Walleyes In Big Water
“Big walleye” is a relative term. So, too, is a big walleye lake. For a lot of folks, a 7-, 8- or 9-pound fish is the trophy of a lifetime. And if they catch it in a lake spanning more than 10,000, 20,000 or 30,000 acres, they describe it as being big.
They have never ice-fished for walleyes on Lake Winnipeg.
The giant inland ocean, lying just 35 miles north of the city of Winnipeg, Manitoba, is the tenth largest freshwater lake in the world. It stretches north for another 260 miles, making it bigger than Lake Ontario and only a few acres smaller than Lake Erie.
It produces monstrous walleyes for anglers in the winter—arguably, more big fish through the ice than any other lake on earth, walleyes in the 12-, 14- even 16-pound-plus class. And the fishing begins in mid-December and lasts until the end of March.
Part of the reason Lake Winnipeg is so productive is that it’s not your typical, sterile, Canadian Shield body of water. Rather, the massive sweetwater pond drains the second largest landmass in North America, receiving water from as far south as Minnesota and North Dakota and as far west as Alberta and Saskatchewan. That’s 380,000 square miles of mostly deep, rich, productive farmland, not thin-soiled, bald, granite bedrock. Indeed, if Lake Winnipeg suffers from anything these days, it’s too many nutrients and fertilizers draining into the system, fueling massive summer algae blooms, making it look like Lake Erie in the 1970s.
The other reason Lake Winnipeg walleyes prosper is because the lake is so shallow, especially the southern half that receives most of the winter ice-fishing pressure. Here you can literally drive out of sight of the shoreline and still be fishing in less than 20 feet of water.
Indeed, a move of a mile or more often results in a depth change of fewer than 12 inches. In this respect, Lake Winnipeg may be the biggest prairie fishbowl in the world. And that fact makes it the perfect case study for searching for giant walleyes in big water. If you can match wits with winter walleyes here, brother, you can prosper anywhere.
Big Waters—Small Details
Thriving anywhere on big water starts and ends with attention to details. Forget about locating massive structures, complex reefs, deep weedlines, and isolated boulder piles. If you can find them, so much the better; just don’t count on or expect them. On many giant walleye lakes obvious fish-holding structures don’t exist. So, where do you begin?
If you have experience on the lake, start where you left good fish the last time out or where you’ve caught them in the past. If you’re new to the system, begin searching based on the intelligence gained by talking with successful local anglers or ice fishermen familiar with the system. There’s usually a key depth, varying constantly based on seasonal weather and water conditions.
It’s uncanny, in lakes like Winnipeg, that good big-fish spots consistently produce big walleyes, even when the bottom conditions and depth are seemingly identical in a hundred other nearby locations. It’s a bit of a mystery why these specific sweet spots consistently produce giant fish, but they do.
What’s even more curious is that it is precisely in these mundane, monotonous, flat-bottomed lakes—where you’d think you could fly easily by the seat of your pants—that an experienced guide can point you in the right direction relative to locating the key spots and the depth of the hot bite.
Ditto for a reliable hand-held GPS unit. You need to be able to keep track of where you are, where you’ve been, where you’re going, where you’ve caught walleyes, and where you’ve shot blanks. Eventually, patterns emerge. Then it’s a matter of replicating your success.
Two-Minute, Hurry-Up Offense
Which brings us to the two-minute, hurry-up offense every good football team and good big-water walleye angler employs. You can drill a few holes, sit in one place, good, bad or otherwise, and wait for the walleyes to come to you. But that’s akin to being down by 3 points with 2 minutes left in the game and going into a huddle. You’re wasting time. Unless you’re on fish, keep moving until you find them.
In football, it’s a high-pressure, fast-paced, no-huddle, two-minute drill. On big walleye waters, I give it 45 minutes, and then move if I don’t catch a decent fish. Similarly, if we’re catching fish but the action stops, it’s time to move 45 minutes after the last respectable walleye hits the ice.
Never, ever forget, 90 percent of every lake is a desert. And in a giant walleye lake, we’re talking about the Sahara. Indeed, the single biggest reason we’re not catching fish spring, summer, winter, or fall is that there are no fish where we’re fishing.
First Bite Touchdown
Linked to the hurry-up offense is something else I’ve noticed over the years. The biggest walleye you’re likely to catch at an oasis, especially a proven GPS hotspot, is the very first fish. It’s eerie how often it happens. Last winter while shooting an In-Fisherman Ice Fishing Guide Television segment on Lake Winnipeg with local hot stick Mike Schamber, he iced an 11-pound fish on the first drop, down the first hole, at the first place we fished, on the first day of a three-day outing. He had the fish flopping on the ice before the cameraman had his equipment out of the case. Ditto, repeatedly over the course of the next three days. The biggest fish caught after moving to a new location was invariably the first fish up the hole.
I am convinced that while the walleyes in these giant, simple-structured bodies of water are constantly moving, stalking schools of wandering, pelagic baitfish, they pause to goof around at certain hangouts, street corners, or sweet spots. The act of catching a couple of fish is all the incentive needed to cause the school to move.
