The last decade has seen significant changes in the hardwater walleye scene. Across the Ice Belt, new lines of thinking and improved gear have helped fuel a variety of refinements, at times pushing the tactical envelope to extremes.
Beyond the Hole
Veteran walleye hunter Jon Thelen, who guides on Mille Lacs in Minnesota but travels the Midwest filming Lindy Fishing Tackle's "Fish Ed" television and online programming, is quick to note how advancements in everything from shelters and apparel to augers and electronics allow anglers to be more efficient, even in brutal conditions.
On the tactical front, he says the rise of lures that extend our under-water reach is one of the longest-running trends, yet still is among the hottest things happening. "The ability to expand your theater of operations beyond an 8-inch hole and draw fish in from a distance lets you cover more water from a fixed position and be far more effective in the process," he says.
The genre of baits with far-reaching benefits includes spoons, swimming and gliding jigs, and hardbaits, and even crankbaits designed for open-water applications. Thelen offers Lindy's iconic Rattl'n Flyer as a prime example in the heavy metal category. "The wings allow it to swim outside the hole, which is a big factor, but never discount the importance of its high-pitched rattle or distinctive flash, either," he says. "All of these factors combine to draw walleyes from a distance."
Northland Fishing Tackle's Buck-Shot Glider Spoon is another notable flyer-style spoon, and many lightweight, flutter-style options also drift off to the side on the drop. The list of lures with appreciable sonic stylings is even longer, and bears close scrutiny when you're fine-tuning the audio aspects of your presentation. For example, baits like Clam Outdoors' Time Bomb and Lindy's Perch Talker (which ices ample 'eyes despite the name) offer clicks and clacks different from the sounds produced by traditional rattle chambers.
Swimming hardbaits including the Salmo Chubby Darter, Lindy Darter, Clam Psycho Shad, and Northland Rippin' Shad, to name a few, have also come on strong in recent seasons. Thelen fishes the Lindy Darter extensively and says, "You can easily make it swim 2 to 3 feet outside the hole. Here, too, rattle and flash add to the attraction, pulling curious fish from farther away than subdued presentations."
Slim-profile swimmers like the Rapala Jigging Rap and Northland Puppet Minnow are also built to dart off to the side. Yet these designs bring to mind another walleye trend that focuses on fishing with a decidedly slower hand.
"We've learned a lot in recent winters about how jigging too much can be more of a turnoff that we ever imagined," says tournament ace and hardwater expert Mark Martin. It's strange to hear that from him, considering how less than a decade ago, he admonished me to impart more action to a Jigging Rap I was dangling beneath the ice on Saginaw Bay. Martin and I were sharing a shelter, plying identical baits, and I was employing a subtle jiggle-nod-pause routine while he nearly punched the rod tip through the ceiling on the uptakes of his wildly animated routine.
"You gotta jig it more than that," he said. Yet throughout the late afternoon flurry, both approaches produced equally stellar results.
Back to the present. After conducting extensive on-ice research using cameras, sonar, and numerous other anglers, often during his annual ice fishing schools, Martin now believes that quite often, less is more.
"In the crystal clear water of the Great Lakes and other systems, we've watched walleyes move in from beyond the sonar cone, only to flare away when the angler gave the lure too much oomph," he says. "We've also learned that by watching the subtle returns beneath the bottom, you can mark faint flickers from fish moving around on the outer limits of your sonar's peripheral vision."
The findings have caused Martin to tone down his presentations in many cases, relying on a deadstick more than ever, and he advises experimenting with muted jig strokes at every opportunity.
Chris Granrud, who operates RainyDaze Guide Service on the idyllic proving grounds of massive Rainy Lake, says that despite all the improvements and expansions in tackle and gear, it's still important to pay attention to the finer points of fishing.
Case in point: color selection. Manufacturers have en masse unleashed a broad spectrum of flashy, holographic, eye-catching finishes covering every spoke of the color wheel and then some. While our choices have expanded exponentially, Granrud argues for wielding such colors conservatively, and says he generally leans toward matching the forage base.
