Ice Fishing For Walleye
November 14, 2010
Not much has changed on ice for walleyes since the best anglers got this newfangled ice religion in the 1980s — adapting sonar to their fishing, along with graphite ice-rods, and a comparatively aggressive and refined approach to finding and catching fish. Today, the most serious discussions in tackle shops and on the seminar trail concern subtleties in the process. So we asked one of the principal veterans of the ice scene to get nitpicky about lure choices for walleyes.
There's passion in the relationship between an angler and those few lures that stand the test of time, fishing alongside the angler through thick ice and thin over many seasons, and producing many fish. One such a #7 Jigging Rapala, has been with me doing ice duty since 1976. I've replaced the hang-down treble hook at least half a dozen times over the years. The present plastic tail's of hand-me-down vintage, too, borrowed from some lesser bait that just didn't swim the part so well as the bait I call Old Satchmo.
Then somewhere along the line, Old Satch lost his nose hook, I don't remember how, whether by wall-eyed fish or by unfortunate carelessness. Because this hook is such a vital part of this lure design — so many big walleyes eat the bait as it swings headfirst back toward a curious fish and comes to a halt — I've mostly let the lure sit in the box these past few seasons. Better that Old Satch just rest there, an inspiration to the rest of the crowd.
Old Satch is part of any discussion about icing walleyes because, in the hands of a seasoned angler, swimming lures like Old Satch still often are the hottest thing happening on waters where most anglers go after walleyes. I know beginning anglers have difficulty getting started catching fish with swimming baits. Working them so walleyes respond is a little difficult.
I also grant that most of the catches of note in most baitshops will be on spoons. That's because most anglers fish with spoons. I grant too that spoons serve vital duty in darker bodies of water, after dark, in deep water, and when rip jigging is required. But during winter, even darker waters usually clear enough to make swimming baits a key option.
Yet even after all these years, even though pockets of popularity exist, swimming lures still generally haven't garnered their proper status among walleye anglers across North America.
I mourn the passing some dozen years ago of the original swimming design, the original Jigging Rapala. Old Satch and his crowd were a quaint-looking affair by comparison to the sleek, more-realistic design of today. It's not that the old design fished better or that the present version fishes worse. Each just fishes differently.
Profile is a vital part of swimming designs. These lures hang horizontal at rest and are meant to look like something. The sleeker profile of the modern Jigging Rapala just fishes much smaller than the original design. Note again that realistic-looking baits like swimming jigs fish best in clear water. But the best walleye fishing in clear water usually occurs during twilight periods, after dark, or in deeper waters.
This is why a slightly bulkier profile, a sort of compromise profile like the old design, fishes so well during those prime times. The old design was a more visible design that still fished as a swimming lure is meant to fish, that is, by swinging up and then off to the side before swimming back into place. This attractive agitated semi-wounded movement attracts fish visually as well as via the walleye's sensitive lateral line.
Then, when the old design came to a halt below the hole, it was shaped just enough like a sausage so when you jiggled your rod tip, the bait had enough body to roll left-right left-right on its axis, creating the same sort of flash that makes crankbaits attractive to walleyes in open water. The new sleek bait doesn't rock and roll so well, so we depend on a minnow head tipping the treble hook to provide action on a jiggle. The new design's just not the same and must be fished differently than the old design.
The Jigging Rap As A Finesse Bait — Today's Normark Jigging Rapala is deadly as a finesse bait once the sun's up. I use it for an hour after sunrise and for an hour or more before sunset. The #7 bait, an option that might seem a size on the small side, fishes best, first, because its profile represents a small perch, small smelt, spottail shiner, or similar baitfish. Secondly, the #7 is just small enough to be worked aggressively (in darterlike fashion) to attract walleyes that by these times of the day usually either have finished feeding and are moving away from high-percentage foraging areas like the edges of reefs, or are just becoming interested in feeding and are moving into high-percentage feeding areas.
Fishing deeper than 40 feet is rarely necessary for several weeks after first-ice, so there's little need for the heavier and slightly larger #9. I haven't seen an instance where the #12 is necessary, although I can envision using it in heavy current under ice in rivers. The profiles on #9 and particularly #12 baits just get too long and thin for my sensibilities, given the body profile of most baitfish in North America. Perhaps these baits would be an option during twilight on waters where larger smelt are a key forage fish.
But back to the #7 Rap, which should be tipped with a minnow head, on the rear tine of the treble hook, so the bait darts smoothly up and to the side and then scoots back to rest in the spot where it began. I pinch off the head of the minnow (usually a fathead or small shiner), as opposed to cutting it off, because I like a ragged lower edge — something with a little flap on it. Total length of the head is about 3/8 to 1/2 inch. Get a firm hook job through the hard part of the snoot just behind the lips, so the bait can be worked aggressively without losing the head.
