February 20, 2020
By Dan Johnson
Across the Ice Belt, supersized lakes and reservoirs offer intrepid anglers outstanding opportunities to enjoy fine fishing all winter long. Hardwater warriors willing to tackle these icy inland seas can be rewarded with numbers and sizes of fish smaller systems can’t match. On the downside, icemen lacking a solid plan of attack often are destined to wander, drilling here, there, and everywhere before ultimately striking out in their quest to catch the proverbial needle in the haystack.
“Big water is a different game than small water, but it’s definitely worth the effort to crack the code,” says veteran guide and walleye hunter Jon Thelen, who fishes all sizes of fisheries each season while filming episodes of Lindy Fishing Tackle’s Fish ED television series. “For starters, big water produces more big walleyes and more fish than small lakes. The numbers of walleyes available in a system like Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake, or Mille Lacs dwarfs those found in smaller waters. A school in a 1,000-acre lake might be 20 fish, but in a big lake it could be 200 fish or more, giving you more chances to hook up with fish that are willing to buy what you’re selling. Large lakes are also more apt to produce day-long action.”
Overcoming the challenges of finding and icing big-water walleyes starts with changing your mindset, he says. “The first thing is, don’t get intimidated or overwhelmed. You may be looking out at 50,000 or 100,000 acres or more of water, but have faith. By breaking it down efficiently, you can pinpoint large schools of fish and enjoy some of the best winter walleye fishing around.
“Also remember that big-water walleyes behave differently than those in smaller waters. In smaller systems, both baitfish and walleyes tend to stick tighter to structure. In large systems, there’s more forage available and the bait tends to roam farther off structure, as do the walleyes feeding on them.”
The tendency of walleyes in smaller waters to cling tight to structural sweet spots makes them more vulnerable to fishing pressure than those in big systems, Thelen says. “Walleyes in a small lake might have one or two prime structures at their disposal. As a result, they can get highly pressured by angers targeting these limited areas. Big lakes typically have more options, spreading out the fish and anglers accordingly. Which means you have a chance to get away from crowds and have schools of fish all to yourself.”
As for the pitfalls of fishing big water, he ranks dialing in location at the top. “Because fish spread out more, finding them is a challenge,” he says. “One of the things I do is focus on a prime piece of structure during low light to start the day, then follow walleyes off of it into the surrounding basin during the day. Keep in mind that search moves and hole drilling patterns are larger on big water than small. When fishing a small lake, you might move 50 yards off structure and drill holes 10 yards apart to find fish during the day. In a big lake, you might be moving miles between stops, and spacing holes 40 yards or more in each new search area. It pays to be mobile and willing to make major jumps in search of fish.”
On the flip side, Thelen urges search-mode anglers not to abandon a piece of structure too quickly. “Once you identify a reef, hump, or other prime structural complex that should attract baitfish and hungry walleyes, you need to have faith that a school is somewhere in the area,” he says. “Walleyes won’t be on top or tight to the edges all the time. They may be half a mile or more away, but they’ll be in the vicinity.
“Too many times, while fishing Lake of the Woods and other big fisheries, I’ve watched anglers move in to check a piece of structure and only fish one side of it, then give up and leave,” he says. “If you don’t check around all sides, you risk missing the mother lode of walleyes everywhere you go.”
He also advises checking the top of structure periodically throughout the day. “Just because there weren’t walleyes on top or along the side of the reef when you first rolled in, don’t assume fish won’t move up until sunset,” he says. “Different schools of fish feed at different times, so it pays to go back on top now and then.”
Likewise, he says not to get too wrapped up in history of the fishery, recent or otherwise. “Big-water walleyes move. So there’s no guarantee they’ll be in the same spot, on the same side of the reef, as they were last week or even yesterday.”
To help visualize what vagabonds big-lake walleyes are, he points to the rental ice-house locations of savvy resorts and guides. “Think about how they place their houses,” he says. “They’re spread out around different structures, not all in one cluster. The experts know the fish move, and one day a house on the edge of the structure will be hot, while the next day, the anglers in a house a mile off the break tear them up.”
While basins adjacent to structure may seem featureless, there are often subtle dips, rises, and other sweet spots to attract winter walleyes. “Slight depth changes of just six inches can concentrate fish, so I pay attention to my Humminbird Ice Helix electronics and Lakemaster mapping to key on minor changes that can make a big difference in which direction walleyes head when moving off more defined structure,” he says.
All the Right Moves
Lures and tactics tailored to the big-water scene are also key to success. “Given the distances—both horizontally and vertically—at which you need to call walleyes in for a strike, it’s imperative to help the fish find you,” Thelen says. “And because walleyes off structure aren’t necessarily actively feeding, you also need something that triggers reaction strikes such as large lures, rattles, high-vis and glow finishes, and aggressive jigging maneuvers.”
Long a fan of noisy, high-action hardbaits like the Lindy Darter, he nowadays leans on the company’s new Glow Streak. “I fished it throughout its development and have seen it make a big difference in a number of big-water scenarios,” he says. “With its tail hook, belly treble, and weighted nose, the Glow Streak is a hard-bodied hybrid that does everything jigging minnows and ripping-style minnowbaits do. It swims upward on aggressive jig strokes, then turns and glides down before settling on center on the fall. Plus, you can insert a glow stick to illuminate the bait, adding to the attraction in the dark conditions common under snow and ice.”
Other classic options for luring and triggering big-water walleyes include a variety of spoons, jigs, and hardbaits such as the Rapala Jigging Rap and Rippin’ Rap, Nils Master Jigging Shad, Reef Runner Cicada, Swedish Pimple, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, and more. Lures in 1/4- to 1/2-ounce weights and 21/2- to 31/2-inch lengths are none too big in most cases.
