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Ice Fishing For Walleye

by Doug Stange   |  November 14th, 2010 0

Not much has changed on ice for walleyes since the best anglers got this newfangled ice religion in the 1980s—adapting sonar to their fishing, along with graphite ice-rods, and a comparatively aggressive and refined approach to finding and catching fish. Today, the most serious discussions in tackle shops and on the seminar trail concern subtleties in the process. So we asked one of the principal veterans of the ice scene to get nitpicky about lure choices for walleyes.

There’s passion in the relationship between an angler and those few lures that stand the test of time, fishing alongside the angler through thick ice and thin over many seasons, and producing many fish. One such a #7 Jigging Rapala, has been with me doing ice duty since 1976. I’ve replaced the hang-down treble hook at least half a dozen times over the years. The present plastic tail’s of hand-me-down vintage, too, borrowed from some lesser bait that just didn’t swim the part so well as the bait I call Old Satchmo.

Then somewhere along the line, Old Satch lost his nose hook, I don’t remember how, whether by wall-eyed fish or by unfortunate carelessness. Because this hook is such a vital part of this lure design—so many big walleyes eat the bait as it swings headfirst back toward a curious fish and comes to a halt—I’ve mostly let the lure sit in the box these past few seasons. Better that Old Satch just rest there, an inspiration to the rest of the crowd.

Old Satch is part of any discussion about icing walleyes because, in the hands of a seasoned angler, swimming lures like Old Satch still often are the hottest thing happening on waters where most anglers go after walleyes. I know beginning anglers have difficulty getting started catching fish with swimming baits. Working them so walleyes respond is a little difficult.

I also grant that most of the catches of note in most baitshops will be on spoons. That’s because most anglers fish with spoons. I grant too that spoons serve vital duty in darker bodies of water, after dark, in deep water, and when rip jigging is required. But during winter, even darker waters usually clear enough to make swimming baits a key option.

Yet even after all these years, even though pockets of popularity exist, swimming lures still generally haven’t garnered their proper status among walleye anglers across North America.

I mourn the passing some dozen years ago of the original swimming design, the original Jigging Rapala. Old Satch and his crowd were a quaint-looking affair by comparison to the sleek, more-realistic design of today. It’s not that the old design fished better or that the present version fishes worse. Each just fishes differently.

Profile is a vital part of swimming designs. These lures hang horizontal at rest and are meant to look like something. The sleeker profile of the modern Jigging Rapala just fishes much smaller than the original design. Note again that realistic-looking baits like swimming jigs fish best in clear water. But the best walleye fishing in clear water usually occurs during twilight periods, after dark, or in deeper waters.

This is why a slightly bulkier profile, a sort of compromise profile like the old design, fishes so well during those prime times. The old design was a more visible design that still fished as a swimming lure is meant to fish, that is, by swinging up and then off to the side before swimming back into place. This attractive agitated semi-wounded movement attracts fish visually as well as via the walleye’s sensitive lateral line.

Then, when the old design came to a halt below the hole, it was shaped just enough like a sausage so when you jiggled your rod tip, the bait had enough body to roll left-right left-right on its axis, creating the same sort of flash that makes crankbaits attractive to walleyes in open water. The new sleek bait doesn’t rock and roll so well, so we depend on a minnow head tipping the treble hook to provide action on a jiggle. The new design’s just not the same and must be fished differently than the old design.

The Jigging Rap As A Finesse Bait—Today’s Normark Jigging Rapala is deadly as a finesse bait once the sun’s up. I use it for an hour after sunrise and for an hour or more before sunset. The #7 bait, an option that might seem a size on the small side, fishes best, first, because its profile represents a small perch, small smelt, spottail shiner, or similar baitfish. Secondly, the #7 is just small enough to be worked aggressively (in darterlike fashion) to attract walleyes that by these times of the day usually either have finished feeding and are moving away from high-­percentage foraging areas like the edges of reefs, or are just becoming interested in feeding and are moving into high-percentage feeding areas.

Fishing deeper than 40 feet is rarely necessary for several weeks after first-ice, so there’s little need for the heavier and slightly larger #9. I haven’t seen an instance where the #12 is necessary, although I can envision using it in heavy current under ice in rivers. The profiles on #9 and particularly #12 baits just get too long and thin for my sensibilities, given the body profile of most baitfish in North America. Perhaps these baits would be an option during twilight on waters where larger smelt are a key forage fish.

But back to the #7 Rap, which should be tipped with a minnow head, on the rear tine of the treble hook, so the bait darts smoothly up and to the side and then scoots back to rest in the spot where it began. I pinch off the head of the minnow (usually a fathead or small shiner), as opposed to cutting it off, because I like a ragged lower edge—something with a little flap on it. Total length of the head is about 3/8 to 1/2 inch. Get a firm hook job through the hard part of the snoot just behind the lips, so the bait can be worked aggressively without losing the head.

A perch eye also works as a tipping agent, but, I’m convinced, not so effectively as the minnow head to catch smaller fish along with the 3- to 10-pounders. I fish for the challenge of catching bigger fish, but I also want to eat some walleyes. After an evening on the water, I want two strips of bacon in the pan, a little butter, and walleye fillets dusted and perfectly sauteed. Maybe a big fat fried egg or two. Hash browns. Fresh bread. A glass of wine. Simple, yes, but one of life’s great pleasures.

