Ice Fishing Walleyes
January 18, 2016
So many lures, so little time. And with so little time, so much worry about choosing the right lure, given the situation. No magic lure will ever key success. Walleyes can always be caught on more than one lure, and often even on widely divergent lure styles. Yet the intent remains to experiment to find the one lure, likely from among several choices, that works best.
So it is that a small contingency of options, each in several sizes and basic finishes, has traveled with me from the Bay of Quinte in the East, to Wyoming reservoirs in the West. And I have not found it necessary to switch to local hot lures to be successful.
Lure categories—The key to confidence remains, first, stocking lures from each of three general categories. "Flash lures" like the classic Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and Acme Kastmaster make up one category. These lures attract fish via flash and vibration as they're jigged up and allowed to settle back. Tip them with a minnow head to entice fish to bite when they move in close.
Most anglers understand the flash connection, but fail to see how important vibration is to attracting fish. Fish often feel baits before they see them. So I double divide this category, carrying "bent" flash lures like the Bay de Noc Do-Jigger and Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow, along with straighter baits like the Kastmaster and Swedish Pimple. I also stock a few super-action flash lures like the Reef Runner Slender Spoon.
The second category—swimming lures—is for me a small one, consisting of three baits, the classic Jigging Rapala, the Nils Master Jigger, and the newly introduced Nils Master Jigger Shad. Lifted sharply 11/2 feet or so, these "swimming lures" dart up and out before thumping down and then swinging (swimming) back directly below the ice hole. The #7 Rapala and #2 Nils Master Jiggers are the most popular sizes for walleyes.
Swimming lures perform subtly compared to the more intense flash and vibration of a flash lure. These lures tend to work best in clearer water, particularly during the changing light periods of dawn and dusk. Most anglers tip them with a minnow head or fish eye, again to tempt reluctant walleyes. Add the scent option to the treble hook hanging below the middle of the bait. In current, add the scent option to the trailing body hook. Small fish often target the fish head or fish eye, while larger walleyes usually eat the entire bait. I must tell you, though, that during most key evening periods, I rarely find it necessary to tip swimming baits.
"Anchor jigs" in conjunction with livebait make up the third category. Hook the minnow in reverse so it struggles away from the weight of the head of a plain (undressed) jig. The jig weight should match the size of the minnow and the depth being fished. The weight must be just light enough to encourage the minnow to swim, but not so light that the minnow can get away. For walleyes, I usually use a 1/16- or 1/8-ounce jig coupled with a 4- to 5-inch shiner minnow.
Line—I use 10- or 12-pound monofilament for walleyes, although 8-pound is a good compromise in waters where both perch and walleyes are the target. Line visibility isn't a big factor after dark, though it might be during the day and into the beginning of twilight. More important is to get lures to fall or swing seductively. Line that's too light is as detrimental to presentation as line that's too heavy.
Superbraids like Berkley FireLine and Spiderwire Fusion also work well for ice fishing. A superbraid testing about 12 pounds is just about right. Add a monofilament (or fluorocarbon) leader to the end of the superbraid by linking the two lines with back-to-back uni knots. Double the end of the superbraid, using a spider hitch knot, before attempting the uni knots. Finally, add a small CrossLoc snap to the end of the line.
Attraction and Triggering
Each jigging motion includes an attraction and a triggering phase. First, attract walleyes, then get them to bite once they've been drawn close. The lift and fall of the bait serves as the attracting maneuver, while the pause allows a walleye to bite. All the little jiggles added during or after the basic lift-fall maneuver are just small, but sometimes significant variations on a general theme.
Jiggles can be particularly important when using a swimming jig. My basic approach would be a lift-fall-pause (3 to 5 seconds), followed by a jiggle-jiggle, jiggle-jiggle, followed by another lift-fall. Jiggle only enough to get the bait to roll slightly left-right left-right on its axis, creating the same sort of flash that makes crankbaits attractive to walleyes in open water.
A lift-fall with an anchored minnow is subtle by comparison. Gently lift the jig and minnow a foot or so, then let it flutter and flash down to the position from which it began. Then pause for at least 30 seconds to let the minnow do its thing. I usually lift-fall-pause through several sequences, then pause for several minutes (or more) with the rod sitting on a bucket or in a rod holder on a bucket. Again, the minnow is just doing its thing.
Rip Jigging—On the other end of the presentation spectrum lies rip jigging, an old variation on a general presentation theme. The basic jigging theme is lift-fall-pause. Make your own thematic music any way you wish. Rip jigging, though, rests on the heavy-metal end of the scale.
Use 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—one second or ten—before beginning again, although sometimes super aggressive fish hit on the slight thump-down between rips.
One reason rippin' isn't well known is that it usually doesn't work well. On many waters, I've not seen it work at all. Yet, it should always be one among many options, albeit an option on the extreme end of the spectrum, because on some waters, the technique can be magic. Most of these are big bodies of water, where walleyes sometimes roam for miles to find food. Lake Erie. Saginaw Bay. Big Bay and Little Bay de Noc. Sturgeon Bay. Mille Lacs. Oahe. Big waters. Big bold technique.
