PORTAGE — Is tungsten the new gold?
For ice fishermen, it just might be.
Tungsten ice fishing jigs have become all the rage as the metal is 1.7 times as dense as lead, meaning that you can use a tungsten jig that is only slightly larger than half the size of a lead jig and maintain the weight needed to get it down in the water column.
Denny Hettig, for one, is sold on it.
Fairly well-known for his worm harnesses — Bo’s Bluegill Busters — Hettig has added a line of tiny ice fishing jigs to his bait company’s portfolio. He invited me to join him recently for a day on the ice on a Kalamazoo County lake to extol the virtues of the heavy metal.
And it didn’t take long for Hettig to make his first point. He caught a seven-inch bluegill that had the tiny jig halfway down his gullet.
“The problem with these things is that they’re so small, when they get it, they get all of it,” he said.
I noticed a little bit of that over the course of our day, as we sacked up a fair number of ‘gills, crappie and sunfish. Often (but not always) the fish had the bait pretty far into its mouth.
Hettig’s ice jig is built on a short, size 14, fine wire hook. He likes open up the bite “about a millimeter,” he said, to get a better hooking rate, but I didn’t notice I was missing an inordinate number of bites. What I did notice is that I was catching lots of small fish; I released the first eight I caught and among them were some ‘gills that would have made ideal pike baits. I mean small. I expect I might not have had so many tiny takers with a bigger jig (big baits catch big fish), but both Hettig and I caught plenty of keepers as well.
And we hooked plenty of seriously big fish, too; both of us were broken off — Hettig five times — and the assumption is they were pike as Hettig did catch a 22-incher. I had one on for a minute that I couldn’t even move.
As for the small ‘gills, Hettig said we were just catching what was in the lake.
“This lake’s not known for big bluegills,” he said. “There’s bluegill and a lot of them, but not many good ones.”
We found our fish in eight to 10 feet of water and that’s not where tungsten jigs especially shine, either, Hettig said.
“These things are nice to fish with in deep water,” he said. “You can keep contact with it so much better than the same size lead jig. I do have some with size 12 hooks but I wouldn’t use them unless I was out in 30 feet of water or so. I can fish these down to 25 feet no problem.”
Hettig says the tungsten baits drop more quickly than similar-sized lead ones and he said he thinks that gives them a better jigging action as the fast-falling bait triggers impulse strikes. And because they drop more quickly, you can make more hay when you’re on a school of active biters, which is often the key to sacking up panfish.
“And it’s better for the environment than lead,” he added.
Probably true there; tungsten has become an important part of the alloys duck hunters are using in non-toxic shot these days. (I’ve never heard of anyone suffering from tungsten poisoning, have you?)
But there are several downsides as well.
“It’s brutal to work with,” Hettig said. “If I’ve got a bad blank, I have to discard it. There’s nothing I can do with it.”
Tungsten melts at 6,192 degrees Fahrenheit. Lead melts at 449. Obviously, you’re not going to be molding these baits on your stove top.
“And it’s awful hard to paint,” Hettig said. “I spent a fortune trying to figure out how to paint it.”
We wound up with plenty of fish for the fryer, which I wasn’t convinced was going to happen when we ventured out that morning; the temperature was in the low double digits (though it did get up into the 20s by afternoon), the sky was as blue as a Tar Heel’s point of view — I got my first good sunburn of the season; it’s hard to remember sun screen when it’s cold as a terrorist’s heart out there — and there had been a norther move through the night before, which usually signals a tough bite. Overall, I was pretty pleased with the results.
Of course, I really didn’t need to be sold. I’ve been using tungsten bead-head flies for ice fishing for a couple of years now and I’ve seen the advantage tungsten offers.
The other downside of tungsten is the price. You can expect to pay about twice as much or more for tungsten jigs as lead-headed ones (I’ve seen some retailing for close to $4!) and I’ve yet to see any generics — just name brand baits — though they are probably out there.
Are they necessary? Probably not. But I’m convinced that under difficult circumstances — say, deep water or high winds — they’ll help you reduce fish to possession. And that’s kind of the point of ice fishing, isn’t it?
Denny Hettig is convinced tungsten jigs will improve deep-water panfishing.
Almost twice as dense as lead, tungsten allows anglers to fish deep with tiny jigs.