If the situation's right and the mood strikes it, that 10-pound walleye you've been trying to catch might turn its snout away from your lure and scarf up a dead minnow instead. It's a fact of walleye behavior that's often discounted.
Fishing "The Graveyard" years ago—a popular rock and gravel bar on Mille Lacs, Minnesota—friends and I deployed an underwater camera inside our large wheeled shelter to spy on a school of walleyes that refused to bite. It didn't take more than an hour to realize walleyes were ignoring our jigging spoons and even live minnows. Every now and then, however, we noticed a fish nose down into the substrate and create a puff of silt as it vacuumed something into its mouth. We concluded these walleyes were swimming through and plucking discarded minnows tossed by anglers above. By the time we realized what was happening, it was time to depart, depriving us of a potentially exceptional opportunity.
Another time, another lake, again with an Aqua-Vu, I watched a giant slash at my jigging spoon, miss, and dislodge the minnow head from the treble hook. A few seconds later, it nosed down and gobbled the morsel off the sand.
Over at least the past eight years, as I've conversed with some on the sharpest walleye sticks in the game, evidence of this behavior has mounted. Minnesota Guide Tony Roach, who ice-fished on Mille Lacs almost exclusively until the fishery's recent downturn, frequently dials into bottom-oriented presentations during the toughest bites.
"On post-frontal days," Roach says, "walleyes don't move much. Or at least, they won't react to typical spoon presentations. That's when I tie on a 1/16-ounce Northland Tackle Forage Minnow Spoon and tip it with the smallest crappie minnow in the bucket. Slip the hook through the minnow's lips, drop it to the bottom, and don't move it. Hold the bait precisely at the depth—less than an inch off bottom—where the minnow's tail sweeps sediment with each side-to-side kick. Not flat on bottom, not a foot off. You want the minnow's tail to kick up tiny puffs of silt as it struggles against the spoon. The package looks like a baitfish feeding on invertebrates on the bottom.
"It might take a walleye a minute or more of inspecting and circling before it noses down and vacuums the bait off the silt. There's a tiny cloud of sediment that can invite activity from other fish in the neighborhood. It can be tough to watch a fish pause, look, and stalk the morsel, but you have to let it set until the fish bites."
On Lake Erie, Captain Ross Robertson leans heavily on bottom presentations whenever ice cover sets in there. "Back when we fished the Bass Islands every winter, we used to catch a lot of fish with banged up heads, as though they were burrowing around rocks to get crayfish," Robertson says. "We haven't been able to fish there in years, but there's no question walleyes on Erie dig in the bottom for prey. One of the best triggers for big fish is to take a Rapala Rippin' Rap or Livetarget Golden Shiner or a big spoon and load the treble hooks with a chandelier of shiners. I do the same thing with a Reef Runner Cicada. Replace the belly hook with a #6 round-bend Gamakatsu and tip it with at least three small shiners. One trick is to take a scoop of small minnows and dump them on the ice. When they die, they turn an opaque white. Walleyes often show a huge preference for these dead minnows.
"I can't tell you how many times I've dropped my rod when a big fish comes in to inspect my deadstick, but when I pick the rod back up, there's a fish on," he says. "I realized that when I drop a rod, the lure free-falls into the silt and creates a small puff of silt. Walleyes nose down to inspect and as soon as I pick the rod up, the lure twitches and the fish crushes it."
The Bloodworm Connection
Saskatchewan-based researcher and guide Jeff Matity spoke of the fish he pursues on the Qu'Appelle River lakes—Last Mountain and Diefenbaker—which flow into the Red River of the North and eventually to Lake Winnipeg. "One thing these lakes have in common is chironomid (midge) larvae," he says. "The larger types, known as bloodworms, may be the most common fish food. Chironomids serve as dietary staples for perch, crappies, sunfish, trout, and other species. Anglers who fish 20- to 30-foot basins in winter often run across walleyes."
Minnesota Guide Brian "Bro" Brosdahl is a bloodworm believer, finding wads of digested chironomid goo in the stomachs of smaller walleyes, fall through winter. "During fronts and at other periods throughout winter, walleyes filter into soft-bottom basins to eat bloodworms," Brosdahl says. "But they also feed on perch, crappies, troutperch, and other species in the vicinity. It's an interesting bite, and one almost no one taps."
Also unique are his methods. For about a decade he's been telling me about a secret winter bait. "Ribbon leeches," he reveals. "In summer and fall, I put a bucket of medium-sized leeches in my bait fridge, conditioning them to cold water.
"People believe leeches ball up and won't swim in cold water, but if you condition them, they swim beautifully when you drop them to the bottom in 37°F to 39°F water, albeit more slowly than in warmer water."
He adds that it's not necessary to use live leeches in winter. He freezes them in zip-loc bags. On the ice, he often slices the thawed baits into 1- to 2-inch bloodworm-shaped wedges, impaling the thicker end onto a jig hook or spoon. He says the frozen and thawed leeches are super tough on a hook and many species can't get enough of them. "It's one of the best baits you can use, particularly during bloodworm bites."
Matity, another angling innovator, devised what he calls the "Mirror Rig," which imitates a cisco feeding on bloodworms. "I started doing this years ago, using a 6-inch (020 size) silver Jensen or Herring Dodger tied to 10-pound-test mono, followed by a 7-inch dropper of 6-pound-test mono with a 1/32-ounce glow jig tipped with two red maggots. I like a #10 green-glow Custom Jigs & Spins Demon, a flat, lightweight lure that planes to the side on the drop like a kite tail.