A perch eye also works as a tipping agent, but, I'm convinced, not so effectively as the minnow head to catch smaller fish along with the 3- to 10-pounders. I fish for the challenge of catching bigger fish, but I also want to eat some walleyes. After an evening on the water, I want two strips of bacon in the pan, a little butter, and walleye fillets dusted and perfectly sauteed. Maybe a big fat fried egg or two. Hash browns. Fresh bread. A glass of wine. Simple, yes, but one of life's great pleasures.
So I care about those 14- to 18-inchers that make such fine fillets, those walleyes that often focus on the fish head and disregard the main body of the bait. You'll catch more small fish on a fish head. Larger fish usually eat the entire bait. Indeed, another advantage to the #7 is that even 2- and 3-pounders often engulf the entire bait. One of the drawbacks of the swimming lure style, however, is that either the nose hook or the rear hook sometimes snag in the ice hole when you're landing the fish. Not so when fish eat the whole bait.
The Nils Master Jigger — I bring the old-style Jigging Rapala to this discussion, not to frustrate anyone into searching dusty shelves in old tackle shops for those old baits, but to illustrate how important the Nils Master Jigger has become in the inner circles of the ice scene. All the old hot shots who once relied on the old JiggingRaps for fishing in clear water during prime twilight periods, have switched to #2 or #3 Jiggers. The Jigger, with it's bulkier design, fishes almost exactly like the old Jigging Rap. Its profile is more visible in dim light — a roly-poly design that rolls left-right left-right and flashes when you jiggle your rod tip on the hold.
Some of the newer Jiggers fresh from Finland sport long treble hooks popular in Europe for perch. Replace those hooks with a shorter treble. Might as well be a good one, because unless you're a real fumblebuns, you won't be losing many baits. I replace standard round trebles on swimming baits with fine designs like the Mustad Triple Grip. Both the #2 and #3 Jigger (and the #7 Jigging Rap) couple well with a #8 hook, the 36243BR. Other fine treble hooks include the Eagle Claw Kahle Treble and the VMC Barbarian Outbarb.
Tip the treble hook on the Jigger with a fish head. When walleyes are really cracking during a prime twilight period, however, this additional scent and visual attraction's rarely necessary, even for fish in the 14- to 18-inch class. When the fish are cranked, just lift the rod tip sharply 11â„2 feet, let the bait return and stop, give a jiggle-jiggle, pause ever so slightly, and lift again.
A 20-second or longer pause is only necessary after every five or six lift-stops. Return therod tip to exactly the same place, however, for active fish quickly anticipate where the bait will be when it stops. You don't want them to miss when they hit. Such a specific discussion of how to proceed on the presentation side of things, however, is dependent on how fish are reacting below via readings on a sonar screen.
A final observation about swimming lures, most of which are natural performers right out of the box. A few of them, though, are just bummers. Some of the bad boys can be doctored to work, while others should be set aside only for spare parts.
The simplest performance test is to drop the bait about a foot under thin ice. Have about three feet of line hanging from your rod tip to the lure. (Connect the lure to your line with a #10 Berkley Cross-Lok snap.) Let the bait settle by dropping your rod tip a foot, so the bait's about two feet below the ice. Lift the rod tip a foot or so and immediately return it to its starting position. A good jig lifts almost straight up, scoots pretty much straight forward and perhaps slightly to the side, thumps down off to the side, turns and swings just a little left or right, then glides back headfirst under the hole — where it gently turns back with the head pointing in the direction from which it began.
The worst performers fall into one of two categories. Some just don't swim, but flop straight up-down on a lift. Others shoot too much left or right on the lift — major line twist. Forget trying to fix nonswimmers. The twirly ones, though, often can be adjusted by bending the line-tie attachment left or right. If that doesn't work, heat the plastic tail with a match and shift it ever so gently in the direction the bait's swimming.
Quick fixes — Even for finessing a swimming bait, use the heaviest line you can get away with, no lighter than 8-pound test and more likely 10 or 12. Heavy baits like the #9 Rap or the #3 Jigger require a minimum of 10-pound line of average diameter, say Stren, Berkley XT, or Ande Premium.
I've used superlines — SpiderWire Braid and Berkley FireLine — the last three seasons, lines testing in the 14- to 20-pound category with line diameters in the 8- to 12-pound range. Works fine. To provide increased sensitivity in deep water, I add a 2-foot mono leader to the end of the superline, coupling the lines with back-to-back Uni knots. Double the thinnest superlines with a spider hitch before making the coupling.
