2021 Ice Guide
This Month in In-Fisherman
Walleyes on Classic Structure: Super Spots Today
By Cory Schmidt
Solving the mysteries of walleye movements and migrations has been and I suspect will remain the primary motivation driving the remainder of my fishing days. Perhaps like some of you who read Buck Perry and Bill Binkelman’s original writings, the concepts of structure, cover, and fish highways opened my mind to magical possibilities.
Etched forever in my memory is an old-school illustration of a drained lake—a drawing I believe first appeared on page 30 of E. L. “Buck” Perry’s book, Spoonplugging. In the late 1960s, Binkelman reproduced the drawing and ran it in Fishing News, forerunner of Fishing Facts and the one of the inspirations behind In-Fisherman magazine. This captivating image immediately drew you in to a supernatural underwater world. It was the lake of our dreams, with every sort of alluring fish hideout you could imagine, from the perfect submerged boulder pile and extended rocky point to mazes and multiplexes of underwater jungles.
There’s something compelling, even all these years later, about envisioning schools of fish interacting with and feeding amid such an idyllic underwater playground. Supplementing the enduring visual of a drained lake and other first-of-its-kind imagery, the written theories and ponderings of Perry and Binkelman started us down a lifelong path of angling discovery. Even now, having watched walleyes via sonar, Panoptix, underwater camera, and scuba mask, the most fascinating part of fishing to me still revolves around the process of sleuthing out groups of walleyes, particularly in relatively undiscovered locations. I’d much rather catch a handful of good fish from a fresh spot than big numbers from a community hole, and that certainly holds true for ice fishing.
The ice game is different, though. In a sport where many anglers still find fish not via their own intuition and detective work, but solely by shadowing successful anglers, ice offers further complications. There’s no way to cover your tracks to and from an untouched area. It’s more difficult to disguise good fishing from anglers whose only fish-finding plan involves binoculars and watching from a distance. Also nearly impossible is covering up the fact you caught good fish in a particular spot, with certain clues left behind like signposts in the snow and ice.
More and more, too, we continue to realize that walleyes move and flee in direct response to our presence—much more frequently than we realize. This certainly happens when we crunch across barren ice and drill holes over shallow water. To this point, the biggest takeaway myself and other anglers have gleaned from live-radar tools like Panoptix is that fish move far more frequently than we think—and they certainly spook in response to above-ice threats. When you scuba dive, you quickly realize 20 feet is actually not that far from the surface. And so, whether we’re in a boat or on the ice, walleyes usually know we’re there and often turn tail and swim away before 2-D sonar beams ever detect their presence—even in 20 to 30 feet of water.
Given the fish-finding tools in most anglers’ arsenals today, I’d flee, too. As a result of our expanded ability to move around and spot obvious fish targets on many structures, I’ve noticed a glaring lack of walleyes on classic hard-bottom points in recent years. In the cases of natural lakes, I believe these barren structures simply reflect that anglers have harvested most or all of the available fish. Classic structure is classic structure, and over time, new fish cycle through these spots. But mapping and sonar tech makes them almost too easy to find, at times. And unless anglers learn to release fish over 20 inches, the trend will continue.
Even subtle hard-bottom zones that eluded discovery can now be easily unearthed with a mapping tool that allows the angler to color-shade certain depth ranges on any digital lake map. LakeMaster’s depth-shade feature is probably among the most powerful fish-patterning tools ever conceived. It’s scary-effective. Say you know walleyes are using 24- to 27-foot shoreline extensions where hard bottom protrudes out into the make lake basin. Or, say you know the best pondweed clusters sprout in 12 to 14 feet. Punch in a given depth range and all the real estate that falls within this scope fills the map with color. Suddenly, even previously overlooked subtle depth changes now jump off the screen and give you an easy guide straight to some of the lake’s best hard-bottom sweet spots, subtle substrate transitions, vegetation zones, and more.
Up until about five years ago, I was alone on most of these subtle hard-bottom zones—at least a dozen spots spread across half as many lakes. The past two to three years now, every one of these zones has become a community hole. Almost none of them produce walleyes anymore, not because the fish have moved in response to fishing pressure, but because they’re no longer swimming in the lake.
It’s one thing to listen to the musings of a fishing writer. But it’s something else altogether when one of the most accomplished walleye anglers of all time sings a similar tune. “These days, I spend more time looking for overlooked spots than I do fishing those big obvious hard-bottom structures,” says Jason Mitchell, host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors. “Good spots are good spots, don’t get me wrong. I still like big long points and reef complexes connected to shore. I also like to see a shelf with a stair-step taper into deeper water—little micro feeding zones along the drop-off. Anytime trees with rock line up with these structures, it’s game on. Same deal with rocks to sand or vegetation transitions. In winter, coontail is overlooked for walleyes. It grows deeper and stays alive longer than many other plants.”
