By Ken Poor

     Minnows, grubs, and wigglers are the most common live baits used for icefishing are. Minnows come in a variety of sizes depending on the intended use and common ice fishing grubs include mousies, wax-worms, wheatworms and spikes. Spikes are maggots and wigglers are the larva of the mayfly. Grubs, spikes and wigglers are typically used as a bait for panfish such as bluegill, perch and crappie. Minnows are normally used to catch northern pike, bass or walleye. Crappie and perch will also take small minnows.

     Some of the reasons ice fishermen favor spikes over other types of grubs for panfish because they are tough and will stay on the hook best. They are also cheaper and easier to find at most bait and tackle shops. Spikes are the smallest of the grubs used for pan fishing, but if you prefer a bulkier bait, try using two or three spikes on your hook.

     When fishing with spikes don’t thread them on the hook like a night crawler. Use a small icefishing jig and just hook the tip of the spike. In contrast wheatworms, mousies or wax-worms should be threaded on the hook taking care to cover the point and barb.     

Grubs are the preferred live bait for most types of panfish such as bluegill.

     The reason is they are soft bodied and fish can easily pull them off the hook. Grubs and wigglers are almost always fished using ice-jigging rods and very small hooks or jigs. When using wigglers simply thread the tale of the wiggler on the hook.

     Minnows can be fished through the ice in several different ways. If you are using a small plain hook and split-shot for weight – hook a medium-sized minnow through the tail. When hooked in this manner the minnow will attempt to swim away from the weight but will remain close to bottom. Add or remove split-shot to control the distance the minnow can travel. Use this technique for fish that are holding close to or right on the bottom.

     If you are using a small ice-fishing spoon, use small minnows and hook the minnow just under the skin, forward of the dorsal fin. Don’t hook across the minnow. Most game fish will take a suspended minnow headfirst. For this reason, it is important that the hook point towards the head to insure a good hook-up.

     Large minnows (over 2-inches) fished through the ice should be hooked through the back, behind the dorsal fin and just below the skin. Properly hooked minnows will stay alive and active for a long time. Big minnows are most often fished on a tip-up set 2 to 3-feet above a weed bed or other fishing holding cover.      

Minnows should appear lively and uniform in size.

     When buying minnows from a bait and tackle shop take a minute to check them out. Make sure they are kept in cold clean water, appear to be lively and are uniform in size.    

     Pick the correct size minnow for the species of fish you are targeting. When ice fishing for northern pike, you can’t beat a big, 6-inch, active minnow such as a shiner, chub, sucker or golden roach. Smaller minnows are good bait for walleye, bass, perch and crappie. For bass or walleye use a 3 or 4-inch minnow and smaller 1 or 2-inch minnows for perch or crappie.

     Fresh live bait should be considered a critical part of your fishing strategy and is much more important in the winter than in the summer. The idea is to keep an active minnow below the ice in front of the fish. Watch your electronics. If you see a fish come up and look at your bait and then drop back to the bottom or go off the screen of your flasher – chances are it’s time to change your bait. Each time you catch a fish – change your minnow.

     One exception or variation to the use of live bait is using a dead minnow for northern pike. Pike are scavengers and, in some situations, a dead minnow may be an excellent choice. During the winter minor die-offs of minnows are common, normally due to rapid temperature or oxygen level changes. Pike move into these areas and gorge on the results. If you can see dead minnows on the bottom of the lake you are fishing – go with a dead minnow. 

     Typically, the dead minnow will be dropped to the bottom and allowed to lay there with a little slack in the line. Make sure the bait is on the bottom, easy for the pike to see and in an area reasonably clear of weeds. Tip-ups are a good choice for this presentation.

     As a rule of thumb even when the fish are not biting it is a good strategy to change your bait about every 20 to 30 minutes, or even more often during a slow bite. Each time you change your live bait you add scent to the water and that is a powerful attractant for fish. The importance of the scent of fresh live bait and the flash of a lively minnow is often overlooked when ice fishing.

     Bring plenty of minnows and keep them in a bait bucket while you are ice fishing. Don’t forget you will need to change the water in your bait bucket often. Adding cold water from the lake helps acclimatize the fish to the cold water, adds oxygen to the water keeping your bait lively and will keep the water in your bait bucket from freezing. Each is important for keeping the minnows lively and the fish biting.