait might have been taken, feel for a fish on the line. If you're right, set the hook and go!
  • Use the lightest line and hook you can - Legions of anglers use split shot, larger circle hooks, and 6- to 8-pound test (or heavier) as main line. And they do catch fish, no question about it.
    But you’ll get more bites and land more fish if you back off the test and hook size. Smaller and lighter is better, especially when the fish turn finicky.
  • Only use weight if you must - The less weight on your line, the better. Only add split shot if you really need to; the weight of the barrel swivel should be enough to sink your bait.
  • Get off the bottom - Many people dead stick either directly on the bottom or just inches above it. And while this can produce fish, most species tend to feed upward, meaning they target prey items that are higher in the water column than they are. Crappie, trout, and walleye are especially keyed into what’s above them, and by raising your bait a little higher in the water column, you’ll get more strikes.

The Drop Shot Rig

Drop Shot Rig

Frequent visitors to USAngler will know we’re big fans of the Drop Shot Rig.

Designed to allow you to fish a known distance from the bottom, it’s a great way to present live bait options like worms or spikes. It can also offer soft plastics a fantastic chance to strut their stuff, making it a very versatile rig.

And because you can use a bit more weight without deadening your presentation, you can get down deep fast. This makes the Drop Shot Rig a great choice for panfish holding near the bottom in deep water.

Panfish

For perch, trout, and sunfish of all kinds, you’ll want to keep your lines light. I prefer 2- to 3-pound test Berkley Trilene XL, especially if I’m presenting live bait. I’ll attach an Eagle Claw #12 hook for tiny bait options, moving up to a Reaction Tackle drop shot hook in 1/0 or #1 for minnows.

My weight of choice is a ⅛-ounce cylinder sinker for two reasons. It’s easy to attach to my line and doesn't get hung up very often. That’s really important when you’re fishing such light test.

Walleye and larger species

There’s no good way to protect your line from sharp teeth with a Drop Shot Rig, and it’s simply not a great option for walleye, pike, or other toothsome species.

Drop Shot Rig tips

  • Set your depth - It’s a rookie mistake to fish too close to the bottom, especially for crappie and trout.
    Both species actively hunt the water column above them, targeting prey items from below. If you offer bait below them, or even at the same level, finicky fish will give it a pass. Instead, tie your drop shot rig with a few feet of dropper to get your hook up and off the bottom.
  • Pulse your rod tip every now and then - The magic of the Drop Shot Rig is the way it allows your bait or soft plastic to move. The idea is to twitch your rod tip a few times, or for perch, to bounce the cylinder weight off the bottom. Then, let your rig settle and keep a tight line.

The Perch Pounder Rig

Perch orient themselves along the bottom, and clouds of sand or mud get them excitedly looking for a meal.

The Perch Pounder Rig is a perfect option to target perch when jigs are failing to attract bites. It reaches deep quickly, allowing you to spend more time actively fishing, and it offers more than one hook, effectively doubling your chances of a bite.

And when the perch are holding deep in massive schools, the Perch Pounder Rig is the perfect weapon to get down to where they’re feeding in a hurry!

Here’s how I set up my Perch Pounder Rigs:

  1. Tie two dropper loops to your main line.
  2. Attach a 1-ounce bank sinker to the end of your line using a Palomar knot.
  3. Space these loops out about 8 inches from each other, keeping the lower loop 12 to 18 inches from the bottom.
  4. Feed a few 8mm beads over the ends of your dropper loops.
  5. Feed the ends of the dropper loops through the eyes of two hooks, and pass the loop over the entire hook.

The advantages of running two dropper loops are clear. Not only is the dropper loop a 100% connection, but it also can be re-positioned easily allowing you to adjust your rig as you work out exactly how deep to offer bait.

