November 27, 2017
You don't get many opportunities to sight-fish for walleyes in shallow water. So when you find yourself looking down at wide-bodied 5- to 8-pounders paddling across a boulder field, the wild fishing action that often follows leaves a lasting impression.
The inspiration to jig through a door-sized hole in the ice was probably originally borrowed from old-timers using decoys to drop spears on pike. For me, the idea came from a retired fishing guide on Minnesota's Mille Lacs, who planted the seed about two decades ago. I recall listening to him describe how he'd set up a small, dark sight-shelter over obscure shallow rock spines and call 10-pound fish with big flutterspoons like a 1-ounce Dardevle. He told me that after a few weeks, he'd look down and realize that shifting ice had repositioned his shelter dozens of feet off the spot, a demonstration of the powerful dynamics of a large frozen lake.
But what I mostly recall from two seasons of sawing refrigerator-sized holes and sitting patiently was the up-close, one-on-one interaction with walleyes. I got rare glimpses of these fish, reminiscent of a trophy whitetail materializing from the woods beneath your tree stand.
The slightest thump, flutter, or flash of a spoon could incite a predatory response. Walleyes transformed from quiet creatures to violent killers in an instant. I could see that walleyes don't have to see a lure to detect it; their lateral line might function a little like that twinge in the back of your neck just before someone sneaks up behind you.
Call Bait Roll Call
The trend these past 10 years or so has been to tie on a so-called ice crankbait for the shallow bite. Lures like the Livetarget Golden Shiner and Salmo Chubby Darter offer undeniable call power and big-fish appeal. But it's compelling to note that on Lake Winnipeg — perhaps the archetypal shallow, big-walleye bite in the North — anglers have struggled in recent seasons to catch fish with ice cranks. Many of the best anglers have adjusted, turning to 3- to 5-inch flutterspoons.
As much as I love a Chubby Darter, I have no doubt that walleyes wise up to them sooner than they turn their snouts away from spoons. Cranks remain powerful call baits, but what eventually happens later in the season and on pressured water is you use the crank to attract fish, then seal the deal with a deadstick and live minnow.
Or you can swap a crankbait for a 1/2- to 1-ounce Do-Jigger, PK Flutter Fish, or Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoon — three of the finest flutterspoons in the game — and keep on catching. I'm not sure anglers make enough of a distinction between light, wide-body flutterspoons like the Slender Spoon and a heavy slab spoon like Northland's Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon. Other than that they're both spoons, they function in completely different ways.
A classic flutterspoon like the HT Enterprises/Jig-A-Whopper Hawger Spoon descends with a mesmerizing side-to-side roll. It flashes and vibrates beautifully on the up-sweep. In essence, a flutterspoon's thin metal construction produces more thump than a thicker, perhaps lead-constructed, slab-shaped spoon.
One of the hottest streaks for an ice lure I've ever seen occurred on Lake of the Woods and a few other Canadian waters about 15 years ago. A JB Lures' 1/16-ounce Angel Eye, certainly on the small side of the flutter-spoon spectrum, has a unique action, flash, vibration, and profile that outfished every other spoon for a two-year period.
This season, a lot of anglers are excited about Clam Outdoors' Peg Flutter Spoon, aptly named for its proficiency at calling Winnipeg's wandering walleyes. Made from a lightweight, thinly stamped zinc-alloy, the Peg Spoon has an ample profile with plenty of metallic surface to maximize flash, which might be the most critical element of a flutterspoon.
Jason Mitchell, host of Jason Mitchell Outdoors television and veteran Devils Lake, North Dakota, guide, has become a fan of the Peg Flutter Spoon and Clam's Super Leech Flutter Spoon for shallow clear waters. A flutterspoon can be a potent trick whenever you find negative walleyes that ignore traditional, fast-slashing spoons. Flutter a slow-wavering spoon 10 or more feet above them and fish often nose right in and engulf it. "Flash is huge in the flutterspoon equation," Mitchell says. "It's why a lot of the best lures in the category have a large surface area for their weight. Gold and chrome reflections flash like a disco ball. Fish see it from a long way off."
