A couple decades ago, hardly anyone ice fished without relying on live bait of some sort. Nowadays, more anglers are hitting the ice with artificials or hybrid types of lure/baits such as Berkley Gulp products which are artificial, but look, and evidently taste and smell, like natural baits. Still, in most areas, live bait reigns supreme.
As a kid, I can remember digging around in grain dust in barns where livestock feed was stored to find what we called meal worms before heading out for a day on the ice. I don’t know what kind of bug they would become once they advanced through their larval stage. I just know the 3/4-inch, yellowish-brown little larva worked quite well.
Another bait we used were goldenrod grubs. They were easy to find. Goldenrod is a common weed and any patch of goldenrod will have numerous stems sticking up through the snow with a golf ball sized bulb on the stem. Some kind of insect lays an egg there and as the egg hatches and turns into a larva, the stem swells to protect the larva over the winter.
Several kinds of wasps feed on the grubs so don’t pick the galls with small holes in them. It’s labor intensive to gather and extract goldy-grubs, but inside is a pea-sized larva that makes an excellent panfish bait.
In our area, scout for roadside patches of black-eyed susans in the late summer, then after few frosts, come back, and harvest the stems from the ones not toppled over. Something has beaten you to the worms inside on the broken off stalks. The stems are easy to split and the brown headed larvae inside (there may be several per stem) will out fish just about any other type of larva bait.
A close second to “susies” are wax worms, a.k.a bee-moths, available at almost any bait shop open in the winter months. Buy ‘em several dozen at a time and keep them in a refrigerator between trips.
Many stores carry spikes as well as wax worms. These little larva are much smaller and most guys that use them pin three or four on each hook to make the bait look like…well, I don’t know what it looks like – but the fish eat ‘em.
Some fish are primarily fish eaters so naturally, minnows are a primary bait to use for them. Crappies and perch will both bite on larva baits, but the best catches will usually be made with hooks or jigs pinned with a minnow.
Some minnows are called “crappie” minnows. They aren’t small crappies, they are small, usually, fathead minnows. They’ll certainly catch crappies, perch and other minnow-eating fish, especially when the fish are in a positive feeding mode. Crappie minnows are usually the least expensive, as well.
Better, much of the time, especially when the fish are in a neutral mood, are shiner minnows. Expect to pay more, but many times, they are worth it. I think their mirror-finish scales give off more flash making them easier to see and makes them extra-attractive to predators.
For bigger fish, go with larger live minnows. In our area, golden shiners – a.k.a. golden roaches – are the most common and highly effective. Use them on a regular ice fishing rod or put them on tip-ups to catch bass, pike or walleye.
Though earthworms are a bait fisherman’s staple in open water fishing, many icers never even think to use them in hard water situations. As good as they are in the open water, they can be just as effective under the ice if used correctly.
Don’t pin on a nightcrawler or even a small red worm and expect panfish to snarf it down like they do in warm water. They won’t. Pinch of no more than an inch or so of a garden worm or red wiggler and thread it on the hook. That’s all you need and all they want.
By all means, if you want the challenge and convenience of ice fishing with man-made lures and bait, do it. If you want the best chance for success, bait up with the real thing.