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This stunning pumpkinseed/bluegill hybrid took a 1/80th ounce hair jig tipped with a wax worm ... a deadly winter combo for panfish.
This stunning pumpkinseed/bluegill hybrid took a 1/80th ounce hair jig tipped with a wax worm ... a deadly winter combo for panfish. (Jim Gronaw photo)

In the world of freshwater fishing, tipping can mean a couple of different things. One, if you are on a guided excursion and your guide has put you on some fish, then you should extend to him or her a nice gratitude of cash for making your day memorable and exciting. You should always tip guides, regardless of the success level. The other tipping component is when an angler adds some sort of live bait or plastic enhancement to a lure to aid in enticing a fish to bite.

This is the "tipping theology" that we'll discuss.

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Tipping a lure, traditionally a jig or a spoon, is nothing new. Tipping often increases a lures potential to attract fish and encourages them to commit to strike. The adding of taste, scent, and a visual attraction is almost always a plus for the angler, regardless of the species he is after.

There are times when bait tipping is more appropriate and effective as compared to other time frames. In cold water, most fish activity is reduced and feeding efforts are far more deliberate in comparison to warmer temperatures. Ice fishermen have long been using a variety of tipping baits to dupe picky panfish into taking their tiny ice jigs and spoons in frigid water. Striped bass fishermen utilize portions of cut baitfish of many species on their jigs and spoons to help trigger a bite.

As our waters continue to slowly descend into the 40's, we are finding that different baits tend to work better in the cold than others. Over the years, one of my favorites has been maggots, also known as fly larva, that are specifically raised for this very purpose. Maggots are big over in the European countries where much of the fishing is done for smaller species such as bream, tench, roach and smaller carp species. They are also used as a chumming agent to keep fish in a given area over a period of time.

They are tough and durable, often surviving a dozen or more panfish before tapping-out.

Recently, I have had great success with wax worms as a tipping agent, sometimes catching as many as ten or more big bluegills on even the tiniest portions of the bait. Meal worms are also an excellent tipping option, except they tend to come off after one or two fish. Small pieces of worms are also good, but are messy and dirty as compared to the others. One of the best options are the many varieties of commercially prepared baits by Berkley Gulp! products.

I would not rate them better than the Real McCoy, but they can be a pretty good back up if you can't find fresh live baits in the winter. The current line up consist of earthworms, angle worms, minnows, maggots, wax worms, Crappie Nibbles and more. Many colors are available and each day may differ as to what is hot and what is not.

Some discriminating fishers point out that a tiny ice jig or hairjig serves only as a anchoring point for a live bait, and that the use of a plain hook, and the bait itself, would serve just as well under most conditions, without the use of the lure. To the purist, the ability of fooling a fish on an artificial lure or fly gives a greater sense of skill and accomplishment than does the addition of "bait."

But since I am no purist, and I like to catch fish, I tend to hang out with the "bait-tipping" crowd more than the latter. My take on it is that an attraction is initially made by the movement or visual of the lure, a fish inspects the lure with the bait, then with the additional scent and movement of the bait, commits to a strike, resulting in a hooked fish. In the case of very active and aggressively feeding fish, however, bait-tipping of a lure is usually not necessary.

But when dealing with cold, lethargic fish, it can indeed, and often is, a game-changer.

Last week I enjoyed some high-quality bluegill action on some "non-tipped" jigs that the fish were liking. The 1/80th ounce orange and black hairjig I tie, called the Oriole, had just the right movement and color ... enough to tempt light-striking panfish without a bait.

Many anglers are currently utilizing a variety or minuscule plastic options to 'tip' their jig and completely abandon the need for live bait. Larval imitations by Maki Plastics and Impulse Reactionary Baits and other companies are continually downscaling their plastics to resemble tiny aquatics like grass shrimp, bloodworms (midge fly larva) or larger zoo-plankton species. Some of my larger, early winter crappies came on plain hair jigs in 1/80th or 1/64th of an ounce, and without bait. So, it is not an absolute necessity to have a baited lure to catch fish in the cold.

Ultimately, it is a "to each their own" philosophy on the bait-tipping concept. Yeah, it's cool and fun to catch fish only on artificial lures. But when a tough bite occurs and the fishing is slow, the addition of something real and appealing might just make the difference between a few fish, and a bunch.

Tip the odds in your favor.

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