As for color choices, Thelen keeps it simple. “I favor natural finishes in clear water, and brighter colors in dirty water or other low-vis conditions,” he says. “The main thing when you’re dealing with winter walleyes that aren’t feeding aggressively is experimenting with how you work your bait—in terms of jigging cadences and aggression levels—because these fish don’t have to eat as much now as they do during the summer. Dialing in the right moves is key.”
Thelen doesn’t wait forever for fish to come find him, but he doesn’t rush the process, either. “This isn’t a two-minute drill,” he says. “That’s for structural edges. When calling basin walleyes with big lures and aggressive jig strokes, I give each hole 10 or 15 minutes before moving on. Give the fish time to find you. If you pull the plug too fast, you might miss a fish that was 10 feet away, slowly moving in to check out the lure.”
When hunkered over fish during a peak feeding period, he often tones things down, switching to something more subtle, like Lindy’s fluttery Glow Spoon. To cover your presentation bases, you can also fish an active bait and deadstick rod in close proximity.
In some systems, structure isn’t a factor. Manitoba’s legendary Lake Winnipeg is one of them. Lying a short cast from the city of Winnipeg and stretching 260 miles northward, this true inland sea is the world’s 10th largest freshwater lake—bigger than Lake Ontario and only slightly smaller than Lake Erie.
Home to gargantuan walleyes of 12 to 14 pounds and up, Lake Winnipeg is a shallow, fertile fishbowl where schools of giant walleyes roam vast, relatively featureless basins.
Nate Altendorf knows the drill. A hard-fishing guide hailing from East Grand Forks, Minnesota, he’s no stranger to big-water walleyes. He’s guided on Lake of the Woods for over a decade, but his off-duty pursuits find him tracking down Lake Winnipeg monsters.
“Lake of the Woods is one of the best numbers lakes around and has a phenomenal amount of big fish, too,” he says. “I focus my ice fishing trips on structure early in the winter, which produces the best fishing. I head to Lake Winnipeg for recreation. It’s not so much a numbers game, but has insane trophy potential. We’re talking 33- and 34-inch greenbacks. You hear a lot about March madness on Winnipeg, but it gives up fish all winter and I personally prefer the January time frame. There are fewer anglers and you don’t have to drill through four feet of ice.”
Altendorf takes an active approach to find Winnipeg’s wandering ’eyes. “The key is to move, move, move,” he says. “Lake Winnipeg is a big, featureless basin. Depth changes are slight. Fish roam chasing baitfish. Keep looking until you land on top of them.”
To speed his search, Altendorf starts in a high-percentage spot and works from there. “I like the area around the mouth of the Red River, where incoming current and debris offer the fish a bit of structure,” he says. “I pick a 100-yard area, try three different spots within that area—fishing each hole 10 or 15 minutes—then make a 1/4- or 1/2-mile move, choose another 100-yard area, hit three more spots, and move again, working my way across the basin.”
Given the enormity of Winnipeg’s basin, recruiting help is a plus. “Fishing with a group of friends or members of your local walleye club helps you hit different areas and cover a lot of water,” he says.
Like Thelen, Altendorf favors aggressive jigging tactics when on the hunt for big fish. “A loud, aggressive searchbait is important to call fish in from 20 or 30 feet away,” he says. “I use a Glow Streak tipped with a shiner head, making 3-foot ripping lifts, then letting the lure drift slowly down and rip again, with no pause. I fish the entire water column, too. Most fish rush in and slam the bait, but not all. So it pays to have a dead rod with a whole shiner close by, to give curious but less active fish an option to eat.”
If you mark fish that won’t bite either presentation, put a waypoint on them for future reference,” he adds. “Even a slight change in the sun or weather conditions could trigger them to start feeding, so it pays to go back and check the inactive schools.”
Big-water drilling patterns and search strategies are different than small-water tactics. When searching massive basins for walleyes, iconic iceman Tony Roach refines his legendary ice trolling tactics, giving each hole five to 10 minutes, max, then moving on. We covered his search strategies in detail in the In-Fisherman’s Ice Fishing Guide Tactical Gear, but it’s worth revisiting because sitting over a solitary, fishless hole is inefficient on virtually any body of water—and especially bad on one of our inland oceans.
When fishing a large basin, Roach spaces holes farther apart than he would on structure. Anglers in the group spread 50 or more yards from each other and each drill a string of 10 to 15 holes, with holes spaced 20 to 30 yards apart. “Each hole is fished up to 10 minutes, to give fish time to see and move in to the lure from longer distances than you typically deal with on structure,” he says, noting that he may give up on a structure-related hole within 30 seconds.
If no one in Roach’s big-water basin party contacts fish, the crew picks up and moves a quarter mile down the lake to try again. “The idea is to cover large expanses of water, looking for large schools of walleyes roaming structureless bottoms,” he says.
Big-water walleye location can seem without rhyme or reason, but certain factors can guide your search. For example, Roach says ice heaves can serve as structure under the right conditions. “When ice pushes down into the water column and concentrates baitfish, it can attract walleyes, particularly in shallow water,” he says.
He also pays attention to other signs of life beneath the ice. “Marking baitfish is a good sign you’re on the right track,” he says. “So is catching a small walleye that regurgitates bugs, because insect life draws in all kinds of baitfish and predators. And when you’re combing massive sections of water, that can be a tip the mother lode of walleyes is close at hand.”
*Dan Johnson is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and Public Relations Manager for the Union Sportsmen’s Alliance. Guide contacts: Nate Altendorf, 701/739-9690; Tony Roach, 763/226-6656.