January 30, 2014
Whistling winds create a dance of ice and snow dust. Underneath, walleyes are moving, constantly moving. They glide from one part of a structure to another. They shift through seasons like tribes of nomads across a desert. Light penetration, wind direction, angle of the sun, and baitfish movements push them around like pieces on a chess board. Early ice is different from late early ice, which is different from late-January. Walleyes crop down baitfish populations and switch to others. They react to temperature changes, changes in brightness, current, snow, barometer, and ice thickness, which so strongly affects underwater lighting.
Their response to lures changes as well. Sometimes, after years of responding well to certain lures, their preference changes. And after an hour or so, it might change again.
But some things never change. "The key to success in the ice-bound world is mobility," says Saskatchewan tournament pro Tim Geni. "The way walleyes respond to spots can change. If you can't move to find the spot of the moment, you're at a disadvantage. Sometimes after setting up on a spot, I check the nearby environs to fine-tune location. Be prepared to drill a lot of holes. There's always a sweet spot on any area. Walleyes run structure in winter the same way they do in summer. You must move to locate active fish. I rarely stay on one spot for more than half an hour."
Like Geni, TV host Jason Mitchell rarely sits in a house. "The average guy moves 2 or 3 times in a day and drills less than 30 holes," Mitchell says. "Running the auger out of gas describes 90 percent of my fishing. The guy that works hardest gets the most breaks." The other 10 percent is comprised of specialized tactics.
The Daisy Chain
"At times, if you're not fishing an umbrella rig for bass, you don't stand a chance," Mitchell says. "There's something to be said about using a similar concept for walleyes under the ice. I use as many as six #4 Salmo Chubby Darters in my 'daisy-chain' approach."
Mitchell takes the hooks off the Chubby Darters. Then he ties a leader to the hook hanger on the belly and ties on another lure below it, using its line tie, and so on. Using 10-pound Northland Bionic Braid, he ties the 5 lures 4 inches apart in a chain. Then he adds a sixth Chubby Darter and leaves the hooks on. Voila! An ice-fishing version of a school of baitfish.
"In some states you can leave the trebles on all the lures," Mitchell notes. "But, most of the time, walleyes hit the bottom lure. And you can create incredible tangles if you leave the hooks on. Even where legal, I take the trebles off all but the bottom lure on the chain. Wave the rod up and down and you can see the lures bouncing and shimmying on the depth finder. I've been catching twice as many walleyes during the day using that 'school of bait' visual effect."
Tangles happen. "Pike go wild for a daisy chain, and the lures are 4 inches apart. They tangle at times, but without hooks, it's easy to untangle. Rod choice is critical. Stiff rods tend to rip hooks from fish with braid and you can't get the chain moving right. I use the Jason Mitchell 30-inch Walleye, a medium-action rod with a tip that gives. You want a slower-action rod when spooling with braid. Smooth upward sweeps with the rod get them all swimming in sync, not a violent jigging action. Get it right and the vibration tickles your toes."
The six Darters should be the same pattern to create a school effect. "And they have to be the same size, so they fall at the same rate," Mitchell adds. "Six lures create 6 times the noise and flash, bringing walleyes from farther out. Even when walleyes turn off during the middle of the day, the daisy chain often gets them going. It seemed crazy at first, but it often works. This is the first time I've mentioned the tactic to anyone."
It's hard to imagine a guide gaining more notoriety than Tony Roach over the past few winters. Maybe it's because he zigs when everyone else zags.
"What intrigues me is the recent success of upsizing when most good anglers are doing the opposite," Roach says. "The typical response is to downsize when the bite gets tough. And it often works. But on the toughest days, fishing fast and upsizing can work, too. Bigger is faster and ice fishing for walleye faster can help."
Roach works with Rapala, one of his sponsors, and his consistent success on ice has attracted visitors from overseas. "We fished with Rapala guys from Finland last February and they all used big #7 Jigging Raps and no depthfinders," he says. "Fishing with no electronics, they kept pounding silt and ripping it up. Tapio Verho of Rapala Finland started catching walleyes during a tough bite. His aggressive jigging and large lure went against the grain for that time of year. Instead of moving, he stayed put and started catching perch and walleyes with a gold-black Jigging Rap, a traditional Mille Lacs pattern.
"February is typically a lot tougher than first ice," Roach adds. "Their success supported this concept of upsizing during a tough bite. We've been responding to tough bites by clipping on a spoon one size bigger and fishing it faster and more aggressively, ripping it up 3 or 4 feet, letting it drop, twitching it, pausing and starting over.
"When the bite slows or stops, I make sure somebody in the group switches to a 1/4-ounce or larger spoon in the same color. I want that person moving more and fishing faster, too. Sometimes you have to wake them up.
"I never say 'that's not going to work' any more. I get schooled every time I say that to somebody. When the bite dies and somebody puts on a crazy big bait, I sit back and watch. When I upsize, I use whatever matches the forage. On Mille Lacs, they key on small baits — 1/8-ounce Northland Macho Minnows and #4 Jigging Raps. I switch to a 1/4-ounce spoon during tough bites and it works."
