Where I fish in northeastern South Dakota, late-ice runs from about mid-February until you can no longer safely get out. By this time, the bite usually has been tough for some time and most folks are a little burned out. As the days get longer, thoughts turn to open-water fishing, reorganizing tackle, and attending Sport Shows.
If you're interested in icing some big ice walleyes, though, now's the time to get after it. Your odds of catching heavy-weight females are better now than at just about any other time of the year. Their location is predictable and they can be relatively easy to hook, if you use the right methods. Large livebaits suspended below a tip-up have been critical to my success.
The location of prespawn fish has been consistent for me from year to year, the fish naturally moving toward their spawning grounds, the only variable being exactly when they begin to arrive. They move into the basin area near spawning sites earlier than most anglers think, well before the fish move onto spawning flats. This is why fishing becomes so inconsistent at late-ice on traditional classic structure spots that attract fish at first-ice throughout much of the winter. Mother Nature trips a biological trigger and the big girls begin lounging out in the basin near spawning sites, awaiting ice-out.
For the most part, these fish are in a neutral foraging state. At this stage in their lives, they're masters at expending the least amount of energy for the highest return in protein, preferring to slurp down a large meal as opposed to chasing numerous small ones, so you won't find them hanging out with smaller males that are slashing at almost anything that moves. They avoid the competition and feed only when conditions are optimal for success.
This is why large baits work so well -- particularly, big chubs. If you can find one, a 6- to 8-inch creek chub or redtail chub is best; even 10 inches isn't too big. Sucker chubs are most readily available and work fine, too, most of the time.
I've also had good results using big shiners in areas with decaying weeds that hold juvenile sunfish, crappies and bluegills. The fish have a virtual buffet line set up on the weededge and you can nearly set your watch by their nightly arrival.
The first step is to identify an area where the fish traditionally spawn. Some of my best spots are south-facing gravel or sand shorelines with a feeder creek. These areas warm quickly, and any influx of fresh water from the feeder stirs the pot.
I predrill holes long before either dawn or dusk, although I prefer fishing the sunset bite, as the movement is more pronounced and seems to last longer than at sunrise. Start drilling in the nearest deep water and work your way to the shallowest drop-off or weedline. Position your major concentration of holes at the shallow breakline, but have open holes at each of the various depths. This allows you to jig progressively shallower as the evening wears on and the fish move in, while you watch your tip-ups.
Fish with a couple of buddies or bring some kids along, in order to place as many lines as possible. Run the tip-ups from deep to shallow, with the highest number on the shallow end as you wait for the inevitable bites. I like HT's pop-up style and I rig them with 50-pound Berkley Gorilla Braid for main line and tie to a small snap swivel. To this I attach a 4- to 6-foot leader of 10-pound mono or fluorocarbon.
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Reverse rigging works best along the dorsal fin with Gamakatsu's Walleye Wide Gap hook in #2 to 1/0, depending on chub size. This allows for enough gap while using large baits to ensure hookups. Attach sufficient weight 12 to 18 inches above the hook to allow good bait movement without letting the bait become too active. Run baits 6 inches to 3 feet off bottom. At times you'll see definite preference as to where walleyes want the baits set.
Remember that we're using sizeable offerings and that fish need some time to get these baits down. Usually a fish grabs the chub from the side and runs a short distance. After stopping, it repositions the bait in order to take it head first. This process can take several minutes. The line begins moving again, usually at a quicker pace, once the fish has eaten the bait.
I set the hook by grabbing the line and stopping the fish's progress. Hold firm -- when you feel the headshake, you've got her. If she wants to run, let her go under constant tension and begin picking up line with a give and take until she tires. Once you get to your leader, the fish is directly under you. Line her up and pull her up the hole until you can either get a gill or grab her head and slide her on the ice. No gaff is ever needed and these fish can be confidently released.
Jigging plays a role along with tip-up sets. I start deep before sundown and by dark end up in the shallowest holes, shifting quickly from hole to hole as needed, pulling my Fish Trap along with me. The bites on tip-ups serve as indicators of fish progression to the shallows. I move accordingly, to stay in contact with the fish.
These fish typically are neutral to negative, so adjust jigging techniques and lures with this in mind. I use large profile swimming lures such as a Salmo Chubby Darter or Nils Master Jigging Shad, or my personal favorite, JB Lures Spanker. I tip the belly hook with a minnow head.
Another tip is to remove the belly hook and replace it with a 4-inch dropper attached to a large-gap 1/16- or 1/32-ounce jig with a big fathead minnow. Use a lift-drop routine for attraction and let the lure rest for long periods. This setup also works below a slipbobber, leaving the rod set as a dead rod. The profile of the swimming jig brings them in, and the struggling livebait seals the deal.
Sometimes a jig like the Bait Rigs Oddball tipped with a minnow is effective. Reverse-rig the minnow on the jig. Then use a subtle lift-drop-hold motion, as you concentrate on feel and look for merging lines on your sonar screen.
Don't be surprised or concerned if jigging isn't that productive. It's not uncommon to take several nice fish in an evening, with the tip-ups accounting for all of them. Again, these fish aren't aggressive and generally don't expend a lot of effort to take a lure. In fact, aggressive lures and techniques at times turn off fish.
Be safe out there as the season wears on and you continue to put this system to use. I think you'll be pleasantly surprised.