I keep lure color simple, carrying mostly minnow-pattern baits in black-back and silver, black-back and gold, and perch. It isn't unusual to find waters where shades of blue on white and chartreuse on gold or silver also produce lots of fish. Pink, red, and orange are hot on Bay of Quinte. Any color with chartreuse is hot on most western reservoirs. But you can go anywhere and fish successfully with one of the two minnow patterns I mentioned. Different years, same body of water, one pattern will be better than the other. Go figure.
I use premium spinning reels and custom-made graphite rods from Thorne Brothers. Makes fishing more fun and more efficient. One outing last year, though, one of my reels slipped off my sled into slush on the walk out. The reel froze so I peeled line off and handlined a Jigging Rap. Iced 12 walleyes in two hours, including one about 9. My best evening of the season of '97. It just figures.
Continued - click on page link below.
You could do much worse than tie on a traditional jigging spoon like the Acme Kastmaster, Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow, or Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple tipped with a minnow head and fish it the entire ice season without switching. These and other spoons are that good in many situations.
As I've said, though, spoons tend to be a better choice in dingy water. And they often fish as well or better than swimming lures in clearer water after dark, or in deep water. They also can be good during twilight periods on clear bodies of water, but, I contend, generally not so deadly as a swimming lure in the hands of a seasonedangler. Spoons also are the best option on waters where rip jigging is a presentation factor, whether or not those waters are clear or dingy.
The problem remains, which specific spoon when and where. This is a difficult call, and perhaps finally remains a matter of personal preference. It pays, though, in making your choice, to recognize spoons for the illusionary device they are. Spoons serve as a ghost of something a walleye eats. On the lift-fall the illusion is one of vibrations a walleye feels with its lateral line. Feeling and sound often are the first alert that something interesting is nearby. Then, as the walleye closes in, the lift-fall produces a darting (fleeing) image complete with frightful flashes.
Finally, with a measure of precision, the bait settles back from whence it came, hanging vertically as opposed to the horizontal posture of a swimming lure. It's at this point that the lure, which should be tipped with a minnow head, seems to look like nothing a walleye eats. This is why the illusion works best in dingy water and after dark, or during a rip-jigging retrieve where a walleye has little chance to scrutinize the offering. Closing the distance to within feet, the fish is, however, already predisposed to this thing's being something edible. It feels wounded and it flashes (looks) wounded. The aura of deception continues as the walleye approaches within inches, with the bait smelling wounded.
Through the darkness and haze I think walleyes in darker water probably rarely see exactly what they eat. A spoon is, I suppose, a little like the cow elk decoy we use for bow hunting in the mountains. The decoy doesn't have a head, only a body, but elk don't seem to care. To them it's a cow elk looking away. Or a cow elk withits head behind a tree. The illusion works so long as our cow calls predispose a bull to believe a cow's present before he sees the decoy.
It's at the close-approach point that slight movement's important. This again is why I pinch off a minnow head and leave a flap of skin hanging. It's impossible for a bait like this to hang perfectly still. The slightest current moves the flaps on the minnow head. To the walleye peering through the haze, the lower portion of the bait apparently looks like a finning baitfish.
Attempts to waggle the fish head once the lure settles into place after the lift-fall should be confined to gentle nods instead of the aggressive jiggles often used with a swimming lure. Vigorous jiggling of a swimming bait moves the fish head tipping the treble hook vigorously back and forth. It looks like a finning baitfishabout to flee. That's too much jiggling for spoons. The attempt here, again, is to represent a baitfish finning unaware of the walleye peering through the haze. With a spoon, just gently nod the bait so the head flaps lazily back and forth.
But all most anglers really want to know is which spoon is the secret among secrets for icing walleyes on their lake. This is what most magazines offer, an article about one kind of spoon, the answer among answers. You could do worse than tie on one spoon for the rest of the season, but you can always do better. First, by also incorporating swimming lures within your repertoire. And secondly, by employing several quite different styles of spoons, depending on the situation.
I can't, however, tell you exactly when you should be using which spoon on which body of water during certain winter periods, based on available forage, water clarity, and other factors. After many years, though, I can offer a few guidelines.
Stock a few spoons from each of three basic categories. Bent spoons include lures like the Bay de Noc Do-Jigger and Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow. Straight spoons are traditional baits like the Acme Kastmaster and Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple. Super-action spoons are those like the Reef Runner Slender Spoon and Blue Fox Tingler.
