Tony Roach is used to jigging walleyes that are super tough, with the finesse and precision of a puppet master. He fishes the rush-hour traffic on Mille Lacs, Minnesota, which last winter hosted "sell out" crowds the likes of a Rolling Stones concert. Every weekend on nearly every known spot, it was standing-room only.
Baitfish are another factor. Beneath every hole swims a flock of baby perch or a shimmering pod of ciscoes. You see why Mille Lacs walleyes are some of the most frustratingly selective fish on the globe?
Roach, a guide on Mille Lacs, deals with these fish almost every day all winter. That adds up to a lot of fish on the flasher. If you pay attention, you learn to recognize clues that unfold on screen, reacting appropriately with spoon moves and lure tweaks.
Sometimes the clues are profound. When a school of bait that's been littering his screen suddenly vanishes, it's time to get aggressive with jigging strokes. Big mama's probably below.
The signs are rarely so obvious and he's usually dealing with thick red signals that aren't jazzed up about biting. At times it's best to just keep moving and he won't spend more than 5 minutes over any given hole, or on any one fish. Other times he crouches over his MarCum flasher for much longer. Scaling down to one of his favorites, a 1/16-ounce Northland Forage Minnow Spoon packed with Eurolarva or the head of a small shiner minnow, he catches big fish that most anglers give up on.
In my mind, matching lure presentation to the activity level and disposition of individual fish approaches an art form. That's Roach in action, convinced there's a "right" solution for every fish. Among top-tier anglers, that's what the game of jigging for walleyes eventually becomes — a one-on-one dual with each fish, as revealed by electronics.
Jigging In Action
Having a fighting chance with every red blip starts and ends with the control you have over your lure. Much of the reactionary jigging game depends on the ability to make slight, yet controlled moves — raising the spoon, fluttering it down without spooking a fish, quivering the spoon in place, all without losing touch with it by moving your arm, wrist, or hand too much. Comfort and familiarity with your chosen weapons — rod, reel, line — become vital factors at play.
Roach is skilled at making fractional moves that match the moment-by-moment shifts in walleye position on the camera or the flasher screen. Dozens of times each winter, he faces scenarios where moves of as little as 1/2-inch determine whether or not the fish eats.
The spoon's his tool of choice. He moves so much that he doesn't need a lure that calls fish in. Fishing through extensive paths of predrilled holes means he's going to find fish. He wants a lure he can deliver directly to a bright red blip. A semi-straight, heavy spoon such as Northland's Buck-Shot drops vertically (doesn't swing much to the sides). So keeping this spoon just a foot or so above the fish on the screen maximizes the lure's time in the strike zone.
He was asked to design the perfect rod-and-reel combination for his approach to fishing, the result a 27-inch Frabill Ice Hunter "Roach Special," built around a medium-fast-action blank. The tip "gives" slightly, performing somewhat like a spring bobber, though it's also fast (stiff) enough to transmit micro-twitches from tip to spoon. His 500-size Frabill reel is loaded with 4, 5, or 6-pound Northland Bionic, a special-camouflaged monofilament that blends into the icy backdrop to tempt picky fish.
Walleyes One on One
Final presentation is a matter of rod, reel, line, lure, and electronics. For "stay put" bites on specific spots, an underwater camera tells the clearest story. But anytime Roach is on the move, he uses a MarCum LX-5 flasher or the new ShowDown Ice Troller. Beginning with the active fish he finds on fresh spots, progressing to trickier walleyes and finally, those bottom-hugging sloths he terms "comatose fish," here he provides play-by-play analysis in how to catch each one.
Burners (Spoon Moves for Active Fish) — "We call hot fish 'burners' because they paint those classic deep red blips on the screen," Roach says. "When you mark a burner a foot or so off bottom, there's a good chance you're going to get bit. I search for fish with a heavier semi-straight spoon such as a 1/4-ounce Live-Forage Minnow Spoon. Hot fish — especially bigger ones — like big flashy baits. Most of the time a bigger spoon is more likely to get bit by a burner than a small spoon.
"When the spoon's about 2 feet above the fish, I stop it and watch for a reaction. You want the fish to swim over, rise up, and just smoke it. If the fish chases but doesn't hit, I give the spoon a short, semi-soft pop-pop with the rod tip, then do a slow raise — pulling it up a foot or so before pausing again.
"It's critical that you learn to raise and slowly reel at the same speed. Sometimes, with trickier fish, you end up raising the spoon four feet or more. You want to be moving the spoon — giving little rod-tip jiggles or shakes — while you're swimming it up in the water column. The worst thing is ending up with your rod and arms way up high — a terrible position for feeling bites and setting the hook.
"I see a lot of anglers miss fish, because walleyes often smack the spoon and keep moving slightly upward. This causes just enough slack line that you suddenly lose feel. This is why it's so important to become comfortable with your rod and reel — you have to stay tuned-in all the time."
