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Ice Fishing Walleyes In Reservoirs

Ice Fishing Walleyes In Reservoirs
Tom Gruenwald with a dinner-sized fish from out west.

Impoundments. Reservoirs. Flowages. Call them what you want, they're exciting to fish. "And productive," according to Dennis Foster, a guide from Mellete, South Dakota, and an aficionado of the fishing on the Missouri river reservoirs. "The Dakota reservoirs grow fish fast and to impressive proportions—not just walleyes, although they're usually the main target."

Kurt Justice, a Minocqua, Wisconsin guide and owner of Kurt's Island Sports Shop, agrees: "Flowages are a favorite, because they produce fish so consistently. We don't get the number of big fish that are found in some areas of the country. But we have a shot at nice fish every time we're out on most waters."

Most western reservoirs differ from midwestern and eastern impoundments. They have current and water-level fluctuation. Most are expansive, so they have large river basins, and lots of deep, clear water. Some maintain cold enough temperatures to support cold-water fisheries.

Bottom content varies from rock to sand, gravel, shale, and limestone. Common structural elements include numerous points and turns in the main river channel, along with networks of connecting tributaries and creek arms, each with their own contingent of structural elements. Sunken islands, rockpiles, flooded timber, roadbeds, and building foundations also are common fish-holding cover on or near structural elements.

Midwestern and eastern impoundments, at times called flowages, typically are lower-lying river floodplains; so they're smaller and shallower. Flowage temperatures don't support coolwater fisheries.

Flowages often feature a mix of hard and soft bottom, and, some, due to the swampy, bog-like environments they pass through, have a tannic stain that turns the water a rich tea-like brown. Primary structures include points and turns adjoining the main river channel, but wood covered flats, vegetated sloughs, and backwaters are winter fish magnets, too.

Structural Targets

When targeting big western reservoirs like South Dakota's Oahe, a detailed map is an important element for getting started. "There's so much structure to fish on most parts of Oahe that you just need to pick a smaller section and get started," Foster says. "I look for elements along main channels in the main part of the reservoir and in major creek arms. Pick out spots where sharp turns form distinct points. I also look for channels bordering steep, curving shoreline bluffs. Rock and gravel slides along steep but otherwise featureless shorelines near channels are noteworthy too."

Justice says that classic structural elements like points are important on flowages, too, but adds that subtle features on otherwise uniform flats can also be productive. "We have more flat water than they do out west. Slight depth aberrations, patches of cover, or combinations of both can attract forage and roaming walleyes," he says. "Most of these spots take a while to find while searching on ice; so if you haven't fished an area before, keep moving until you get a feeling for what kind of structural stuff is out there. I like to check areas on open water, marking spots that might be good after ice up."

Foster agrees that flats can also attract fish at times: "Rockpiles, chunk rock slides, flooded timber, and man-made structures on or near flats that eventually drop into deep, primary channels are worth considering, especially during early and late ice."


"Flowage action begins in back channels at first ice," Justice says. "Some of those areas aren't great walleye spots, so I look for multispecies action at that time. As access allows, the action gets going along deeper channels in the main part of flowages, continues there during mid-season, before reverting back to the shallow fishing at late ice. But walleyes roam flats all winter."

No surprise, Foster likes first ice. "Some of the best action corresponds with the Christmas holiday," he says. "But the fishing can be good all season long. Even during midwinter, when other waters are in the doldrums, we're often getting good fishing on Oahe."

While twilight periods generate top feeding activity, action often occurs throughout the day as migrating fish pass through, particularly on flowages, where stained water reduces light penetration. Most reservoirs also aren't as cold-front sensitive as some natural lakes.


Straightforward Tactics

Foster focuses on walleyes, but expects to catch pike and channel catfish, too. He usually sets HT Enterprises Polar Pop-Up tip-ups along sharp breaks, positioning two-thirds of the set over deeper water and spreading the remaining third along the edge and top of the main drop-off. "You can read fish movement through tip-up activity, with most shallow catches early and late, and deeper lines becoming more active during the day, which is when most of the shallower lines are moved deeper. Typical depth ranges for shallow sets are from 12 to 20 feet. Deeper sets usually run 20 to 35 feet deep, but at times as deep as 50 feet.

