The eastern sky was a plume of orange and the ice looked like it was on fire. Walleye fishing on Mars. Walking to the first hole drilled by Guide Tony Roach (he was already 200 yards away, another gush of water rising at his feet), I looked at the spoon clipped to my leader. Is it the right size? The right color? The right style and shape with the right hook?
Every walleye angler faces that decision every morning. The worst way to find out you made the wrong decision is for somebody else to hook the first six walleyes before you can dig a similar lure from that box of tangled trebles.
Some folks are consistently good at choosing the right spoon. Probably because, like Roach, they were out here yesterday. Or maybe they're psychic. Or they have great confidence in their own ability to choose a spoon, read how fish react to it, and respond accordingly without having to change weight, shape, or style.
But for those of us who try to make sense out of a Rubik's Cube of lead and trebles, I asked some of the best walleye fishermen I know about conditions like weather, fishing pressure, water temperature, light penetration, and season, plus water clarity and color. And I enquired about walleye activity levels to see what they thought were the most important reasons for selecting one spoon over another.
"Weather plays a key role," says Chip Leer, founder of Fishing the Wild Side. "When choosing a spoon to fish the first hole of the day, I consider what the weather's been doing. When a cold front passes, walleyes get sluggish. That's when I go to a lighter spoon with a slow fall. I'm all about drop speed these days. I went through a long power-fishing phase—nothing but run-and-gun all day, hunting only aggressive fish. I realize now that, no matter how fast you move, where you go, or how many holes you drill, you're only going to see two or three short bursts of activity that last 15 to 45 minutes or so. Now I want to spend more time on spots I'm confident in—appealing to neutral fish with slower presentations. I don't think it has anything to do with getting older. Maybe wiser. You want to be on those key spots when those short activity windows open up. I don't jump around as much as I used to."
Tim Geni, walleye pro from Saskatchewan, looks at weather in terms of light penetration, especially during first ice and the next week or two to follow. "During the early part of the season, I consider sun penetration to make that first choice," he says. "When it's sunny, I go flashy, with silvers, golds, and other metallics. I like glow patterns when it's cloudy, even when the ice is thin. It's dark down there under ice on cloudy days, even with thin ice overhead."
Jason Mitchell of Jason Mitchell Outdoors, thinks weather is overrated as an influence on technique. "To me, time of day and population density of walleyes trump weather when spoon fishing for walleye," he says. "Fronts can slow a bite, sure. But the prime windows at sunrise and sunset are more critical factors. You can make more mistakes at prime time. When the sun gets high walleyes settle on bottom. During prime time I use a bigger spoon with a bigger hook to attract more fish and keep them around.
"I go with a plain spoon with no rattle during midday. If fish are moving, I quit moving. When fish quit moving, I move to find more fish faster and take advantage of the aggressive ones. In midday, when fish are staying put, you need to make them rise, turn, and move. I can do that more easily with a bigger spoon when walleyes are off.
"On Lake of the Woods, the bite's over by late morning. During that long window in the middle of the day. I usually start with a bigger spoon to attract attention and see if there's any life around. That eliminates dead water quickly. When fish are at the bait, I switch to smaller stuff."
Roach says weather definitely plays a role, but sticks with his usual regimen early in the day. "I start fast and look at the mood of the fish," he says. "Electronics tell me the mood of the fish when I'm fishing fast. When they come in hot and stop, downsizing works. Move the bait. Little things can trigger strikes. If they come in but won't bite, I go to a flutter spoon."
Water temperature is a byproduct of weather. Temperature readouts on underwater cameras indicate how far down cold fronts can push the 34°F band of water. "I call that 'down-temperature' and I've been paying more attention to it," Mitchell says. "I haven't gotten it dialed in yet, but I'm starting to correlate wind-related effects with the bite. When the wind blows hard, the windy side of the lake has better fishing. When ice flexes, it seems to cloud the water and actually affects current in the lake. The next frontier is to match spoons to these factors. I've seen cold snaps cool water under ice, but I've seen the bite stay there, too.
"I believe a lot of snow on the ice makes walleyes lethargic. I don't think it's always oxygen levels. I think it's vision. Where their visual advantage over preyfish is reduced under heavy snow, they become lethargic. Spots don't recharge. I'm a fan of glow colors and a change of strategy in that situation. I stay on the hottest spots longer, and hit the best spots. And in heavy snow, you can see where people have been and I concentrate on good spots receiving little or no pressure."
Roach uses down-temperature to reveal patterns more than to determine spoon choices. "I always look at down temp," he says. "I fish every day and I want the fish to tell me what they want. On my first area, I study what fish are doing on electronics or on camera because, whether it's water temp or clouds or whatever, you find walleyes biting at similar depths and in similar conditions all over the lake."
"Lure size is important in clear water when walleyes are less aggressive, and size is less important when fish are aggressive," Geni asserts. "Aggressive fish bite. But if fish don't seem hungry, you stand a better chance of getting a small spoon into the mouth of a light-biting fish. In dark water, bigger is always better. If visibility is limited, I upsize."