In other words, it’s not lure conditioning, noise, or anything else. It’s simply the nature of the fish in these giant, flat, featureless basins to be mobile; and while they may shift into neutral and lounge around certain locations, it takes little more than catching a fish or two from the area to get them moving again.
I’m reminded of Dr. Mark Ridgway’s fascinating research when, over the course of several summers, he tracked schools of smallmouth bass swimming 6 to 8 miles a day, every day of the week throughout the entire summer. Ridgway called it traplining, where the fish would swim a predictable route from one structural highlight or sweet spot to another, grazing lazily once they reached each destination.
Several times Ridgway spotted a party of anglers fishing the spot his school of bass was approaching. And many times, he asked the anglers about their success. “The fish are just starting to turn on,” was the response.
When the bass had finished browsing across the structure and had begun moving on to the next spot on their trapline, Ridgway would ask the anglers once again about their success. “They’re starting to turn off,” was the reply.
Evidence suggests that big walleyes living in big lakes behave the same way. And they particularly mimic Ridgway’s wanderlust bass, the flatter and more featureless the bottom. When Elvis leaves the building, it behooves you to follow.
Walla, Walla, Walleyes
No one has spent more time over the past decade educating walleye anglers about the need to abandon the misguided notion that walleyes are always lying on the bottom of the lake in a neutral or inactive mood, prone to biting small baits moved slowly than In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange.
These are pack animals—adept hunters—accustomed to attacking schools of smelt, ciscoes, shiners, and shad. They don’t grow to be 10-, 12- or 14 pounds by whiling away the time resting on bottom. That’s a recipe for starvation, not gargantuism.
It’s also the reason flash lures like the Lindy Rattling Flyer and Viking Spoon, Blue Fox Tingler, Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon, HT Hawger Spoon, and William’s Ice Spoon (plated with pure silver and 24-carat-gold) catch the attention of big walleyes quickly. The ideal spoon is about 21⁄2 to 31⁄2 inches long and weighs from 1/4 to 1/2 ounce. I tip the treble with the head of a fresh or salted emerald shiner.
Rapala Jigging Shads, Northland Puppet Minnows, and Storm Walleye Jigging Minnows in medium and slightly larger sizes complement the spoons. So do Northland Whistler jigs, Lindy X-Change Jigs, and Hawger 2000 Lasers.
With three Rapala or HT Ice Rods, fitted with reels like 2000 series Shimano Symetres loaded with 10-pound-test Fireline and 3-foot-long 8-pound-test Maxima fluorocarbon leaders, I can search efficiently and effectively on any big walleye water.
You only need two other essentials: a super-sharp, lightweight, gas-powered auger with an extension, and a fine-quality sonar unit. Last winter I used the new Normark Ice Drill (available in Canada) and Humminbird Ice 55 sonar unit and discovered that they’re in a class by themselves. The featherweight, high-torque auger lets you cut 20 or more holes effortlessly at a dozen locations over the course of a day.
Having the ability to program the flasher, on the other hand, by switching between wide-angle and narrow-angle beams, zooming into specific depth ranges, and using the 6-color fiber optic display, is amazing.
As a matter of fact, by using the wide-angle cone on the sonar unit I was able to monitor the action in two holes drilled relatively close together. It was essential to utilizing a trick that Lake Winnipeg walleye guru and guide Roger Stearns practices to perfection.
In one of the holes, we set a deadstick rod baited with an HT Hawger Laser 2000 jig tipped with a shiner. In a neighboring hole, we ripped large, noisy, lipless, vibrating lures like the Rapala Rattlin’ Rap and, Stearns’ favorite, a Koppers LIVETARGET Golden Shiner. You’d cast these same lures in open water for walleye, bass, pike, and lake trout. Out on the ice, when you rip them up aggressively, you can feel your fingers shake and hear the lures rattling 15 feet below your boots. When Stearns and I did it close to one another, it sounded like a swarm of bees.
And if there were any walleyes in the neighborhood, we could immediately call them in and coax them to chase the lures. It was like playing a fast-action video game, with the fish madly pursuing our lures across the sonar screens. About 20 percent of the time, the fish clobbered the aggressive presentation. I mean, they smacked it as hard as wild lake trout.
The rest of the time, however, they scooted after the lure, spotted the shiner hanging under the deadstick rod, and whacked the daylights out it. It was an amazingly effective one-two punch and laid to rest the notion one more time that winter walleyes are always fussy, fastidious eaters.
That kind of thinking is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If you assume that the fish will be tough to catch before you drill your first hole, and you sit at one location all day long, tie on tiny baits, and jig them gently as you tiptoe through the tulips, you get precisely the action you anticipate.
But, take a more hard-hitting, assertive approach, drill 10 or 20 holes at a dozen or more different locations, employ the equivalent of the two-minute hurry-up offense, fish aggressively with decent-sized lures, and you’ll catch more big walleyes in big walleye lakes than you ever thought possible.
And it won’t matter, in the least, how you define big.