No matter what your favorite tactics are, you probably jig while icefishing. Irrevocably linked to ice fishing due to the limitations inherent with vertical presentations, jigging is the up-and-down yo-yo action imparted to a bait or lure. Most fish species can be taken by jigging, depending on the bait used and how the action is varied. Even tip-ups have been modified to utilize wind power for jigging action, preventing a deadbait from hanging in the water like it's, well, dead.
For me, jigging goes hand in hand with ice fishing. I primarily fish for pike and steelhead through the ice, and jigging (either large rapalas or small jigging spoons tipped with spikes) keeps me involved in what I'm doing. I gave using a fish finder years ago, having found that I spend too much time watching the screen, and not enough paying attention to what's going on around me. There's not much that rivals the heavy slash of a pike hammering your jigging rig, setting your heart thumping and your drag screaming. Even the missed strikes are a wake-up call, jarring you from a reverie of fishing trips past or a tropical beach that you'd rather be lounging on, rather than a beat-up 5 gallon bucket parked on a frozen lake.
Jigging multiple holes while watching tip-ups is a great way to move around and keep warm, and the activity of jigging does just enough to keep me involved in the process. Here is where a deadstick really shines - as a great way to continue jigging while soaking a minnow or dead smelt to attract fish that prefer other baits.
Current Michigan fishing regulations allow three rods per angler. This means you can throw a deadstick rod into the mix with jigging lines and tip-ups. Jigging a swimming lure is also a key aspect of deadsticking. While jigging is an excellent way to attract fish, the fish attracted may also investigate other lines in the area. After missing a bump or strike on a jigging rapala, I've had a tip-up or deadstick rod nearby get hit. Many times I’ve had a fish move in, shy away from my jigging lure, and take the livebait dangling on the deadstick rod a few feet away — it’s a combination of the two methods that works very well.
No matter how much you like to jig, suspending livebait remains a top ice fishing presentation. For years, ice anglers have purposely drilled holes in pairs, the reason being that one hole has a tip-up, while the other hole is open for jigging. Deadsticking doesn't mean that you stop jigging. In fact, deadsticking livebait while you jig may be the best way to attract and trigger fish — two methods being used simultaneously can't hurt your chances.
A good deadstick should be equal parts noodle and backbone. The rod needs to have enough backbone to fight fish, while the tip is light enough so the bait works the tip as it struggles, and the rod should bend with ease when a fish takes the bait — serving as a strike indicator. I use old flyfishing reels on my deadstick and jigging rods when the water isnt too deep. They never ice up, offer plenty of space for thick jigging line, and have a drag that can be manipulated - very loose for live bait, or locked down for deadsticking with a jigging rapala.
I prefer heavy fluorocarbon leader over wire leaders when rigging for pike. Fluorocarbon is easy to get in heavy tests (35, 40 and 80#), easy to tie, and virtually disappears in water. I have been cut off a few times with it, and one of my brother in laws had a monster pike break the swivel between the leader and line. However, I firmly believe that pike (especially pressured ones) can and will shy away from wire leaders. For me, the risk of an occasional cut-off outweighs the added visibility of wire. For the record, we also use fluorocarbon as bite tippet when flyfishing for pike and musky in open water. It's amazing how well it holds up, in spite of being nicked and abraded by these toothy critters.
Try using weight to control your minnow. Weight added to your livebait, whether it's a jighead or splitshot, will keep your minnow or shiner struggling but near-stationary. An 1/8th ounce jighead works for smaller minnows (below 3"), while a 3/8 or 1/2 ounce jig works for bigger shiners and suckers. Remember that many jigs have light-wire hooks, and these need to be tested against straightening before you go looking to slug it out with a trophy. Years ago, I had great luck jigging spikes on a small spoon for steelhead. My first two fish easily bent the single hook (welded to the spoon body) and came unpinned right near the hole. I quickly switched to a similar spoon with a small treble, and those steelhead (or their friends) got the surprise that all hook-straighteners deserve.
Deadsticking swimming lures, like a Jigging Rapala or Chubby Darter produce walleyes and pike, particularly when fish favor baits with minimal action. Simply deadsticking swimming lures without any bait works, while adding a small crappie minnow to the back hook adds action and scent.
Deadstick set-up To set a deadstick rod, position the bait anywhere from 3 inches to 3 feet off the bottom. Closer to the bottom for walleye, and higher up for pike seems to be a good rule to start by. To avoid losing fish at the strike, set your drag properly. With live baits a loose drag or open bail is best. Using a rubber band on your spool to keep line from paying out with an open bail can work for larger baits. The fish, taking the bait, will then return to the bottom or move off. Having the drag too tight will cause you to miss strikes, either because the fish feels resistance and expels the bait, or has it literally pulled from it's maw as the fish swims away. With jigging lures, particularly the Rapala, I prefer to test all my knots and tighten the drag down. With the dual hooks at either end, a pike hitting the Rapala can hook itself against a tight line. This is also a great way to lose your favorite fishing rod, if you are not paying attention or busy.
Dependable rod holders are a critical aspect of deadsticking. The best rod holders prevent aggressive fish (like pike) from pulling a rod down the hole, yet the holder must allow for anglers to quickly and easily remove the rod from the holder. If you insist on jamming the rod handle into a pile of slush next to the hole, be prepared to suffer the guffaws of your fellow anglers as your favorite rod disappears with a splash.
If your action is coming on the deadstick rod, consider switching your jigging rod to a jig and minnow - the fish want a slower presentation. Jigging with this combo allows you to keep attracting fish via jigging, and you also may catch more fish jigging with livebait. Hold the bait 3 to 12 inches from bottom, gently lift the rod tip a foot or so, then let it fall. Another trick is to bounce the bait on bottom, giving the illusion that the minnow is feeding.
Most days, jigging lures produces walleye and pike strikes, but not always. Using a deadstick doubles your odds of triggering strikes and also boosts your daily catch. Besides, there’s something visually exciting about seeing the noodle tip of a deadstick rod bend down like a divining rod pointing out a water line. Tight lines!