"Tim Geni, who caught a previous catch-and-release world record walleye, showed me how a baitcast reel slightly slows the drop of a dodger, allowing it to plane 15 feet away from center in 30 feet of water. If you free-fall the rig with a spinning reel, the dodger simply tumbles vertically on slack line, limiting its sideways plane. Adjusting the brake on a baitcaster to slightly slow the rate at which line exits the spool keeps the butt end of the dodger up so it planes sideways.
"The reason for all the emphasis on wide horizontal gliding is that it allows you to work the rig along bottom, dislodging chironomid larvae as you pull and sweep the dodger across the soft sediment. I've never seen anything attract schools of perch or ciscoes like this presentation. It does an incredible job of mimicking ciscoes eating chironomids, and attracts and often catches really big walleyes."
The cisco connection reminds me of a conversation I had with an Ontario-based commercial netter a few years ago. Seems a lot of the catch taken by gill-netters consists of whitefish and ciscoes, which often end up back in the water after dying in nets. The fisherman told me he believed the biggest lake trout, pike, and walleyes all key on whitefish and ciscoes, often feeding on dead carcasses floating on the surface or sinking to the bottom.
Pike eating deadbait won't surprise anyone, but the angling mainstream is just catching on to the lake trout/deadbait connection. During the years I spent fishing lakers through the ice in Rocky Mountain impoundments, the best presentation for 20- and 30-pound trout was a dead smelt or cisco fished on a quick-strike rig on bottom.
Matity notes that the world-record burbot—caught on Lake Diefenbaker by Sean Konrad—fell for dead lake herring (cisco) fished on bottom. Apparently, incidental catches of large Lake Diefenbaker rainbow trout also occur while targeting burbot with deadbait. And consider the many big walleyes taken each year by catfish anglers fishing cut baitfish.
Early in the ice season, Matity says that the cisco spawn may be just winding down, yet a lot of male ciscoes linger for several weeks, attracting big walleyes. A little later, as ciscoes vacate shallower spawning habitat for deep water, he says the walleye bite becomes increasingly focused on the bottom.
"Inspired by the Mirror Rig, I have a trick with a ReelBait Plane Jane or other flutter-style spoons like the PK Flutter Fish," he says. "This is one of Tim Geni's favorite methods for catching giant walleyes, and it works everywhere.
"The Plane Jane is designed to plane to the side on the fall. During the tougher part of the day, we drop the spoon on baitcasting tackle, which slows its descent and allows it to plane horizontally, well away from the center of the hole. Once it touches down, I start dragging it along bottom slowly, stitching it back toward the hole. The process might take 30 seconds in deeper water. But if you have patience, the presentation mimics a crayfish and gets bit by big walleyes on the substrate."
A little earlier in the ice season, when postspawn ciscoes still haunt shallower structures, Matity has caught most of his 8- to 13-pound walleyes with a method he calls bombarding. "During the last 15 minutes of the day, I rapidly fish 15 to 20 holes in 5 minutes, no more than one quick drop per hole. I use a 1/4-ounce ReelBait Flasher Jig and minnow head or cisco eyeball, a fine little nugget, down the hole and let it fall to the bottom. In a lot of areas, the bottom is sticky, so I barely pop the jig free and lift it fractions of an inch. Raise it just above the silt and hold. Let the jig's little spinner flash. Big fish usually attack at that point, frequently pinning it on bottom. I think the impact of a lure contacting bottom is a huge part of the trigger."
Matity prefers a 1/4-ounce glow-pattern Flasher Jig, fishing it on 4-pound-test Sufix Invisiline Fluorocarbon. When he ratchets up to a 3/8-ounce jig, he spools with 6-pound fluoro. Due to line twist with both the jig and flutterspoon presentations, he replaces the first 30 yards of line on his reel before each outing.
What's remarkable about the silent under-ice world—particularly on the lake floor—is how the tiniest disturbance, movement of water, or contact with the substrate can cause an explosion of debris. Walleyes see the commotion as an indicator of danger or a feeding frenzy. Typically, the silt clouds produced by a lure-to-bottom collision are met with a positive response. But you can easily overdo it. A little plume of silt coupled with the sound produced by the lure touching down often is enough to make a walleye flip a fast 180 and dig your jig out of the debris.
One of the more interesting tackle developments in this realm are tungsten walleye jigs. Previously the sole domain of small panfish lures, a few other manufacturers have started producing walleye-sized tungsten offerings. I've fished Fiskas' Wolfram XL Walleye Jig under ice and in deep river holes and believe it will become a staple for deep-jigging situations. The Akara Tungsten Jighead is a winner. It sinks fast and has a long-shank hook that works with plastics and bait. Also worth trying with bottom-touching tactics are shaky-head jigs from the bass arena, which can be fished on bottom with bait or a soft-plastic tail standing up or shaking above the substrate.
I'm not saying every walleye you encounter wants to dig its next meal off the lake floor. Drop a camera down, though. I'm guessing you may witness some walleye hijinks that convince you they don't mind a little mud with their meat.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid ice angler and a student of wintertime fish behavior.