Mitchell adds that the Leech Flutter Spoon, like other fine lures, turns on its side on the fall and maintains its natural horizontal posture on the way down. To accentuate flip and wobbling action, several flutterspoons feature a bent tail section. "The Leech Flutter Spoon reminds me of the classic Mepps Syclops, only with a less accentuated tail bend," Mitchell says. "The spoon's thinness and extra surface area increase water resistance, greatly slowing its drop speed and dialing up the thump factor and its powers of attraction.
"I love light flutterspoons like these in clear, shallow water and in clear deep water with little current. (Current sweeps flutterspoons rapidly out of the sonar cone.) One of my favorite patterns on Leech Lake (Minnesota) is to target 8-foot sandflats with tufts of chara," Mitchell says. "Walleyes cruise across these zones in small groups. They're active and can see a good distance. I work the spoon high in the water column, above the fish. It shimmers on the upstroke, wobbles on the drop, and shines all along. Often a walleye comes in so hot you don't even see the fish on electronics. Your rod thumps, the screen goes bonkers, and you've got a fish on."
The two main flutterspoon difference-makers according to Mitchell are the power of flash and the natural, horizontal posture of a slow-fluttering spoon. We talk a lot about vibration and its importance in alerting walleyes to the presence of our lures. And there's little doubt vibration can be an important factor at times. The trouble is, we can't easily perceive it. So we have a difficult time proving or disproving its efficacy in the attract-trigger equation.
Flash is visual. We can relate to it. Two anglers can use nearly identical lures, but the one with a slightly different color — metallic, fluorescent, UV, or glow — might induce twice as many bites. Flash is a function of color. It's the subtle or not-so-subtle sparkle emanating from a lure's flanks. Flash is enhanced by clear water, light and expanded surface area. Metallics such as chrome and gold sparkle brightly, perhaps made more so by a stamped or fluted spoon surface.
But sometimes the best flash is a faint, nearly imperceptible reflection. Under water, the subtlest suggestion of baitfish scales often proves more powerful than a strobe-like beam of light. It's about offering a suggestion of life or as In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has called it, a slice of life. Think about the alternating dark-to-light roll of a black back/silver belly Rapala Minnow; why a flutterspoon painted with a darker color on one side and solid metallic on the other shows fish such a persuasive package, suggestive of a baitfish contorting its body in and out of the light.
My favorite Do-Jigger is blue-silver on one side and solid silver on the other. The spoon looks beautiful in clear water, just like a dying shiner or cisco, and walleyes have been eating it for decades. A stamped purple-chrome or silver-chrome PK Flutter Fish is another exceptional big-fish bait. And in stained water, an orange crayfish Slender Spoon with solid gold on the opposite side — they call it "Tigger" — remains a consistent winner in stained water. Mitchell, meanwhile, has become a big fan of UV finishes, professing its appeal to walleyes in many situations.
Hooks and Horizontal
As further enhancement, an increasing number of spoons these days have a tiny flicker blade on the lower or upper split ring, which adds a secondary element of flash and a bit of vibration. The Do-Jigger has benefited from a tiny red flicker tab, providing faint suggestion of something alive. Clam's Super Leech Flutterspoon, like several other spoons, sports a tiny secondary Colorado blade on the lower split ring. What I particularly like about the mini blade is it focuses attention on the treble hook, even if a tipped minnow head falls off the hook. "With less aggressive fish, the hook itself often becomes a trigger," Mitchell says. "That's why I like the mini blade on the Super Leech Flutter Spoon or the feathered treble on the Leech Flutter Spoon. It can be enough to encourage a strike, without throwing off spoon action."
Noting his preference for tipping flutterspoons with only a small minnow head, Mitchell highlights the importance of showing fish a natural, horizontal posture. "Too much meat can throw off spoon action, negating many of the lure's most positive cues."
Pat O'Grady, owner of PK Lures and expert at working the Flutter Fish in western reservoirs and big Saskatchewan and Manitoba waters, presents his favorite spoon meat-free at all times. His reasoning mirrors Mitchell's, noting that a minnow head tends to displace weight on a spoon. An oversized minnow head shifts weight toward the hook, altering spoon action and creating a vertical posture on the fall.