Straight spoons are a time-tested choice in any situation where spoons are an option. They offer modest flash and vibration, fish precisely up and down, rarely tangle, and are easy to waggle on thehold. They're my first choice in deep water, where the illusion works so well, and my last choice in shallow water where walleyes can scrutinize the offering.
Bent spoons, meanwhile, serve along with swimming lures and super-action spoons asa top choice in shallow water after dark. Lots of vibration. Modest flash. Yet they fish precisely and without tangling. Given the intense vibration they give off when jigged aggressively, they also are a top choice when rip jigging is an option. And although I prefer swimming jigs in clearer water during twilight periods, bent spoons also are an option during these times, on any body of water, clear or murky.
If you use a spoon in shallow water during twilight, however, try one of the super-action spoons. These thin, distinctly bent spoons offer intense vibration and flash. As they fall, they also flip and dart as far off to the side as a swimming lure. Action spoons probably also are the best rip jiggers, although I'd like another year or two of comparison before making a final judgment in that regard.
Quick fixes — All the spoon styles usually are fished with a sharp rod-tip lift of about 11â„2feet, followed by an immediate return of the rod tip to its original position several inches above the ice hole, and then a pause of up to about 30 seconds. During the pause, add a series of modest jiggles to the bait.
Rip jigging is a much more aggressive fishing style. Choose a lure with a heavy vibration pattern, then lift super sharply two or three times, waiting only for the lure to thump back down on the end of the line before ripping again. Then comes the triggering pause — a second or ten — before ripping again. Occasionally, super-aggressive fish hit on the slight thump-down between rips.
The same rods, reels, and line that couple well with swimming lures work with spoons.The best tipping agent remains a baitfish head. Baits the size of the #4, #5, and #6 Swedish Pimple, weighing from about 1/3 to 3/4 ounce, are standard. Better to error on the large side rather than on the small side. Couple spoons to the main line with a knot tied to an O ring, or with a snap that slips through the hole in the end of the spoon. Replace the standard round treble hook on most spoons with a high-grade treble.
Spoon color or finish? I keep it simple, once again relying on basic silver and gold finishes, with perhaps a gold or silver prism strip. Rainbow prism and chartreuse prism are two good additions to basic silver or gold finishes.
The wonders of the capsular world held in suspension below the ice is brought vividly to view by way of well-rigged sonar. Portable Liquid Crystal Display (LCD) units right off the shelf work fine for reading depth and for locating structural elements that hold walleyes. Once you're set up right, fish can also be seen below.
But such rigging isn't portable enough for fishing in the mobile manner that results in the maximum number of opportunities on ice. It's necessary to be able to move, cut a hole, and sit down and fish — no time factored in for another 30 seconds of sonar rerigging at each hole. In that regard, Vexilar's Ice Ducer, a self-centering transducer introduced several seasons ago is one of the best aids to ice-fishing. The ability to accurately read your bait relative to fish is dependent on a relatively level transducer.
Well-rigged sonar not only makes this game we play more efficient, but also more fun. Instead of just sitting there wondering, you can see fish come in and see how they react to what you're doing. I contemplate all the early years I spent without sonar, fishing a lure up and down, up and down within a foot of the bottom — knowing now how many walleyes I missed.
At least half the walleyes I catch each year are caught because of something I've added to a presentation after seeing how a fish reacts. A fish comes in. I lift-fall again. No response? I waggle the bait and the fish moves closer. Another waggle — boom.
Another fish comes in. I lift-fall again and again and play the waggle game without a response. A deadly tactic at that point is to lift the bait a foot above the fish. Waggle waggle. Waggle waggle. Maybe another lift-fall. Boom.
Or I'm fishing the edge of a bar in 25 feet of water. Particularly on waters with suspended forage fish like ciscoes, lots of walleyes wander in high — as much a 10 feet off bottom. I've caught hundreds of these fish the last ten years — all fish I wouldn't have known were even there years ago.
Bait, too. It's important to see bait. In most of the natural lakes I fish, I want perch on the screen when I begin fishing an hour before sunset. Then I want to see ciscoes coming through as twilight sets in. When I'm on bait on a good hole, I'm usually on walleyes.
The two classic sonars for work on ice remain the Vexilar FL-8 (deep-water scale) and the Zercom Classic (or newer Zercom LCF-40). We covered ice sonar in a December-January article last year. In that issue we also covered deadsticking with livebait in conjunction with the lure presentations covered here, to complete the most comprehensive system ever devised for catching walleyes on ice. If you missed those topics, give us a call (218/829-1648) to order an old issue.
Good fishing to you from a friend. Ice Fishing For Walleye