"The smallest baitfish I usually use are 5- to 7-inch chubs," he says. "That limits wasting time with smaller fish. Big minnows consistently trigger bigger fish, which have time to drift in close and watch the wounded action of the anchored baitfish before wolfing them down. Walleyes often suspend along sharp breaks and spend time looking up to feed, so I set some baits high and 10 to 20 feet away from the edge of breaks. I also typically use a bit of yarn, beads, or Mac Smile Blades for a bit more flash and attraction, adding them above a single octopus hook."

"Any type of deadsticking works, too," Justice says. "I use glow jigs to anchor minnows or use glow hooks and add shot 6 inches above the minnow to anchor them. The HT Ice Riggers work well in this instance. I use tip-downs, too. And at times we use the classic noodlelike deadstick just set on a bucket, the minnow straight down below."

Foster and Justice move from open hole to hole jigging as they wait for tip-ups to go or deadsticks to pop. Jigging tactics have been much discussed in the past, so we won't get into it here.

Consider "tackling down" during tough times. "When the fishing gets tough I use 4- and 5-inch minnows," Foster says. "I tie on leaders that test 6 pounds, instead of the typical 8 pounds." Justice, on the other hand, at times uses 4-pound line and commonly goes with small jigs and crappie-sized minnows.

"Most days I try to give the fish a choice on all fronts," he says. "Put down some bigger, more active minnows; go a bit more aggressive with jigging motions. And then try the opposite if that's not working. Sometimes it takes several days on the ice to see a pattern unfold. Often there just isn't a pattern. You get some fish deadsticking with light tackle and small baits; and you get a fish or two with more aggressive stuff. It's always a matter of letting the fish decide. But you have give them different options, so they can give you a clue."

Walleye populations on the Dakota reservoirs are as good as they have been in many years, and baitfish populations are down in some reservoirs, so this should be an exceptional winter for fishing. Meanwhile, Wisconsin flowages continue to track as they have in most winters past, with the best of them producing consistent fishing. In other areas of the Ice Belt, from reservoirs farther west, in Wyoming and Montana; across the Midwest in Iowa, Illinois, Indiana, and Michigan; to eastern reservoirs in Pennsylvania and New York; the fish are waiting. It takes a little homework to find which waters have the best walleye populations at present. And a little more homework to time the bite and track developing patterns on reservoirs closer to home.

*Tom Gruenwald has been writing about ice fishing for more than 20 years. He works as the marketing director at HT Enterprises, at Campbellsport, Wisconsin.

Tip-Up Efficiency Mastered

The tip-up remains one of the best ways to catch everything from panfish to larger predators, as a matter of efficiency. It's not possible to be every place all at once, but with a few buddies and a bucket full of tip-ups, you can cover high-percentage areas with bait sets. Jig actively while the tip-ups do their work if you wish, a simple, straightforward, and highly effective system.

When I began my ice career many years ago I worked the with the HT Polar tip-up. What a simple design—foolproof, rugged, dependable. No wonder it remains the best-selling tip-up in the history of the sport.

Eventually, though, I discovered the Magnetic Polar Pop Up, another HT product. It quickly became my favorite and thus it has remained for almost 20 years. This model stands vertically above the hole and has a large-diameter vertical (versus a horizontal spool on the Polar), which allows the fish to easily run without detecting resistance. That's the key to catching light-biting fish.

The bite-indication system is housed in a sealed tube and activated by breaking an adjustable magnetic bond to the spool. It's easy to fine-tune the trip resistance, allowing settings for smaller panfish minnows, as well as the large chubs used for pike and walleyes.

When a fish hits, a spring loaded orange shaft pops up and the fish runs freely with the bait until you get there to reverse its travels and bring it topside. There's nothing to drift over or for the wind to trip. I think it's the most versatile and reliable model ever invented and it has accounted for nearly every winter walleye I've caught over 8 pounds the last 20 years—and that's a bunch.

New for this season is the Polar Mag HD. It has the aforementioned features plus a black apron attached to the tripod legs. The apron keeps the hole free of blowing snow, as it also traps heat from the water and from the radiant energy of the sun to keep the hole from freezing. This model has a 1,500-foot spool, a smooth line guide, and a nifty hook keeper.

I personalize both models by adding different colored reflective tape around the top of the tube and the bite indicator shaft. This makes each tip-up easy to spot for detecting bites with a flashlight beam. It also helps to keep folks driving on the ice from running over your sets.

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