Structureless Thinking for Ice Walleyes
August 01, 2015
Ice walleyes don't always relate to structure. Even in a lake with hundreds of underwater humps, bumps, and bars, they'll still frequent the main basin of the lake and cruise flats and shorelines. In prairie lakes or the Great Lakes where limited underwater structure is present, baitfish and walleyes tend to roam.
During the ice season, searching for walleyes on flats or in lake basins often requires drilling lots of holes, moving often, and believing the effort spent searching will eventually pay off-even though hole after hole reaps no reward.
On flats or in basins, there's not much distinct structure to key on, which makes deciding where to start fishing hard. Just start drilling and fishing is the best advice. Drill a hole, fish it, and see what happens. No action? Drill another hole and fish. Lots of work, but the best way to eliminate unproductive water.
Consider water depth and clarity when deciding where to drill your next hole. In clear water where depth ranges from 5 to 20 feet, for instance, I generally space my holes 15 to 20 yards apart. In deeper water (more than 20 feet) less light penetrates to bottom. So less light reflects from your lure, which may make it harder for fish to spot your lure from a distance. In shallow dirty water (5 to 15 feet) I drill my holes about 10 yards apart.
In most instances, due to only slight depth changes and because flats and basins often lack much distinct structure, where you start fishing doesn't matter. A few subtle edges, though, may attract baitfish and walleyes. At first-ice or when ice freezes relatively clear and clean, look for darker ice or snow-covered patches. A dark spot deflects your outline and any motion you may make and also creates a shaded edge that attracts bait and walleyes, especially on sunny days. Shorelines are edges, yet relatively few anglers ever target walleyes in shallow water (2 to 4 feet) along shorelines. Ice heaves (pushes)-especially those that form over flats-create an edge below the ice that attracts fish.
Predetermine how far apart to drill your holes and in which direction. Drilling holes in somewhat of a pattern helps eliminate unproductive water while you try to locate areas that concentrate fish-similar to open-water trolling. Over the years, we've developed a few search patterns that have helped track fish in structureless environments.
Straight Line Search -- When you're fishing alone, drilling holes in a straight-line pattern is a good method. Start by drilling ahole, check the depth, and do a quick assessment of the water clarity to determine how far apart to space your holes. If the water is 15 feet deep and clear, I often drill about 8 or 10 holes 15 yards apart in a straight line, which covers approximately a 120- to 150-yard stretch. Then I start fishing at one end and work my way to the other.
Look for signs of life like baitfish or fish moving through on sonar. Water clarity, depth variations, and bottom content attract and hold fish in specific spots and may lend clues to what is attracting the fish to that particular area. If I catch a fish, I stay at the same hole for a while even though it could have been a loner, a small pack of fish, or the edge of a school. If nothing else happens, I move on to the next hole. Or I use that hole as a new starting point and drill several more holes in a different direction, in an effort to get closer to an area that may hold more fish.
Zigzagging Search -- Drilling holes in a zigzag pattern is more easily accomplished with two or more anglers. Predetermine the general area you want to search and drill two holes 15 to 30 yards apart. Again, determine hole spacing based on water depth and clarity. When you're ready to try a new hole, for instance, simply move ahead of your buddy in the general direction agreed upon. Then when your fishing companion wants to try a new spot, he moves ahead and to the left or right of you. When one of you catches a walleye, the other should consider moving to the nearest hole or drilling more holes near the hole that produced.
Pinwheel Search -- This search tactic works best with multiple anglers and multiple augers. It works similar to straight-line or zigzag searching patterns, but multiple anglers and augers allow you to work together to spread out and search north, south, east, and west at the same time, eliminating unproductive water faster.
For instance, five anglers split and agree to work a different direction in a straight line or zigzag pattern. Eventually, if the angler who went west starts catching fish, the other anglers can use the hole that produced as the hub of the wheel and continue the search.
Baits that vibrate and flash are favorites on flats and in basins. Flash lures, even bladebaits, may not look like what a walleye would eat. But they create lots of flash and vibration, and they fall somewhat like an injured or dying minnow, things roaming walleyes key on to find food.
Select a bait you can feel vibrate when jigged (or ripped upward) and one that doesn't foul on the fall. Super-action flash lures like the Acme Little Cleo, Blue Fox Tingler, and Bay de Noc Do-Jigger produce lots of vibration and flash. Bladebaits, like Heddon's Sonar or Reef Runner's Cicada primarily create lots of vibration, which seems to attract most fish and trigger active fish, but it also seems to entice neutral or negative fish to strike. If fish are inactive, we've found that aggressive tactics can, at times, trigger more strikes than finesse tactics with livebait. It's the opposite of traditional thinking, but heavy, vibrating lures seems to excite neutral and negative fish
Until recently, swimming lures really weren't a good option for attracting fish on flats or in basins of stained lakes, because their traditional thin profiles and subtle action simply didn't have the attracting power of flash lures or bladebaits. But a few years ago, Nils Master introduced the Jigging Shad, the first larger-profile swimming lure. Due to its size, it's easier for fish to spot from a distance. And being made of lead, the bait is heavy enough to keep the line taut, which makes it easy to stay in contact with the bait, work the bait, and detect strikes. The Jigging Shad and Jigging Shad, Jr. are two of my favorite walleye baits.
The Salmo Chubby Darteris currently the largest swimming lure made, yet both big and small fish take the bait. Not only does the bait display a realistic profile, but it also swims with a lifelike action on the upstroke and on the fall. On the upstroke, the tail moves from left to right, which creates vibration (similar to a bladebait) and sends the lure swimming forward. On the fall, the bait settles with a realistic baitfish motion back into place.
This year, Salmo introduces two smaller sizes, Chubby Darter, Jr. and Mini Chubby Darter. Both exhibit similar swimming and vibrating qualities, and the smaller sizes likely will attract more anglers. I've fished the original Chubby Darter for two seasons now. So I know that most fish-big and small, predator and even panfish-aren't afraid to investigate and strike the larger bait.
For years, six inches up from bottom was labeled the magic zone. Having experienced the advantage of keeping my bait much higher and seeing walleyes rise up off bottom to slam the bait, however, I've now lost confidence in keeping my bait at the six-inch level.
These days I keep my lure at least a foot from bottom. Oh, I still drop the bait to the bottom to stir up bottom sediment. And sometimes a fish moves in that just won't rise up, so I lower the bait to the bottom and slowly lift it up. But in deeper water (say 30 feet) I usually work my lure, often a Nils Master Jigging Shad or Chubby Darter, 5 to 10 feet from the bottom. In 10 feet, I keep the bait 1 to 3 feet off bottom. So in 10 feet of water with three feet of ice, my bait is sometimes only 4 feet from the bottom of the ice. Trust me, the walleyes will come up.
For fun and to learn a little about walleye behavior and to discount some old tales, I suggest you play a little cat and mouse with a walleye or two this season. Last season, I had a large mark show up on the bottom in 30 feet while I was holding my bait 10 feet from bottom. As the fish started to rise up and rush my bait, I quickly cranked in five feet of line. The fish momentarily paused at the 20-foot mark so I bounced and jiggled the bait slightly, and the fish rushed the bait again, so I quickly reeled in another five feet of line. Having teased the fish up 20 feet in 30 feet of water, (now only 10 feet under the ice), I decided to see what the fish would do. The 5-pounder pounded my lure.