The best bluegill anglers I’ve ever fished with on hard water usually fall into one of two categories: speed freaks or snails. I’m not talking about their on-ice mobility, or how many holes they fish. I mean very simply, how fast they work whatever bait they have tied on at any given time. To break it down further: what speed, frequency, and cadences do they utilize in their jigging motion? These are deep-rooted questions, and for many of us it comes down to what we were taught at a very young age.
Slow from the Get-Go
My grandpa gave each of my brothers and me ice fishing jigglesticks, equipped with angleworm-tipped teardrops that we threw over the side of the boat and anxiously waited for strikes. “I missed one,” one of us would say, to which he’d respond, “Well don’t miss them, catch them.”
After a few “I missed one,” grandpa would stand over us and say, “Now hold it still!” In all his fishy wisdom, he knew the hardest thing for us, besides holding still to begin with, was detecting the strike. From that point forward, I was a very cautious study in the art of line watching and subdued jigging motions. Then and now, moving your bait too much makes it difficult to detect strikes, and ultimately convert bites to bent rods.
Many years later, I found myself on a small farm pond with Clam Pro, guide and fellow panfish-head Matt Johnson, and what I saw would’ve driven Grandpa mad! Matt not only had the audacity to jig with a nervous and rapid twitch, but he did it while the fish were approaching and getting ready to eat. Did I mention that it was extremely effective?
As fish of various sizes approached, Matt forced the hand of the bigger gills in the school. Aggressively, he prevented the less-bold and smaller gills from eating, while forcing the bigger ones to eat it on the move if they were going to get a taste. That day, it was the ticket.
Now fast-forward to this winter, when Roger Stearns of Stonewall, Manitoba, and I were fishing in preparation for an NAIFC tournament, and he broke out the same moves. Roger was jigging so quickly that I couldn’t tell by watching when a fish had clutched onto his bait, but the important part was that he could. Roger caught many fish that day, even when fishing faster than what I’m used to seeing. Contrast that to his tourney partner, Todd, who fished ultra-slow, and equally effective, especially when right next to Roger, and you’ve got a confusing scenario. Which way to fish big gills – fast or slow – when both can be very effective? The answer then, is several fold, and revolves highly around both the mood of the gills you’re fishing, as well as the method that gives you the most confidence.
Remember, if we’re targeting trophy gills, you might as well consider them a different species. Even under favorable weather conditions and a good bite, big gills rarely give multiple chances, so it’s all about fooling them and executing a good hookset. A big swing and a miss is the kiss of death for your chances at that fat blip on your MarCum, which, ultimately spells out the downside of the ultra-still approach. Jig quietly, and a big upstroke (missed hookset) is something that really puts off a good gill. Alternatively, anglers that fish fast are often able to mask missed hooksets as just another jigging motion, often giving them multiple looks at the same fish, even if they do swing and miss. That said, jig too aggressively, especially if fish are negative, and you’ll never get them to eat in the first place.
The good news is that cues and clues abound via your flasher. The more quickly fish move on screen, and react to your offerings, the more advantageous a quick jigging motion can be, especially when small fish are present.
Still, if I were to recommend one strategy to start with, and tweak from there, it would be to start fast and end slow. Most often, even guys that are known for rapid jigging motions will slow it down at least a bit as fish approach. Speed prevails in attracting fish from a distance, with your repeated sweeps and antics looking like a pile of biological activity in multiple zones of the water column. To a fish approaching from afar, there’s quite a bit going on. As they draw nearer, slow your offering and even pause it occasionally, focusing more soft enticement rather than frantic attraction.
This allows subtle details of the bait, such as the hackle on a Tungsten Fly Jig or the quivering action from a Trigger X Mustache Worm to really shine (see video below). Too much movement in their face, especially 3-foot picks and drops, isn’t only alarming to them, but it’s simply unnatural.
At some point then, the fish commits or it doesn’t. If it doesn’t, then you’ve got a big science experiment to run. Assuming your bait of choice is a winner, go through the variables of speed, frequency and cadence to find out what the order of the day is, then learn, adjust and repeat. Too often anglers will switch out colors, sizes and bait shapes, without ever varying their jigging motion at all, which can many times be the dominant factor in a gill deciding whether or not to eat.
When a fish does eat, lift slowly at first, making sure the rod starts to load as you begin your hookset. If it wasn’t in its mouth to begin with, you lose very little and rarely will spook the fish entirely. If it is in its mouth, you usually have time to notice the rod loading, and accelerate the hookset motion from there. Warning: Swing for the fences on each hookset, and you’ll do a fair amount of striking out.
There are many ways to catch a good gill – fast, slow and anywhere in between – but anglers that fish for them most effectively start out with a method that works well for them, then adjust accordingly. Find what works best for you while you live-with, but don’t die-by, any one method, and you’ll be best equipped to do well no matter where you fish.
Author’s note: Check out the video below that shows one of my favorite soft plastics for winter gills, the Trigger X Mustache Worm.
Images by Joel Nelson