Fifteen years ago, one of my hang-ups was trying to catch walleyes without using livebait. But a friend eventually taught me how to use crankbaits, which forever changed my confidence and thought process regarding my livebait-only policy. Right now, the same evolution is occurring on top of the ice.
Some of the best walleye anglers are perfecting systems to catch big fish and cover large expanses of water without the complement of livebait (a. k. a. "meat") on the lure. Not using livebait while ice fishing is a hang-up for many if not most ice anglers -- but it's a legit option, particularly when using specific presentations and lures.
Baits that work well without tipping seem to have one thing in common -- a horizontal profile combined with vibration on the up or down stroke. Some new soft plastics like the Storm WildEye Jigging Swim Shad and Jigging Soft Minnow fall into this category. Bladebaits like Heddon Sonars and Reef Runner Cicadas are classic lures that work well without bait. Yet in my estimation, the lure that has opened the most eyes is the Salmo Chubby Darter. In the right hands, and with the aid of a Vexilar sonar or underwater camera, this bait comes alive.
Potential applications for the Chubby Darter are much more extensive than with most lures because the bait is so versatile. Each different jigging stroke seems to make the bait do something different and good -- an angler can work a Chubby Darter in more ways than any other lure. In the end, working one of these lures is much like casting and reeling a crankbait, or even trolling one. The similarities between working an artificial with a baitfish profile during the open water season and under the ice are strikingly similar.
Aggressive fish large or small are obvious candidates, but these baits also seem to have a knack for triggering most big fish. Without the hassle of tipping, these baits are great for dropping down the hole just to see if anybody's home. Work a series of holes in fast order, and you have the iceman's version of a trolling pass.
What's really fascinating, though, is how these baits can turn a seemingly passive lurking walleye into an aggressive striking predator. The same fish that hit traditional baits fairly light just slam a Chubby Darter -- so hard, that I can feel it in my toes. Walleyes often inhale the bait so deeply that I have to use pliers to remove the bait lodged down their throats. The hits are awesome, bone chilling. In all the years I have been ice fishing, swimming lures like the Chubby Darter are the most revolutionary things I have ever seen for walleye fishing, and I predict they'll change the ice-fishing world in the way trolling tactics did in open water, creating more versatile anglers along the way.
The root of these particular lures' effectiveness seems to be their distinct flash and vibration. They're capable of drawing fish from a significant distance into the cone angle of your Vexilar. Nothing beats this type of presentation for finding fish. Any fish in the vicinity knows about your bait. They come a-runnin'.
Even if the fish choose not to bite right away, you still know you've found fish if they suddenly appear on your sonar, and that's a big step to eventually catching them. You can break down quadrants of water in a hurry -- you're not only moving from hole to hole, you're also pulling fish into your position from farther away, dramatically increasing the amount of water you're covering.
Sonar is a crucial piece of this presentation. Any sonar units work for ice fishing, although Vexilar's FL-18 or FL-8 flashers are currently the most popular and best for telegraphing the mood of the fish. When a fish moves, the signal elicits a telltale flutter. Knowing when the fish moves, stops, or fans its pectoral fins to tilt and examine your bait is crucial to providing the mental picture needed to play this game. The only other alternative is an underwater camera, but the lowlight conditions typical of walleye fishing, or a cord potentially getting in the way of a nice fish, often limits the use of a camera. Looking down the hole to see how your lure acts and moves is also recommended for any angler using these lures for the first time.
In my experience, you have to move the Chubby Darter to catch fish with it, most of the time. That's not to say traditional pauses and stops (which work so well with other swimbaits) don't work, as most of the fish still seem to hit at the bottom of the jigging stroke. The lure shoots forward when snapped up and wobbles on the drop. A short, hard snap actually makes this bait shoot in an "S," up and away. This particular move seems to produce optimum flash off the lure.
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Many anglers who've learned to catch fish on baits like Jigging Raps and Nils Master Jigging Shads keep the line semi-tight on the drop. This doesn't appear to be as important with the Chubby Darter, because the fish seem to key on the entire bait more. So, make sure you give the lure enough slack on the drop to make it wobble, and attaching it with a snap is necessary for optimal performance.
I like a somewhat stiffer, no-stretch line (FireLine) for two major reasons. It telegraphs bites well but, most importantly, the lure doesn't twist on the line. Since the lure is moving and not standing still, the dreaded spin isn't as much of an issue. Twisted line, however, makes the lure dart in different directions after each stroke. This can cost you fish, because the game is over if the lure suddenly shoots towards the fish and spooks it.
Attracting fish in the first place isn't too complicated. Drop an ice skimmer down the hole and the flash might bring in a fish. The real art to using these baits comes at the moment of truth, the final few feet.
To get a better understanding of what's happening, imagine the fish are wearing blinders. Fish seem to have blind spots around them. You don't want the lure to shoot below or behind the fish, for example, where the fish can't see -- and there's also an apparent blind spot right in front of the fish's nose.
Now, imagine that a walleye comes in on a lure hard, and that you jig the lure and it sails past the fish's gill plate. This is normally game over. The only productive move you have is to snap and pull the lure above and in front of the fish. When in doubt, pull up and away, hoping the lure falls back into the fish's line of sight. This is why line-twist will cost you fish, and why you want to keep the direction the lure is going on the upstroke somewhat predictable. You don't want the lure to careen in the opposite direction on the next snap.
Some fish come in so fast and hard that the hit surprises you, even if you're using electronics. These walleyes are also some of the toughest to catch if they miss on the initial strike. When a fish misses and is right on top of you, trying to get the lure back in front of it isn't an easy task. We prefer to keep the lure somewhat higher than the fish, so the fish is forced to rise up to it. This gives you an earlier warning of the stalk that's taking place on your lure: You see the fish approaching on your electronics.
Also, when fish clear the bottom to gun down your lure, they often pause slightly. Now is the time to start pounding or bobbing your lure. This keeps the lure in a tight, easy-to-find position, while still offering the wobble and flash to entice an aggressive strike.
Once you start to catch fish with this presentation, many old ideas about fishing for winter walleyes get thrown right out the window. If you've never caught fish this way, you won't believe how hard walleyes pound these baits. The game of deception and the way these fish get fooled into smacking these lures makes this style of fishing very enjoyable. I'd rather catch a walleye on a Chubby Darter than on anything else.
Best of all, the fish that hit these baits are usually bigger. In fact, a high percentage of the larger walleyes -- over 7 pounds -- that were caught in Devils Lake last winter were caught on a Chubby. This pattern enables you to cover more water, pull more fish to you, and catch larger walleyes. So, say goodbye to the strictly vertical affair of ice fishing. Put a little Darter in your game for horizontal triggering, as well.
*Jason Mitchell, firstname.lastname@example.org, is a multispecies fishing guide based in Devils Lake, North Dakota.