I typically fish 4- to 6-pound Berkley Trilene XL as main line with my Perch Pounder Rigs, but to avoid tangles, you’ll need relatively stiff line for the dropper loops. 12-pound test mono like Stren Original should be stiff enough for waxworms, nightcrawlers, or spikes, but minnows may need the extra stiffness of 20-pound fluorocarbon.

red beads

A few 8mm red beads help to attract attention to your hooks.

I like Eagle Claw’s red beads, and I use #4 Gamakatsu octopus hooks on this rig as I want the hook to set itself, especially when I might have multiple perch hitting my line simultaneously. 

Perch Pounder Rig tips

  • Disturb the bottom - Nothing gets perch as excited as a little commotion on the bottom, especially if that motion causes a cloud of debris. I like to bounce my sinker or drag it a few feet across the bottom, and I really think it calls perch like a dinner bell.
  • Adjust your loops - If you’re not getting bites, but your flasher is revealing fish, try adjusting your loop distance and depth. Sometimes a few inches here or there can make all the difference.

The Dropper Rig

Tiny jigs and micro plastics can be undeniably effective under the ice. But when they’re not producing, it may just be that fish aren’t picking up on them.

The Dropper Rig solves that problem, offering an enticing flash and wriggle that alerts fish to an easy meal.

Here’s how I setup a Dropper Rig:

  1. Remove the hook from a ¼-ounce jigging spoon.
  2. Attach your jigging spoon to your main line using a Palomar knot.
  3. Attach a hook to a short section of leader.
  4. Tie that short section of leader to the end of the jigging spoon, shortening it until it hangs just 2 inches below the spoon.
  5. Sweeten your hook with a few waxworms, a minnow head, or some spikes.

Everything from perch to panfish to angry pike will hit this rig, so you need to be ready!

Finesse is not particularly important, so I run 6- to 8-pound Stren Original when I’m fishing for panfish, moving to heavier line if the walleye and pike are biting. I’ll also add a leader to cut down on bite offs.

shiny spoon lure

A big, shiny spoon really rings the dinner bell.

My favorite jigging spoon options include Thundermist’s Stingnose and the tried-and-true Swedish Pimple. My hook choice depends on the species, ranging from #6 Gamakatsu octopus hooks to 1/0 and 2/0 hooks for walleye and pike, sweetened with minnow heads.

Another option is to tie on a Lindy Perch Talker and skip the rig. This remarkable lure needs to be sweetened just like the Dropper Rig, and it's simply deadly.

Lindys Perch Talker lure

Lindy’s Perch Talker is a secret weapon!

Dropper Rig tips

  • Work high in the water column - Going too deep with this rig is a common mistake.
    Not only do many species feed upward, but pike and muskie will also hunt just feet below the ice, trapping prey against the hard water where they’re easy pickings. Try jigging this rig at varying depths in the water column or a few feet above any fish that appear on your flasher.
    You’ll be surprised by just how effective it can be!

The Slip Float Rig

If you fish in a permanent shelter where your holes aren’t in danger of freezing over, one of the most effective options you can use is a Slip Float Rig.

Easy to set up and remarkably effective whether you choose to suspend a Marabou jig, a fly, or a baited hook, the Slip Float Rig is murder through the ice.

Here’s how I set up my Slip Float Rigs:

  1. Slide your float stop onto your main line.
  2. Run your main line through your slip float.
  3. Attach your terminal tackle with a Palomar knot.
  4. If necessary, attach split shot to your line.

Panfish

If I’m using a Slip Float Rig to target perch, trout, or sunfish, I’ll run light line, typically 2- to 3-pound mono like Berkley Trilene XL. The lighter the line, the better the presentation and the more attention your lure or bait will attract.

thill float

Always use the lightest, smallest float you can.

I use the smallest, lightest slip float I can get my hands on, with the Thill 1/16-ounce being a good all-around choice.

Micro-jigs, 1/16-ounce Marabou jigs, and Eagle Claw #12 hooks sweetened with spikes or waxworms are excellent options, as are #4 or #2 Aberdeen hooks with a live minnow hooked properly.