"People love firetiger because it looks good to them," he says. "But you trick more walleyes — especially the biggest, baddest ones down there — by keeping it real."
On his home waters, that means toggling between colors that mimic ciscoes and shiners in deep-water haunts, and perch patterns in shallower weeds. "Clam's Silver Tiger and Glow Rainbow are great deep-water colors," he offers, adding that the company's Glow Chartreuse Tiger does a fine job imitating perch.
Reigning open-water world walleye champion on the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, Korey Sprengel is also a world-class ice angler. And, as on the soft-water scene, he's a leading advocate for the use of artificial softbaits on ice.
"I spend a lot of time ice fishing on Lake Erie," he says. "Because there are so many fish to work with, it's a great place to experiment with tackle and techniques."
Sprengel's latest endeavors have centered on tipping jigging spoons and slim swimmers with inch-long Berkley Gulp! Minnows and Leeches. "When I told my ice-fishing buddies that I wasn't going to buy bait anymore, they called me crazy," he says. "But these artificial baits are so convenient to use, and caught so many fish, I made them regret their words."
His pockets loaded with bags of Gulp!, Sprengel strode from hole to hole, picking off fish with Johnson Splinter Spoons and Jigging Raps sweetened with the small yet succulent softbaits. "People love using minnow heads, which basically add a bit of scent and flavor, plus a little extra action and bulk," he says. "Gulp! does the same thing, yet is easier to use and stays on the hook better during aggressive jigging."
To enhance his tippings' potency, Sprengel soaks softbaits in Gulp! Marinade. While he often matches flavors to the forage base, he also mixes and matches, creating custom blends that best trip the triggers of the local walleye population.
Scott Glorvigen has been tracking Northwoods winter walleyes for decades, and like Thelen, he credits improved apparel for making us more efficient and allowing longer sessions of serious fishing.
He also believes sonar continues to fuel some of our greatest tactical advancements. "Sonar has been a staple of the walleye trade since the earliest days of the Ice Fishing Revolution," he says. "But the recent arrival of CHIRP acoustic technology on systems like Lowrance's Elite CHIRP and HDS Gen3 series has taken our understanding of the underwater world to new heights."
Short for "compressed high-intensity radar pulse," it uses long-duration "chirps" to sweep a wide range of frequencies. "This new way of sounding takes sensitivity, resolution, and target separation to such new levels, it has changed the way I fish in the winter," he explains.
One of the biggest gains Glorvigen reports is the ability to see fish like never before. "Target separation is so good, you can pick out predators holding within a ball of baitfish, and even identify individual fish within a large school," he says. If you're scanning a school of juvenile perch, for example, individual baitfish show up as tiny lines, while walleyes holding within or just below the school are represented by thicker returns. "Traditional sonar can't come close to revealing that much detail," he says. Armed with such information, anglers can target the fish of their choice anywhere in or under the school. "The ability to effectively work deep into the crowd can produce big fish other anglers can't touch," he says.
Another plus, he says, is that CHIRP makes it possible to predict the species of fish that appear on your display with surprising accuracy. "Line width largely reflects fish size, but if you couple that with subtle details such as how a fish moves and the margins of its return, you can begin to see the difference between sunfish and crappies or perch, and tell walleyes from pike or bass," he says.
CHIRP also reveals much about a fish's mood, as well as how it responds to various jigging maneuvers. "With a scrolling display, traditional sonar provides a great history of how quickly a fish moves through the water column and how it reacts to different cadences," he says. "CHIRP paints an even clearer picture of the fish's attitude and reactions to even the subtlest tweaks in your presentation."
Our panel's perspectives on the ever-changing, always-evolving landscape of winter walleye fishing offer plenty to think about as we prepare for another season, and provide more reason than ever to continue refining and expanding your personal bag of tricks to catch more fish on every trip.