Passive Aggressives — These are fish that chase but won't bite. Often, when you reach a certain depth — say 6 feet off bottom — the fish hits an imaginary depth Roach calls the glass ceiling. "When walleyes approaches this depth, they often turn away from the spoon and slowly swim off — they don't want to move any higher in the water column," he says.
"On the flasher, it looks like the fish has gone deeper, but most likely it's just moved further from the transducer. I wait a few seconds and slowly feather the spoon down a foot or so. A fast drop can spook fish, so you just want to ease the spoon back into position in the strike zone within a few feet of bottom.
"I pause, then give the spoon two quick pops to gauge the fish's interest. If the fish slides back in, I go back to slowly raising the spoon again. Lots of times a fish continues to follow. I watch the speed the fish swims as it follows, and try to match it with the speed of my spoon's ascent. This keeps the fish's interest much more than if you pull it up too fast or too slow.
"A move that often works is to do some gentle shaking of your wrist while you're raising the bait. It's a real subtle maneuver that takes practice. You need to be able to do the raise-shake slowly, often no more than an inch at a time. As you're doing this, you sometimes just feel a little extra weight — like the spoon has picked up a weed. Reel down a quick half-turn and bury the hooks."
Grave Diggers — Another move that works for active chasers (passive aggressives) is to thump bottom. Sometimes fish quickly swim over and meet the bait, but immediately start to fade off the screen — the classic rejection.
Roach: "I do two quick pops again. If there's no reaction, I drop the spoon into the bottom. On sand, I like to really thump it around. But on softer mud or silt, keep the thumps to a minimum. Stir up too much of a cloud and it spooks fish. On rocks, all it takes is a few bangs. A heavier spoon makes noise, especially a rattling spoon like the Buck-Shot. Less is better on rocks and mud. More's better on sand, at least to begin.
"Sometimes fish fly back in and suck it in right of the bottom. Usually, though, once I regained a fish's attention, I immediately begin a slow raise-shake move. If the fish still won't hit, try another bottom bump and immediate raise-shake. Things get tricky, but if I have a fish that keeps coming back to look, eventually I usually get them to bite."
Cat & Mouse — So a walleye won't leave, but he won't bite, either. A lot of anglers give up and move on. But for Roach, a thick red signal is worthy of more effort.
"I go right back to the slow raise-shake maneuver," he says. "But I'm only raising the spoon in tiny increments. Mostly, I'm keeping the lure in his face or mere inches above. You need a sonar unit that separates your spoon — even shows the light flutter of your treble hook and minnow head — from the solid signal of a walleye. I keep the bottom of the hook right on the fish's nose. I'm doing miniscule twitch-twitch pauses. It's almost more like vibrating the rod tip than actually shaking it — all wrist action.
"It's a cat-and-mouse thing. The fish is reluctantly moving on the spoon, moving mere inches at a time. I'm sort of chasing him in turn, feathering down and shaking in place as the fish moves away. Waiting. The fish is right there. I'm slowly, slightly raising the spoon up a fraction of an inch to feel for the weight of a bite. They're capable of just nipping the skin of the minnow head and spitting it without detection.
"At this point I'm done with any dramatic jigging. You're in survival mode — doing whatever it takes to keep the bait in the fish's face. Move the spoon only enough to make the treble and minnow head quiver side-to-side. Mostly, you're just concentrating hard on detecting a subtle take."
Comatose Fish — Time for a last ditch effort to scratch out a few bites for clients the day after a cold front. Roach breaks out the underwater camera, sets up in a portable shelter, and opens a bag of tiny minnows. "These fish aren't moving much," he says. "They won't react to typical spoon moves. So I like to force feed 'em. I tie on a 1/16-ounce Forage Minnow Spoon or a Live-Forage Flutterspoon. Remove the split ring and tie direct.
"You want as little spoon movement as possible. Find the smallest shiner or crappie minnow in the bucket, but it must be lively. Slip the hook tine through its lips and drop it to the bottom. Watch on camera. Hold it precisely at the depth where the minnow's tail sweeps sediment side-to-side on bottom. Not flat on bottom, not even a centimeter above bottom. You want the minnow's tail to kick up tiny puffs of silt as it struggles against the spoon. The whole package looks like a baitfish feeding on invertebrates dug into the bottom.
"On horrible post-frontal days I often set up on a prime piece of structure and stick it out. You're sitting nice and snug inside the Frabill, watching the walleye channel on underwater TV. Sometimes it happens fast. A walleye scoots in, grabs the spoon and vanishes off the screen with a mini mushroom cloud of silt. Rod doubles and it's game on. Where there's a will, there's always a way. And that, my friends, is why I play the game."
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt appears with In-Fisherman editors on Ice Fishing Guide TV, which begins in October and plays through March.