Today's best ice anglers focus primarily on jigging, because it's the most efficient way to fish and the most consistent way to catch numbers of walleyes, including larger fish.
Ice Fishing Walleye Lures
Lure choices are made, based on factors such as size, profile, color, flash, and vibration. Once these choices are made, they're fine-tuned during each day of fishing, as well as over the season, and finally, over many seasons. Along the way, we learn how to work lures properly to trigger strikes.
We asked three fine anglers, In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange; guide Kery Konald of Mobridge South Dakota; and professional fisherman Dale Stroschein of Sturgeon Bay about their preferred presentations. These three anglers are keenly aware of available lure categories—flash lures, swimming lures, and jigs—and keep a selection from each category on hand. Often, though, based on their experiences, they begin to rely heavily on one category versus another.
For the past 35 years, Doug Stange has been searching for better ways to catch walleyes through the ice. He has helped anglers understand seasonal periods that transpire during the ice season and how walleye behavior often changes relative to those periods. He also has been primary in addressing how to read walleye behavior via the use of sonar. And he has written extensively about lure categories and how to use them. It's no secret, though, that Stange uses swimming lures whenever he can. More than any other angler, he has helped popularize this style of bait.
The Jigging Rapala; Nils Master Jigger, Nils Master Jigging Shad, and Baby Jigging Shad; and the Bad Dog Humpback imitate the profile and swimming action of baitfish. Used with a proper combination of lifts, drops, jiggles, and wiggles, swimming lures come to life below the ice.
"Looking back over the past fifteen years, swimming lures have been slow to catch on, until the last five seasons or so," Stange explains. "Now, almost every walleye angler has some in his tackle box. How often they're used is another story. All I can keep saying is that in the right hands, they're the best bait style most of the time, even in waters often characterized as 'spoon only' or 'livebait only'.
"The problem with swimming lures is that they require a feel for what needs to be done to make them come to life. I'm not saying that spoons don't take skill to fish effectively. But it's much easier to drop a spoon down, reel it up a bit, dance it around, and catch an occasional walleye, especially in water brimming with fish. Swimming lures, on the other hand, take practice. But the effort's worthwhile when you get it right."
While anglers are still debating exactly what spoons imitate, there's little question that swimming lures are designed to represent real baitfish. "The basic jigging motion is the same as with flash lures—lift-fall-hold, lift-fall-hold," according to Stange. "Then it's the addition of jiggles within the cadence, along with changes in the cadence, and changes in depth relative to the depth the walleye comes in at, that counts.
"The key to fishing with swimming baits is sonar," Stange explains. "First you learn to work the lure in water shallow enough to see how the lure responds to certain jigging maneuvers. Then, while watching sonar, note how fish respond to the way you're working the lure. Effective use of the bait requires reading fish reaction and making appropriate decisions about what to do with the swimming lure to trigger strikes. It's a video arcade on ice.
"One of the most interesting things I've seen over the years is how much walleyes like to move up to feed," Stange says. "Forage like perch hunker on the bottom beginning at twilight because they don't see well after dark. That's when walleyes move up on a bar in loose schools and move slowly along like a bunch of pheasant hunters walking a stubble field, looking to flush pheasants. Only the walleyes are flushing perch that scoot up off the bottom and hold in a disoriented state for a moment. Walleyes often snap the perch before they hunker back down on the bottom.
"Anglers generally spend too much time fishing right near bottom. Most of the bigger fish I catch are a foot to five feet above the bottom. But having fish come through much higher isn't unusual, especially in lakes with suspended baitfish like ciscoes. Suspended fish won't come in to a bait jigged on the bottom. Many anglers haven't spent enough time jigging up off the bottom to realize how many fish they're missing."
Stange is high on using the newly introduced Nils Master Jigging Shad while many anglers hesitate to use something that appears too big or too heavy. But the Jigging Shad measures only 21â'„2 inches—the same length as the medium minnows most anglers suspend below floats, or use on tip-ups, or on jigs.
"The introduction of the Jigging Shad is important because now we have two distinct profiles for swimming baits. I mean, these baits need to look like something real. Baits like the #7 Jigging Rapala and the #2 and #3 Nils Master Jigger represent thinner minnow-shaped or smelt-shaped forage. The Jigging Shad represents a wider-profile bait like shad; ciscoes; alewives; and panfish like perch, bluegills, and crappies—the predominant baitfish in most bodies of water."
Stange also advocates altering swimming lures by adding premium treble hooks. While most companies make hooks that will improve performance, one of Stange's favorites is the Mustad Triple Grip (#36243BR, #8). The Eagle Claw Lazer Sharp(#754, #8) is another good option. Although Stange usually doesn't sweeten his swimming lures with a minnow head, many anglers still prefer to hang a head on the treble hook to add scent and taste.
Flash Lures & Blades
Walleyes are a curious fish that responds to flash and vibration, making flash lures the most popular lure style on ice. Across the ice belt, straight spoons like the Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and the Acme Kastmaster have been used for more than 40 years. More recent introductions like the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Bait Rigs Deep Willospoon, and Anglers Edge Agitator display flat profiles with good flash and vibration.