If you're fishing aggressively or with a traditional heavy spoon, this can be a plus. But to maximize flutter and flash, you want the spoon to descend like a leaf on the wind — pivoting, rolling, and wobbling as it falls in a horizontal posture.
Vibration Versus Vision
Even though we can't quantify the frequency or intensity that works best, we know fish can perceive vibration. Some of us have seen a walleye's reaction on camera. I can't tell you how many times I've watched as a walleye facing away from my spoon — with no visual awareness — immediately turned toward the lure as I gave it a shake or pop. The water displacement or vibration of these spoon strokes seems to act as a powerful attractor, even though the fish typically bite as the lure reaches the end of its downward spiral or comes to a stop.
Mitchell leans on vibration, too, but notes that anglers often fail to connect because they allow the spoon to remain outside a fish's visual zone of awareness for too long. He believes walleyes have blindspots. "I see it all the time on sonar," he says. "A fish slides in and makes a nice red mark on the screen, but then turns away and makes a weaker green signal. Here's where I like to give a hard lift to create thump, stopping the spoon slightly above the fish. You don't want to land the spoon behind it or right in front of its nose — both potential blind spots. Don't get too erratic with fancy moves. Sometimes, just a slight twitch is enough to get fish to eat."
Offering a slightly different approach, O'Grady relies on the vibration and flash produced by a sizable spoon to get big bites on Wyoming reservoirs and Lake Winnipeg. "Even though we sell way more small spoons than large ones," he says, "I almost never tie on a Flutter Fish smaller than 3/4-ounce.
"Nothing sends out more positive vibes than this big flashy spoon. Big fish eat it consistently. You wouldn't believe how many hours I've laid face-down over an ice hole, watching what spoons look like with different retrieves — and how walleyes react. "This has led me to a new presentation — ripping the spoon aggressively with a fast, wide sweep of the rod. You can't pull this off with two-foot rods many folks fish. But with a 48-inch rod, I can stand up, jig comfortably, set hooks, and handle any big fish that bites."
O'Grady's ripping maneuver is one of nearly constant movement. "I often rip the rod 20 inches, which can thrust the spoon three or four feet up in the water column," he says. "This is where vibration comes into play. "As soon as I feel the spoon hit the end of my line, I rip it again. Under water, this resembles a small school of baitfish. When walleyes are roaming over 15 to 35 feet of water, I amp up the attraction, ripping the rod from waist high to up over my head. With a 48-inch rod, this move can propel a spoon as much as 7 or 8 feet.
"The only time I stop or pause between rips is in murky water, where you need to give fish time to track the lure before they bite it. In clear water, I don't like to give fish time to inspect. Baitfish don't sit there when a predator approaches.
"Folks often think my 3/4- or 1-ounce spoon is too big, but they'd be blown away by the number of fish I've caught — big ones and smaller eaters — by getting super aggressive with a 4-inch Flutter Fish. The water displacement, flash, and attracting power of this presentation is off the charts."
From there, making it happen distills down to details. O'Grady's spot-on with his ideas on long 48-inch rods for power-fishing on open ice outside a shelter. But so is Mitchell, who often fishes inside a portable shelter, wielding a 28-inch Jason Mitchell Meat Stick by necessity. He rigs a small snap for fast lure changes, and prefers 8- to 10-pound braid. "I can pinch braid with my gloves and slide ice chunks off the line. Mono or fluorocarbon doesn't shed ice this way, it just moves ice up and down the line." Mitchell ties a barrel swivel to the end of the braid, tying in a 2-foot leader of 8- or 10-pound-test fluorocarbon to guard against pesky pike and ice abrasion.
O'Grady says the shock-absorbing qualities of 10-pound mono make it his line of choice. Monofilament's thicker diameter adds water resistance and buoyancy, which O'Grady also counts as advantages. "Mono slows a spoon's rate of fall, enhancing its attracting powers," he claims. Even top anglers often don't agree on anything — except our love of the sport — I've become a fan of fluorocarbon mainline for nearly all ice-fishing presentations. That all three of us catch fish with flutterspoons only proves their powers of walleye persuasion.
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Cory Schmidt, Brainerd, Minnesota, is a die-hard ice angler, targeting walleyes wherever they roam.