Mitchell, who travels all across the North American range of walleyes, divulges other little-known clues to fish location. “One of the most overlooked features I search for now are little bowls or depressions hidden on a large flat,” Mitchell says. “I do a lot of scouting for winter walleye spots in late fall, because good fall spots are almost always great at first ice, too. So, I’m out in a boat moving across these 10-foot and deeper flats, looking for little bowls—and many of them don’t appear on digital maps. Some of these depressions might be 3 or more feet deeper than the surrounding terrain. Sometimes less. Some run for half an acre or more. Others are much smaller. These depressions are especially great walleye spots in prairie or dishbowl lakes. A few of the better spots I fish are 12-foot bowls surrounded by 7-foot flats. And as we’ve noted, good spots can be good spots, spring, summer, fall, and winter.
Mitchell’s hidden bowls remind me a lot of similar spots I’ve found on many larger natural mesotrophic lakes. You’ve got these big monotonous sandflats that sprawl for acres and conceal an occasional small crater of deeper water. I’ve always speculated that the forces of ice or wave action have scoured these holes over decades and perhaps centuries, but who knows. It would be interesting to compare current aerial images to those from many years ago and note how these depressions have changed.
The best ones I’ve found often fill in with pondweed and other vegetation in summer and attract everything from bass and pike to big walleyes on low-light days. They can be good for walleyes in the winter, too, and almost never attract angling attention.
“One other great spot I’ve been keying on lately occurs anywhere I find isolated rock fields on bigger flats,” Mitchell says. “These rock fields don’t pop up on your lake map as often, and there’s no depth change associated with them. You can find them with side-scanning sonar, but that means covering lots of water over these massive flats, which can occur anywhere from 15 to 30 feet of water. The best rock fields run maybe 1/2 acre and have football-sized rock, which provides the perfect hiding spots for minnows, crayfish, and other invertebrates.”
Walleye pro Gary Parsons adds to the super-spot discussion regarding subtle hard-bottom transitions—still among the most overlooked of all walleye structures. “Before running some of the new digital maps alongside Lowrance’s StructureScan, we didn’t realize how far some of these hard-bottom extensions protruded into soft mud basin areas,” Parsons reveals. “They can be so subtle depth-wise that they’re easy to miss. But the bottom hardness maps make them stick out. They can open up a whole new world of untouched walleye spots.”
He says he’s been amazed by how many of these subtle yet elongated hard-bottom extensions he’s found in many bodies of water, and how many predators he’s found living on them. “Lots of times, we’ve followed these extensions way out into the main lake, and near the tips we’ve frequently found big numbers of walleyes and large pike that probably don’t get fished very often.”
The greatest walleye structures I’ve fished are broad, sometimes obvious, hard-bottom reefs, often intersecting the deepest sections of lakes. This applies equally to reservoirs and Canadian Shield lakes, where almost everything looks like hard bottom. Rivers, too. Prominent extensions are key, but the sweet spots, or even the super spots (best of the best), often occur on minor sub-projections or small but dramatic inside turns along the main break.
Two spots I’m envisioning in particular lie in close proximity to but aren’t attached to the larger main reef. One is a relatively narrow hard-bottom and rock spine that up until a few years ago remained overlooked by 90 percent of anglers. The other is an inside turn in the main breakline off a major reef that then drops into a saddle as it approaches the shoreline break. Both spots, like all super spots, attract walleyes spring, summer, fall, and winter. When fishing pressure becomes intense on classic areas, never overlook that seemingly “dirty zone” where hard bottom first meets soft—a small region that often boils with aquatic life.
High-Tech Detective Work
Zooming in and examining specific structures first identified on a map, side-imaging technology instantly reveals changes from soft to hard bottom. Traditional sonar shows transitions, too, but not so obviously as down- and side-imaging views. On my Humminbird Helix units, I look for a change from dark-shaded bottom to much lighter bottom—the clear indication of a transition. Zig-zag back and forth over the transition and you soon uncover high-percentage protrusions, as well as marking fish very close to the bottom change. When used with the aforementioned depth-highlight feature, transitions can be even easier to find because the deeper hard-to-soft zones generally all occur at the same depths in a given lake. Sometimes, big walleyes seemingly hide amidst this soft-bottom dirty zone, eluding sonar detection altogether.
While scouting ice spots in your boat, take the game even further by building your own map contours. I use a Humminbird Helix unit that easily comes off my boat and hooks to a portable ice mount, so I’m always armed with the best data. DIY Mapping programs like Humminbird’s AutoChart Live aren’t so much about making all new lake maps, but about fine-tuning individual structural elements, sniffing out the sweet spots. More often than not, factory lake-map contours can be improved on with your own on-the-water map-making, particularly by unearthing subtle inside turns, corners, dips, and tiny high-spots, or crowns formed by boulder outcrops. It’s even possible to populate the map with hard-bottom and vegetation layers for supreme visual reference.