Bent lures like the Bay de Noc Do Jigger, Acme Sidewinder, and Ivan's Smasher offer more distinct vibration and flash—good for calling in fish. Super-action spoons are a subcategory of the bent spoon family, creating even more vibration and falling with a fast back-and-forth wobble, creating lots of flash.
At times, for reasons unknown, walleyes seem to prefer the size, color, flash, and fall rate of specific spoon designs. As we've said, bent and super-action lures exhibit more vibration and flash; straight lures offer a more subtle action. Some days, more flash and vibration is good; other days, subtle is better. Fishing success often is matter of determining which category fish prefer that day, or during different periods of a day.
Kerry Konald, a hunting and fishing guide from Mobridge, South Dakota (605/649-6363), concentrates his ice fishing on Lake Oahe Reservoir. "On reservoirs, major drop-offs generally hold walleyes all winter," he says." Electronics help anglers better understand what goes on below the ice. We're also catching more suspended fish," Konald says. "When I see fish or baitfish move through at 6 to 8 feet off the bottom or just below the ice, I reel up my lure to that level."
"The most popular lures here are the classics—Kastmasters, Swedish Pimples, Bay de Noc Do-Jiggers, and Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnows. Tell you a secret, though, my most consistently productive lure is the Reef Runner Cicada, a bladebait that just hasn't caught on as an ice lure for walleyes. Big mistake. It sends out tremendous vibrations that attract and trigger a lot of walleyes.
"I work the lure aggressively, pumping it up about 2 feet and slow-falling it back down. I often do that three or four times before holding still. I might add a couple twitches from time to time. No need to hold for more than about 20 seconds before jigging again."
As we've mentioned, super-action flash lures like the Acme Little Cleo and Thunderbolt, Blue Fox Tingler, and Bay de Noc Do-Jigger also attract and trigger with lots of vibration and flash. The key when fish are active—particularly when they're heavily schooled—is selecting a lure you can feel vibrate when jigged (or ripped upward) and that doesn't foul on the fall. Konald, however, suggests that his aggressive Cicada jigging method doesn't just trigger active fish, but also entices neutral or negative fish to bite.
"If fish are inactive, I find that aggressive tactics often trigger strikes, which is the opposite of what most anglers think," Konald says. "I like heavy-vibrating lures better when fish seem negative. The extreme vibration often triggers a response."
Konald replaces factory "double hooks" on his Cicadas with split rings and trebles. For 1/4- to 3/8-ounce lures he uses short-shank #6 and #8 trebles and tips the rear treble with a minnow-head.
Dance A Jig
Jigs, in combination with livebait, are favorites for walleyes. Jigs are, in a sense, anchors that hold minnows stationary, so a walleye doesn't have to chase a wildly fleeing bait. Jigs have been a traditional option through the ice on rivers, where current is a factor, and they're used to anchor livebait presented below floats or on deadsticks.
A plain jighead design (no hair or plastic) in 1/16- or 1/8-ounce sizes works well with 3- and 4-inch minnows. Remove the plastic body from a Lindy-Little Joe Fuzz-E-Grub, for example, or try the Gopher Tackle Weighted Kahle hook. Other anglers prefer jigs like the Bait Rigs Odd'ball jig; or the Northland Whistler, a bait with a prop-style blade.
To keep bait lively, nick the hook through the skin parallel to the dorsal fin so the hook point rides toward the head of the minnow. This allows the minnow to swim in a confined area, sending off vibrations as well as being visually compelling. Or try hooking the minnow through the lips, trailing a stinger hook or inserting the stinger hook in the minnow's tail. Minnows hooked through the back often are fished in conjunction with a deadstick. Minnows hooked through the lips usually are jigged actively, like swimming jigs and flash lures.
Dale Stroschein, guide and resort owner on Sturgeon Bay (920/743-5731), caught his biggest walleye (nearly 14 pounds) while working a jig and minnow. "What works varies geographically," he says. "I know open-water-style jigging isn't popular as an ice method, but it sure works here. That's not to say that other lures don't work here also. Still, I've tried them all and my top choice most of the season is a jig and minnow. I prefer the Bait Rigs Odd'Ball, a jig without special flash or action. It does, however, have a long shaft and an oversized Accupoint hook.
"I'm after big fish, with a chance of hooking a walleye from 8 to 14 pounds. A long hook shank and wide gap are perfect for presenting the 3- to 4-inch emerald shiners I prefer for large walleyes. Remember, too, that I'm guiding anglers who don't always have a good feeling for ice fishing. The jig and minnow not only works for seasoned anglers, but gives novices a shot at a fish, too.
"The hooking method I use—dead-hooking—kills the bait, but it positions the hook farther back on bigger baits for short-striking fish," Stroschein continues. "Get three or four clients each scratching an extra walleye or two on a trip, and it begins to add up. I thread the hook through the mouth of the bait, positioning it as far back as possible, and up through the dorsal fin. Minnows hooked through the lips tend to fall off easily while jigged, and short biters are more apt to be missed."
In water shallower than 15 feet, Stroschein uses 1/8-ounce jigs, switching to 1/4-ounce jigs in deeper water. He keeps the jig 6 to 12 inches off bottom, slowly lifting, dropping, and pausing. "Most of the time, fish slam the bait on the pause," he says. "Pretty simple. The way I like it."