Perhaps one of the most utilized and familiar tactics used by today’s modern ice angler is that of the rattle reel and or bobber and minnow combination.
As simple as it sounds, three key factors will help you put more fish on the ice than your buddies when using rattle reels or bobbers. Split shot placement, hook placement on the minnow, and the minnow itself is where it’s at!
Split shot placement (or its distance from the minnow) is extremely important—and must be mastered. The good news is that is also applied to any bobber situation—hard or soft water! Ever been in a Turkish prison? Ever been in a fish house (or a boat) where one angler is out fishing the others 3 to 1? If your answer is” no”, then you’re lying–lol. It’s the classic—everybody has the same bait, the same color lure, the same line variety, the same depth, the same…..you get the drift. But did anyone in the group take note of how far the distance between the minnow and the split shot is on the “hot rod”? Probably not. The fact is, that little detail can be a deal-breaker in the numbers of fish you will catch. It is important to match the activity of the minnow to the mood or feeding attitude of the fish. How many times have you witnessed on the Vexilar or AquaVu a fish cruising up to the bait, waiting for a second then sinking slowly away—all the time the bobber and minnow is cranking out the Indy 500 in the hole. Odds are the minnow had a leash that was too long– so it was able to swim away from an inactive fish as it approached your minnow and “kinda tried” to eat. Time to adjust the split shot placement and shorten the “leash”—to restrict the minnow from dodging death. Last I checked, It is much easier to catch a dog tied to a tree on a short leash verse a long leash correct? Especially if you’re not in the mood the play keep away.
I start with an average of 7 inches of “leash” in between my minnow and split shot and adjust the distance from there. Now if the fish are fairly active, a 7”-10” leash will typically work fine. But of course that only happens 10% of the time, so typically I start at 7” then move the split shot ½” at a time closer the hook until bites are produced. On average, a 4”-7” leash will catch the inactive or lazy fish. The shorter the leash—the smaller circle the minnow can swim to potentially escape from being eaten. Here’s some basic math—a 4” leash equals an 8” circle the minnow can swim—a 7” leash equals a 14” circle the minnow can potentially swim. So with that in mind, putting your split shot 12” from the bait might not be that good of an idea in general.
When the fishing first begins, make sure everyone varies their “leash” length and bait depth a little but make sure that everyone has the same size/weight of split shot on their line so that it is easier to work as a team and figure out what the best distance is. The reason for equal weights is that all of the minnows are “anchored” the same. The first question you should ask the angler who caught the first two or three fish is: “How far is your split shot from your hook?” The second question should be: “How high off the bottom is the bait?” The third question I like to ask is: “Where or how are you hooking your minnow?” Huh?
Yup, that’s what I said. Is the minnow hooked in the lips? In front of the dorsal fin or behind the dorsal fin? As a basic rule, avoid hooking the minnow through the lips while ice fishing with a rattle reel or bobber. It’s my personal professional opinion that hooking the minnow in front of the dorsal fin is better than the “traditional” behind the dorsal fin. The reason is that it is much easier for the minnow to actively swim around on “the leash”. I compare it to tying a rope around your waist (in front of the dorsal fin) verses around your ankles (behind the dorsal fin or close to the tail)and trying to run 100 yards. It’s easier to run with the rope around your waist. This, of course, keeps the minnow happy and healthy much longer—which helps keep your dialed in presentation more tempting. On that note, picking the right minnow is not to be taken for granted.
I tend to choose the minnow that is medium-sized (for the species that is being used). I avoid the monsters or the tiny minnows—the same goes for leeches. Oops, wrong season. I also aim for the minnows that are jumping out of the minnow scoop or jumping out of my hand multiple times. If the minnow is hard to catch or grip because it’s out of control—that’s the minnow I want. Give the lazy minnow to your buddies and start placing your bets. Let’s face it, not all minnows are created equal. Time on the hook will separate the good minnows from the bad minnows quickly. Pay attention to the activity of the minnow via bobber movement, line twitching, or via underwater camera. If you notice your bobber or rattle reel line not moving around much, ditch the dead beat minnow and replace it with a new minnow pronto! Also, if you have to “wake up the minnow” by jigging the line—ditch the old minnow and get a new one. There is no time for wimpy minnows. One of the downfalls and success killers while fishing in a sleeper fish house overnight is not getting up occasionally to put new minnows on the hook—that’s a free tip by the way.
So what it boils down to so far is that a good starting point for an effective rattle reel or bobber minnow combination is: a lively medium-sized minnow hooked lightly in front of the dorsal fin, with the split shot placed 7” up from the hook. Remember, that’s just a starting point. Trial and error along with detailed observations of what’s working will quickly help you deduct what is needed at the time to capitalize on the fishing situation at hand. I bet you will never look at a rattle reel or bobber minnow combination the same again. Good luck out there, be safe and be nice to everyone on the ice.