Ripping also can be productive in fertile, shallow, dingy waters with big populations of walleyes. The technique helps to call walleyes, and their competitive nature makes them more likely to react. Some of these lakes are large, like portions of Lake of the Woods. Most, however, are just prominent shallow lakes like Oneida, New York; Devils Lake, North Dakota; Spirit Lake, Iowa; and Lake Poinsett, South Dakota. Any small dingy lake with lots of nice fish, though, may offer the opportunity to rip jig.
The best lures produce the most vibration without tangling often. As a rule, small (compact), heavy, bent baits work best, while wide thin baits that fall horizontally tend to tangle. Baits I've used successfully include the Jig-A-Whopper Rocker Minnow, Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple, Acme Thunderbolt, and Ivan's Slammer. Add a split ring and a swivel to the line-tie end of each bait to reduce line twist.
Adding an aura of scent to the jig is still vital. Eyes removed from dead perch stay on best, but minnow heads work well so long as the hook's run up through the skull. On larger (longer) lures, pinch off the minnow head right behind the gills. I always let the entrails hang when possible, both for visual appeal and additional scent. Change the minnow head or perch eye every 10 minutes or so to freshen the aura of scent around the bait.
Dave Genz, one of North America's best ice anglers and a contributor to this Ice Fishing Guide, probably has used the rippin' technique on more waters the last two years than any other angler. He prefers a three-stroke process that goes Rip-Chunk, Rip-Chunk, Rip-Chunk, Pause—the Rip being a sharp upward stroke of 11/2 to 2 feet, and the Chunk being the thump of the lure hitting the end of the line on the fall. His pauses range from 3, 4, or 5 seconds to 25, during which time he may also waggle the fish head on the bait when he knows a fish has moved in and hasn't hit immediately during the pause.
When no fish are visible on my electronics, I use Genz's Rip-Chunk routine to call in fish. With fish on the screen, though, I pause momentarily (several seconds) between Rips, followed by a longer pause after two or three rips. Of course, potential jigging sequences are limited only by your imagination and your interpretation of how fish are reacting. Keep it simple, but get a rhythm going.
The wonders of the capsular world held in suspension below the ice is brought vividly to view on well-rigged sonar. The two classic sonars for work on ice remain the Vexilar FL-8 and the Zercom LCF-40, although any sonar setup is helpful.
Well-rigged sonar not only makes the 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 rue 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 my presentation after seeing how a fish reacts. A fish comes in. I lift-fall again. No response? I jiggle the bait and the fish moves closer. Another jiggle—boom.
Another fish comes in. I lift-fall again and again, playing the jiggle game without a response. A deadly tactic at that point is to lift the bait a foot above the fish. Jiggle jiggle. Jiggle jiggle. 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 as 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 into walleyes.
A Combo System
The past many years, In-Fisherman staff members have perfected a combo presentation system that relies primarily on jigging, but also incorporates livebait when necessary. A jigging rod is required, for the objective is always to keep jigging—that is, actively presenting a lure to trigger walleyes. Even when fishing turns ugly, the right combination of lure and jigging motion usually results in some walleyes.
We add to our repertoire, however, another rod fished as a "deadstick." The deadstick is a lighter rod than the primary jigging rod, for it's used to present a lively minnow reversed on a jig. Drop the jig and minnow to the bottom and reel up 6 to 12 inches. Then place the rod on a bucket or in a rod-holder on a bucket.
The tip of the rod should be light enough so the minnow can work the tip as it struggles. Meanwhile, wind also works the tip, prodding the minnow to move. All the while you're close by working a jigging bait. Moving requires only reeling up the deadstick—easier than dealing with tip-ups or bobbers.
Most days, jigging produces most of the fish. Often, though, the deadstick contributes the fish or two that make the different between a good day and a great day. Then, at times, usually when fishing is difficult, the deadstick can make the difference between hamburgers and a meal of fresh walleye.
If most of the fish are responding to the deadstick, change your jigging approach. Instead of using a traditional jigging bait, switch to a standard jig and a reversed minnow—the same rigging on the deadstick. Often, actively jigging with this combo can be even more effective because you can add more "attraction" to the process, gently lifting (a foot or so) the jig and minnow and letting it fall, then allowing the minnow to work for 30 seconds as you pause.
We strive to keep our approaches to winter walleye fishing simple, yet efficient. Secret lures don't exist, any more than do secret jigging motions. The first prerogative is to be in a good spot at the right time. A well-rigged sonar unit is the closest thing there is to magic, to increase your understanding of what's happening below. The walleyes in your lake aren't different than the walleyes that swim everywhere else in North America. The contingencies covered here will work for you, just as they have for us in hundreds of lakes and reservoirs in more than a dozen states and four provinces. Ice Fishing Walleyes.