The first time I heard about using maggots for icefishing was in a story about how some hard-core ice anglers have been known to keep maggots in their mouths while fishing, to keep the bait warm and alive.
While that may be a little too serious for some ice fishermen, maggots, as well as waxworms, mealworms and other such critters, what I affectionately refer to as “creepy crawlies,” are an effective yet often overlooked bait for icefishing.
Maggots, also known as “spikes,” are the larvae of common houseflies, blowflies and other species of flies. Waxworms are the larval form of the bee moth or wax moth. They are longer and meatier than maggots, ranging from ¼-inch to about an inch long, but share the same creamy-white colour. Mealworms are usually the larvae of the darkling beetle, and can range in size from as small as ½-inch to over an inch in length. So-called giant mealworms are about an inch and a half long, although they are merely common mealworms that have been treated with an insect growth hormone, but superworms, or “king” mealworms, are a different specie and naturally grow to as big as two inches in length. Mealworms range in colour from dark yellow to dark brown to black, and larger specimens can look a bit intimidating to handle, sporting a hard shell and large horns or pincers.
A quick survey of the ice huts gathered atop any icefishing hotspot will usually reveal few hard-water anglers using these productive baits, but those that are will likely be putting fish on ice when few others are. Perch, crappies and bluegills are suckers for maggots, waxworms and mealworms, even when nothing seems to be working.
As with any live bait, the key is to keep your bait fresh and lively. This doesn’t mean that you need to keep them in your mouth, but it does mean keeping them from freezing, and changing your bait frequently. A good foam container is best, but tobacco tins are popular. Just make sure to keep them in an inside pocket, unless you’re in an ice hut.
Dave Genz, a renowned icefishing expert, is a big fan of maggots. Dave generally spends more days on the ice every year than most of us do fishing open water.
“Maggots are my number one bait for big bull bluegills,” he told me, “and one of the keys to the effectiveness of these baits is scent, but most people don’t realize this. Maggots have a tiny scent sack at the blunt end, near their eyes. If you lightly hook them through that bulge, the sack will burst and release this scent. It really triggers panfish, especially during the mid-day hours when they’re usually not actively feeding.”
Wil Wegman is an Ontario icefishing expert, and has been teaching a course on recreational icefishing and winter perch fishing for over 15 years. Maggots have become his confidence bait.
“I hate to go out without them,” Wil says. “I was first turned onto maggots while competing in the 1991 World Icefishing Championship. The Swedish team was using them with great success, and I’ve been using them ever since. I use them from first ice to last ice.”
“When the perch are active, you don’t need maggots, but usually by mid-morning, I break out the larvae. Same with crappies,” adds Wegman. “When they don’t want minnows, maggots can be the just the ticket.”
Leon Maloney is another icefishing specialist, and used to guide anglers to jumbo perch through the fall and winter. “Our waters have changed a lot over the years,” he told me, “mostly due to zebra mussels, and anglers have to adapt or they won’t catch fish.” Leon uses maggots 90% of the time, preferring their hardiness over waxworms, but will use waxworms, for perch, crappies and bluegills. “A panfish is a panfish, although crappies will usually sit higher up in the water column than perch or bluegill.”
“Covering the entire water column is important, especially if you’re not using a good depth finder,” says Lonnie King, an outdoor writer, multi-species expert and fisheries biologist. “Maggots are great for chumming – not only can they turn the fish on, but the sight of these tiny morsels slowly drifting to the bottom can be a great visual attraction to bring fish in,” he added.
When it comes to tackle, these experts agree that light line and light-wire hooks are important, especially for maggots. You want the bait to wriggle as much as possible, so you can’t overpower it with heavy line or a big hook. This also allows the fish to simply flare its gills and inhale these small baits. “A light hook also keeps the bait alive longer, but you still need to change your bait often,” Dave Genz advises. “Even though they have a pretty tough skin, if you pinch down the barb, it’s easier to hook the maggot without tearing it.”
Tiny jigs tipped with maggots or waxworms is the most common rigging method, with Marmooskas by HT Enterprises and Genz Worms by Lindy Little Joe being two popular choices. Small Jigging Rapalas, jigging spoons and tube jigs tipped with a maggot or two are great search baits for active fish. Some days the fish seem to like the look and smell of hooks crammed full of maggots or waxworms, and other times they like just one lively creepy crawlie, so experiment a bit.
I also fish maggots on a plain hook, suspended under a float with a couple of small split shot for weight. Simply thread two to four maggots on a size 10 or 12 thin wire hook. When jigging, I like a light braided line, about four or six-pound diameter, with an equally light fluorocarbon leader, or two- or four-pound test monofilament. Dave, Wil and Leon all prefer straight mono over braids, but often go as light as two pound test on superlight rods. When there are many anglers congregated overtop a shallow, clear water areas, such as during an icefishing competition, panfish can be become so spooky that some pros will even go down to one-, or occasionally ¾-pound test line in order to trick these finicky fish.
Dave Genz is also a fan of waxworms. “Waxies are also good for bluegills and perch, and great for crappies. I usually ‘t-bone’ the waxworm by hooking it in the middle rather than at one end. Same goes for mealworms. Mealworms are especially effective during the late ice period when the fish come up shallow again.”
Lonnie King uses waxworms to target bigger fish. “When I’m interested in catching lots of fish, but not necessarily big ones, I tend to use maggots most of the time. But if I’m after bigger fish, while trying to discourage smaller ones, or if the water is murky, I will reach for waxworms. If I only have maggots, putting a few on my hook will bulk up the bait and accomplish the same thing. Mealworms also offer a way to target bigger fish,” he added.
As for rigging mealworms and superworms, since they are bigger and stronger than maggots and waxworms, they are best fished on a baitholder hook. I like to hook them through the tail end to maximize the wriggling action.
I’m not sure why more anglers don’t use creepy crawlies, but I am sure of this: If you’re not using these baits for icefishing, you’re simply not catching as many panfish, and big panfish, as you could be.