The rattlebait phenomenon for winter walleyes is a related development. "A Rapala Rippin' Rap wakes them from their mid-winter trance, too," Roach says. "It's another aggressive option for tough days. We generally use the two smallest sizes in the blue/chrome (cisco mimic) or yellow-perch patterns. The best retrieve has been fairly aggressive. Touch or pound bottom and rip it just hard enough to feel it vibrating."
Mitchell uses a similar technique. "I use the Salmo Zipper when trying to draw fish in," he says. "Lipless cranks are all different. I've found that walleyes go for the Zipper, tied direct with a 10-pound Bionic Braid. The lack of stretch gets the lure vibrating immediately on the lift. You don't need to jump the lure very high to get it going. I can feel it in the rod tip with a lighter rod that loads up from the weight of a 1/4-ounce Zipper.
"You can feel it when that lure is swimming just right. I got on a hellacious Zipper bite in 4 feet of water last winter. No room to lift the bait, so I kept it vibrating with constant short jumps or by shaking it in place. In deeper water I drop it to the bottom and reel it up 5 feet. I do that 10 times and if I don't see anything on sonar I'm off to the next hole. But you have to watch closely. Some days, walleyes are so turned off they shy from lures. On sonar, you can see the bottom moving, yet nothing rises to the bait. That tells you they're moving away and it's time to sit down and deadstick with livebait."
Jigs of Fury
Walleyes generally aren't static. They move constantly. Your job is to make them pause. Sometimes you need to "wake them up" or wait them out. When jigging actions are too subtle, entire schools of walleyes may slip past without being noticed.
"I like to work lures aggressively," Geni says. "To get their attention, I snap spoons way off bottom and let them flutter down, sending flash in all directions. I've found the PK Lures Flutter Fish, PK Spoon, and PK Panic Spoon effective. I rip the Flutter Fish up, snapping it off bottom, then let it flutter down. It has a deadly action on the drop that big walleyes can't resist. I've had walleyes come 10 to 12 feet off bottom to eat it on the fall.
"I use 1/8- to 1/2-ounce spoons and change colors often until I find what works best. Last winter, I field-tested the new PK Predator. Its added flash, vibration, and sound seem to be deadly for walleyes and panfish. Don't let their small size fool you."
Continued after gallery...
Northland UV Buck Shot Rattle Spoon
Salmo Chubby Darter Daisy Chain
Once he gets a fish's attention, Geni slows down. "After a walleye moves in to inspect a lure, it can be spooked by a fast snap at the wrong time," he says. "I generally drop the lure to the bottom to create a sediment puff, then slowly lift it out of the cloud. It's amazing how much sediment even a small lure can displace. I then twitch the spoon slowly giving a few sharp 4- to 6-inch twitches. My flasher tells me how the fish is reacting. Once I trigger one, I repeat that process all day until they tell me I need to change things again."
Non-biters get special treatment. "One trick I used to ice some big 'eyes the last few years is down-jigging," he says. "I hold the lure about 6 inches off bottom, drop the tip about 3 inches, then bring it back up to the starting point — basically the opposite of what most anglers do. Most anglers jig up and let the lure drop back to the starting point. Down-jigging is better at turning non-biters into biters. If I can't turn the fish, or the flasher shows no fish, I move."
Finding aggressive fish that respond to aggressive techniques has a structural component, according to Geni. "I typically work hardest at drop-offs close to feeding flats," he says. "I want to hit the fish just as they move in to feed. They're active and see my flashing spoon where they're most likely to be catchable.
"When a spot has no defined drops, I look for transitions where hard bottom meets soft bottom or rocks meet weeds. I approach it a lot like open water. There should be a spot-on-the spot. If you find it, create a waypoint and you could have great angling for years to come. Walleyes move a lot, but they move in familiar patterns."
Under the ice pack, tribes of walleyes are on the move. Making them stop to take a look at something is like being a salesman. Unique tactics are like a foot in the door.
The UV Option
"UV colors intrigue me," says guide Tony Roach. "Last winter, UV baits in similar patterns as our usual hot colors started outproducing the standards at times. Northland UV Buck-Shot Spoons, Rapala UV Jigging Shads, and UV Jigging Rapalas had an impact on our fishing," he says. "I was a non-believer until I started fishing them. Some days, UV patterns were the only lures catching fish." Roach considered UV options critical on tough days.
We believe the best science still questions whether most fish we're after can see UV light. But are lure colors enhanced by UV brighteners in the paint, making them brighter in the presence of UV light? Which brings up another question: how deep can UV light penetrate in various water conditions to activate UV brighteners?
*In-Fisherman Field Editor Matt Straw, Brainerd, Minnesota, is an avid ice angler, and more than two-decade contributor to In-Fisherman publications.