In some ways, walleyes feeding in vegetation still present the greatest mystery of all, mostly because the fish don’t appear on screen like the sitting ducks you see on naked, hard bottom. I’ve found and caught more winter weed walleyes where plants grow on totally nondescript flats. Not points. Not even inside turns, although these can be great. Two of the reliable links include shoreline-connected flats and deep water off the edge. On smaller lakes, these spots can be easier to locate because they’re nearly always adjacent to the lake’s deepest zone.
Big, wide, plant-covered points that jut far into the main lake are also potentially excellent, but they see loads of traffic, and eventually, the fish get caught or move to less-obvious real estate. For me, it becomes a game of choosing fewer, though more aggressive fish on less-obvious real estate than battling it out on a classic point with dozens of other anglers. There’s nothing more satisfying than sneaking on to a lackluster shoreline break, popping three or four nice walleyes and getting out before the binoculars have time to spot you.
Structural Uncertainty, Cover Confusion
Apparently, at least a good number of modern-day anglers haven’t been reading their Buck Perry, because the terms structure and cover seem to be used almost interchangeably and frequently incorrectly. According to Perry, who coined the term almost 80 years ago, structure is defined as “The bottom of the lake with some unusual features that distinguish it from the surrounding bottom areas.”
Structure does not include rocks, vegetation, brush, or boat docks. These are considered cover objects—not structure—that frequently augment a given structural element and makes it more appealing to fish. Almost 70 years after its publication, Perry’s Spoonplugging remains a master class in angling theory and underwater discovery.
Tracking Walleye Movement
Finding the best vegetation zones is nearly always something that happens in a boat, post fall-turnover. Return at first ice and plan to drill some holes in the same vicinity before landing on the walleye epicenter. But on both classic hard-bottom structure or in vegetation, the questions remain: When will walleyes move through? What depths will they use? Where do they come from? Which direction will they travel?
My friend Bill Lindner, who’s maybe spent more hours observing walleyes through a scuba mask than anyone, offers some keen observations. “Just like fishing for them, sometimes, the best way to watch walleyes under water is to just sit still and wait for schools to move through,” says Lindner, a legendary fishing photographer.
“What I’ve noticed by diving is that most of the time, walleyes suspend 3 to 5 feet above bottom as they travel along a weededge or a drop-off. They meander in and out of the outer plant stalks, looking to root out baitfish. Usually, you’re seeing 1, 2, or 3 walleyes in little sub-packs, rather than the bigger groups we like to imagine. Walleyes assemble by size, or year-class, too, possibly as part of familial groups. They’re always on the move.
“I’ve rarely seen a walleye sitting on the bottom. And walleyes almost always approach and travel along structure in the same direction. I suspect they either swim in big wide ovals and double back across the same underwater lanes, or they move through a periodic route, swimming from one structure to the next before circling back and doing it all over again. I’ve actually observed the same fish (with distinct markings) on consecutive diving days, so I know there’s some truth to this. I’ve watched them travel along a drop-off, mill around on the corner of a reef, and eventually swim down a drop-off and move out over 20 feet of water. I’ve also seen smallmouth bass push walleyes around and off deeper rock humps.”
Lindner’s observations really hit home when taken in context with a tracking study conducted on a 5,000-acre Minnesota lake, published in In-Fisherman in the mid-1990s. Most striking about this study was that each of the walleyes implanted with transmitters exhibited totally individual movement patterns, and that fish rarely lingered in one area for more than a day or so. Rather, several of the fish traveled many miles in a day, often beelining across deep open water from one structure to the next. Often, too, individual fish positioned within the top 20 feet of the water column over much deeper water, presumably feeding on pelagic prey. Even in winter, movements of individual fish were often far-ranging, in some cases, even more extensive than their spring and summer travels.
A final lesson from last winter’s Panoptix work comes from Phil Laube, an astute ice angler who recently told me about an interesting experience on Upper Red Lake, Minnesota. “We were set up in a shelter, sort of waiting for fish at prime time,” he says. “I had the Panoptix down the hole just shining around in a big circle. We started observing walleyes moving through, 60 or 70 feet away. Every fish seemed to be moving and following the same pattern, each walleye tracing the previous fish’s path as if on a sidewalk. After watching over a dozen fish adhere to this same seemingly designated lane of travel, we repositioned our shack directly over the lane and started clobbering walleye after walleye. It was unbelievable how every fish moved through that same route, especially with absolutely no depth variation or edge to follow. Where were they going? Where did they come from? All we knew was, every fish seemed to be headed to the same party.” And thus, thankfully, the mystery continues.
*Cory Schmidt is a longtime In-Fisherman Field Editor and astute multispecies angler. He writes for all In-Fisherman publications.