So I care about those 14- to 18-­inchers that make such fine fillets, those walleyes that often focus on the fish head and disregard the main body of the bait. You’ll catch more small fish on a fish head. Larger fish usually eat the entire bait. Indeed, another advantage to the #7 is that even 2- and 3-pounders often engulf the entire bait. One of the drawbacks of the swimming lure style, however, is that either the nose hook or the rear hook sometimes snag in the ice hole when you’re landing the fish. Not so when fish eat the whole bait.

The Nils Master Jigger—I bring the old-style Jigging Rapala to this discussion, not to frustrate anyone into searching dusty shelves in old tackle shops for those old baits, but to illustrate how important the Nils Master Jigger has become in the inner circles of the ice scene. All the old hot shots who once relied on the old JiggingRaps for ­fishing in clear water during prime twilight periods, have switched to #2 or #3 Jiggers. The Jigger, with it’s bulkier design, fishes almost exactly like the old Jigging Rap. Its profile is more visible in dim light—a roly-poly design that rolls left-right left-right and flashes when you jiggle your rod tip on the hold.

Some of the newer Jiggers fresh from Finland sport long treble hooks popular in Europe for perch. Replace those hooks with a shorter treble. Might as well be a good one, because unless you’re a real fumblebuns, you won’t be losing many baits. I replace standard round trebles on swimming baits with fine designs like the Mustad Triple Grip. Both the #2 and #3 Jigger (and the #7 Jigging Rap) couple well with a #8 hook, the 36243BR. Other fine treble hooks include the Eagle Claw Kahle Treble and the VMC Barbarian ­Outbarb.

Tip the treble hook on the Jigger with a fish head. When walleyes are really cracking during a prime twilight period, however, this additional scent and visual attraction’s rarely necessary, even for fish in the 14- to 18-inch class. When the fish are cranked, just lift the rod tip sharply 11⁄2 feet, let the bait return and stop, give a jiggle-jiggle, pause ever so slightly, and lift again.

A 20-second or longer pause is only necessary after every five or six lift-stops. Return therod tip to exactly the same place, however, for active fish quickly anticipate where the bait will be when it stops. You don’t want them to miss when they hit. Such a specific discussion of how to proceed on the presentation side of things, however, is dependent on how fish are reacting below via readings on a sonar screen.

A final observation about swimming lures, most of which are natural performers right out of the box. A few of them, though, are just bummers. Some of the bad boys can be doctored to work, while others should be set aside only for spare parts.

The simplest performance test is to drop the bait about a foot under thin ice. Have about three feet of line hanging from your rod tip to the lure. (Connect the lure to your line with a #10 Berkley Cross-Lok snap.) Let the bait settle by dropping your rod tip a foot, so the bait’s about two feet below the ice. Lift the rod tip a foot or so and immediately return it to its starting position. A good jig lifts almost straight up, scoots pretty much straight forward and perhaps slightly to the side, thumps down off to the side, turns and swings just a little left or right, then glides back headfirst under the hole—where it gently turns back with the head pointing in the direction from which it began.

The worst performers fall into one of two categories. Some just don’t swim, but flop straight up-down on a lift. Others shoot too much left or right on the lift—major line twist. Forget trying to fix nonswimmers. The twirly ones, though, often can be adjusted by bending the line-tie attachment left or right. If that doesn’t work, heat the plastic tail with a match and shift it ever so gently in the direction the bait’s swimming.

Quick fixes—Even for finessing a swimming bait, use the heaviest line you can get away with, no lighter than 8-pound test and more likely 10 or 12. Heavy baits like the #9 Rap or the #3 Jigger require a minimum of 10-pound line of average diameter, say Stren, Berkley XT, or Ande Premium.

I’ve used superlines—SpiderWire Braid and Berkley FireLine—the last three seasons, lines testing in the 14- to 20-pound category with line diameters in the 8- to 12-pound range. Works fine. To provide increased sensitivity in deep water, I add a 2-foot mono leader to the end of the superline, coupling the lines with back-to-back Uni knots. Double the thinnest superlines with a spider hitch before making the coupling.

I keep lure color simple, carrying mostly minnow-pattern baits in black-back and silver, black-back and gold, and perch. It isn’t unusual to find waters where shades of blue on white and chartreuse on gold or silver also produce lots of fish. Pink, red, and orange are hot on Bay of Quinte. Any color with chartreuse is hot on most western reservoirs. But you can go anywhere and fish successfully with one of the two minnow patterns I mentioned. Different years, same body of water, one pattern will be better than the other. Go figure.

I use premium spinning reels and custom-made graphite rods from Thorne Brothers. Makes fishing more fun and more efficient. One outing last year, though, one of my reels slipped off my sled into slush on the walk out. The reel froze so I peeled line off and hand­lined a Jigging Rap. Iced 12 walleyes in two hours, including one about 9. My best evening of the season of ‘97. It just figures.

Continued – click on page link below.

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