Walleye and larger species

You might think that walleye, pike, and muskie demand big slip floats, but you’d be dead wrong!

I recommend ice fishing with the lightest, smallest slip float you can find, even for big, nasty pike. They may be fickle when the bite dies down, and even the smallest nudge is something you’ll see with a super-light slip float like the Thill I recommend above.

I like to run heavier line for larger species, often 20-pound Sufix 832 ice braid with a mono leader below the float if bite-offs become an issue.

I’ll upsize my hooks to #2 to 1/0 Gamakatsu octopus hooks for walleye and pike, running live minnows under my float.

Slip Float Rig tips

  • Go light - Experienced ice anglers will tell you that light strikes and gentle bites are far more common than in the balmy days of summer, and keeping your float as light as possible will help you detect a bite.
  • Use circle or octopus hooks when you can - Because these hooks are ideal for live bait, and because they’re effectively self-hooking, there’s no better choice for a Slip Float Rig.
  • Limit your lead - Use as little split shot as you can, and space it out along your line. This will enhance the presentation of live bait, improving your odds when the bite has died down.

General Tips for Ice Fishing Rigs

Seasoned veterans like Gordon Pyzer pay more attention to how they rig and fish lie bait than they do to jigs.

As he says, “I’m more fanatical about the way I rig my live bait than I am with any other presentation. Indeed, I’m convinced the reason so many ice anglers fail miserably in the winter relying on live bait is that they think it’s so natural it has to work, and they don’t pay attention to details.”

If you want to increase your odds and catch your limit, you’ll pay close attention to the smallest things, and you’ll heed our advice:

  • Use the lightest line and smallest hooks you can - Especially when the bite gets slow in mid-winter, finicky fish are going to be wary customers at best. Heavy lines, normal amounts of split shot, and big hooks will still catch fish, but not nearly as many.
    Run the lightest main line and leader you can, starting with 2- and 3-pound test and only moving to stronger line when absolutely necessary. Even then, keep it small and light.
    Ditto for hooks.
    Run the smallest, lightest hooks you can, only increasing size when necessary (say, for crappie or to accommodate a monster minnow).
  • Fish actively - It’s tempting to set your rod in place if you’re not jigging and let your live bait do the work for you.
    But that’s a big mistake!
    Even when dead sticking, you need to keep your rod ready and in hand, watching the tip for nibbles and bites.
  • Learn to rig your minnow correctly - While there are plenty of ways to run a hook through a minnow, there are better and worse choices.
    • Tail hooking - By running your hook through the tail, about a ¼ inch off the fins, you allow the minnow to kick and swim without doing it serious injury. They’ll be lively and long-lived that way, and it’s one of our favorite options. But to make it work, you need to remember to pause, as Ivo Coia explains in the video below.
    • Dorsal hooking - By running your hook through the back, directly below the dorsal fin, you also miss the minnow’s vital organs, allowing it to twitch both head and tail.
    • Lip hooking - With this technique, you run the hook from under the minnow’s chin, through both lips. Obviously, this leaves the tail kicking furiously, but it does kill the minnow more quickly than the alternatives.
    • Snout hooking - Essentially a modified lip hook, in this case, you run the hook down through the front of the head and out through its mouth. Like lip hooking, this lets the minnow move freely, but it doesn’t kill it as quickly.

Final Thoughts

When the bite slows down and jigging just isn’t working, there are options that can still attract strikes. All it takes is a bit of know-how, some creativity, and the right tackle, and you’ll catch fish when everyone else is striking out.

We hope that you've learned something new from this article, and if you have, we’d love to hear from you!

Please leave a comment below.

About The Author
Born and raised in Cleveland, Ohio, Pete grew up fishing on the Great Lakes. Whether he's casting a line in a quiet freshwater stream or battling a monster bass, fishing is his true passion.
Comments
Subscribe
Notify of
guest

0 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x
linkedin facebook pinterest youtube rss twitter instagram facebook-blank rss-blank linkedin-blank pinterest youtube twitter instagram