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Live bait vs artificial lures for big bass: which is best for ice fishing

ice fishing
Winter bass are often caught with a finesse-style artificial when targeting species like panfish and crappie – so scaling down your tackle for ice fishing regardless of the bait is a big edge (Image credit: Getty)

Anglers around the world love bass because of their tenacious demeanor. Through the ice, however, anglers often scale way back. Think finesse. Popular presentations for catching bass can vary but the most popular and arguably most effective live bait option for targeting largemouth bass through the ice is often a lively minnow. 

There are also many artificial options as well that catch bass through the ice by being actively jigged. We encourage anglers, however, to not pit live bait vs artificial lures as a binary contest where one is better than the other. 

Instead, look at these contrasting fishing presentations as complementing each other. Both have their time and place and both benefit each other, so let’s explore these factors in a little more detail. By the end of this article, you’ll be able to choose between the two options or maybe a combination.

Choosing the best artificial lures and baits

Let’s talk artificials to start with – jigging with some type of jig and plastic combination or small spoon can be much more mobile as you can hole-hop and cover water. Actively jigging while using sonar or a flasher (a type of fish finder designed for ice fishing) enables you to look for fish and monitor the response of fish. You can often fish much more aggressively to pull fish in from further away. This might be a big advantage on certain days.

Actively jigging can be effective for winter bass but think finesse. Small spoons that range between a sixteenth ounce to a quarter ounce are effective. Small glide baits can also work. Through the ice, however, many anglers opt to tip both spoons and glide baits with either a minnow head or waxworms to achieve the best of both worlds in the live bait vs artificial lures debate.

Surprisingly, some of the most effective lure or jig combinations for largemouth bass are the same types of profiles you might expect to use for crappie. A size ten to size eight horizontal tungsten jig tipped with either waxworms or a soft plastic trailer like a Maki Mino XL is deadly for bass. In fact, a safe conclusion is that most largemouth bass caught through the ice are typically caught by an angler targeting panfish with a small teardrop jig tipped with a waxworm or maggots, two highly-effective live baits.

The best tackle to use

When it comes to jigging lures or jigs for bass, a simple medium action to medium-light action ice rod combo will suffice. Many anglers use 4-6lb monofilament main line. 

The jig cadence is often delicate, causing the lure or jig to quiver much like what you would do to shake a Ned Rig or Neko Rig (common types of finesse bass bait presentations). Try to work above the fish and slowly raise the fish if you are using a flasher or electronics. As a rule of thumb, catching largemouth bass through the ice on jigs and lures means downsizing.

Now, if you know where the fish are located and plan to fish a specific location for a while, you can often catch more fish by running multiple rods which is legal in many areas. In northeast American states like Vermont, Pennsylvania and upstate New York, anglers often target bass with live shiners below tip-ups or tip-downs. A tip-up is a wooden or plastic device that usually hangs the spool underwater. When the spool turns, a flag pops up indicating a strike and the angler can see that hit without having to stand over the rod constantly.

ice fishing

Minnows and small baitfish are a common offering alive or dead, with a minnow-based bait approach often working well in partnership with artificial offerings for big bass when ice fishing (Image credit: Getty)

The best rigs and set-ups

On tip-ups, anglers often spool a 10-20lb Dacron line (a type of braided main line) and attach a 2-4ft fluorocarbon leader (a type of monofilament line that’s hard for the fish to detect) that ranges between 8lb and 14lb test. If there are northern pike, chain pickerel or any other larger predators in the water you are fishing, opt for the heavier fluorocarbon as these toothy predators will have a harder time cutting the line.

Use a small barrel swivel to connect the Dacron to the fluorocarbon or tie direct with an Alberto knot. Attach a split shot heavy enough to anchor the minnow and rig up a size four Kahle-style hook. With tip-ups, the angler is fighting the fish and landing the fish by hand-over-handing the line.  

Tip-downs are often used as well to present live minnows. Tip-downs are popular in American states such as Wisconsin, Michigan and the northeast where anglers can run several rods. A tip-down is just a simple rod holder that balances an ice rod and allows the rod tip to angle down when a fish strikes. Tip-downs are not just popular for bass but also work extremely well for crappie and perch. Ice anglers typically use a medium action rod that is less than 30”/76cm long in a tip-down and spool the reel with 4-6lb monofilament. 

Tip-downs can be fished with more finesse and depending on location and availability, golden shiners are often preferred for both tip-ups and tip-downs but many other minnow species will work well. Check local state regulations on live bait and rod number restrictions.

Why winter is such a fun time to catch big bass 

Catching a large, healthy bass on an ice rod with 4-6lb line is fun. These fish are going to bulldog you and test your equipment. While bass are one of the most heavily targeted fish, many ice anglers overlook bass in the winter and often specifically target other species. This often leaves many bass populations untouched through the winter and these populations of fish can provide incredible opportunities for ice anglers. 

Both artificial lure options and live bait work extremely well for targeting largemouth bass through the ice. Just remember that largemouth bass are often much more lethargic through the ice and your ice gear is going to be much lighter and smaller than what you would lay on the deck of your bass boat during the summer. 

With these insights, we’re sure you’ll be able to form a deadly approach involving live baits and artificials on your next ice fishing trip. Hit it right, and that line-line trophy bass is just a short drop away on either method!

Jason Mitchell

Midwesterner Jason Mitchell is the star of his own outdoors TV show and a leading expert when it comes to many styles of freshwater and ice fishing. He’s helped millions of people catch species such as crappie, walleye, perch, bass, trout, panfish and catfish through his information-packed programmes and articles. Needless to say, Jason is also an expert on fishing tackle, angling accessories and electronics.