Walking onto the ice toward the first hole of the day, Mitchell first thinks about conditions. "Water clarity is number one," he says. "When I can see down 7 feet or more, as on Leech Lake or Mille Lacs, I expand the jigging zone and slow the drop. You can make a higher lift and fish see it from farther away. So in clear water I make lifts of 4 feet or more to create a long fluttering drop with a lighter spoon. On Lake of the Woods, which isn't clear, the high lift isn't as effective as a hard pound. There, I lift a heavier rattle spoon 6 inches to 3 feet and drop it on a slack line to pound bottom and create noise.
"I like flutter spoons in clear water with a slower fall and a wobble," he adds. "That action consistently shines in clear water. Last year I worked on a prototype Leech Flutter Spoon from Clam Outdoors that's now on the market. It has the wobble you need to send flash and reflection in all directions on the fall. On Lake of the Woods I go with something like the Clam Rattlin' Blade Spoon. It teeter-totters on the drop, becoming more of a knocking spoon as opposed to a high lift-fall tool. I favor rattles in cloudy water. A rattling spoon puts off more noise than you think. Those BBs thunk into the bottom of the chamber at the bottom of the stroke. In stained water, if you lift too high it falls behind the fish and they miss it. Then you have to pound bottom and get them to feel it with their lateral lines, trying to get that fish to turn around."
Roach changes spoon color based on water clarity, but weather and time-of-day intervene. "I love natural-looking gold or silver spoons in clear water," he says. "In stained water, I go to UV-glow pinks and greens—bright colors to get fish to react from a distance and the louder the better. That goes for clear water in low-light conditions, too. Under heavy cloud cover or approaching darkness, the hot color often goes from silver or gold to bright UV, glow, and fluorescents."
Roach starts with rattling slab-style spoons every morning. "The first spoon I grab is a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon," he says. "Color and size may vary, but that style of spoon fishes fast. When I first hit the ice I try to find out how many fish are in the area. I want it to drop fast and attract with both noise and flash, so I jig hard to see how many fish approach, then adjust spoon style, shape, and size accordingly."
Slab versus flutter: When do walleyes want one over the other? Roach says: "I tend to fish a flutter spoon aggressively because it has so much action. But it also has better actions than slab spoons when fished slowly. A Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon falls horizontally and is easily controlled. I usually I go to a 1/8- or 1/4-ounce flutter spoon."
He favors fluttering action when minnows are dying from temperature shock. "A flutter spoon is like a dying minnow," he claims. "When the water temperature falls fast, lots of minnows die. I think that's why flutters work better early. Young-of-year baitfish die off in droves early. I fish flutter spoons aggressively—lots of big, sweeping rips and giving slack. When you give slack to a flutter spoon, you get a swinging, flickering action—a lot more action than you get on a tight line. Make high lifts, dropping the rod tip back to the hole to create slack line. If fish bite on the fall, I do a lot more of that. If they hit it on the rise, I fish it on a slack line a lot less. I snap it a little to get their attention, then keep it on a tighter leash on the drop."
Another spoon that falls horizontally is the PK Lures Flutterfish. "If walleyes aren't aggressive when they come up to the spoon, I try a Flutterfish right away," Geni says. "If that doesn't work I downsize to the 1/16-ounce PK Predator Spoon. Lunker walleyes eat that little lure. When fish are highly pressured and there's lots of activity, I try the Predator Spoon. The little blade on top of the spoon gives the presentation three-dimensional attraction. I slide the blade on, then a bead, then tie the lure direct. I tap bottom, move sediment, lift it slowly, followed by a little 4- to 5-inch slack line drop. Rip it too hard and they often spook in those situations. These lakes up here are clear, so I use 6-pound fluorocarbon."
Leer's lineup of choices is short. Three categories: 1) Noise; 2) Flutter spoons; and 3) Fixed-hook spoons. "It's like choosing crankbaits," he says. "There are times to wiggle and times to wobble. Choosing a spoon is about getting a fish to look at one and react. The depthfinder or camera often suggests how to alter a presentation to achieve strikes. It's weather, it's watching walleyes react, and it's a gut thing. When I have a feeling fish are turned off, I go with a fixed-hook spoon. A single-hook spoon flutters at a different pace. It's the slowest drop available."
Mitchell, who likes metallics in clear or tannic water, wants a lure with a split ring and treble when actively jigging. "But Russian-style fixed hooks definitely have a time and place," he adds. "I rig Maki Minnow imitations on the single hook. When I need to use a whole minnow, I use a spoon with a bigger gap on the hook. It's easier to unhook fish and get back down the hole on a hot bite. Technique is more important than lure choice. You can manipulate the wrong spoon to make it right. Clam has a new series of Rattlin' Blade Spoons with a feather on the treble. With those, I find I often don't need a minnow on the spoon to catch fish. Anything swinging, bouncing, or rocking under the spoon can help at times. Feathers, plastic—you catch more fish in the long run when you add an attractor."
Spoon fishing for walleye isn't rocket science, but reading natural signs and experimenting bring success. Try these tips from walleye ice access for fast action this season.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a veteran of the walleye wars and often fishes with top experts across the land.