Targeting Big Ice Walleyes
October 27, 2016
It's not something fishermen like to talk about. Shrinkage. Cold causes folks to hunker down in their parkas and disappear until spring. Arms and necks contorted tight to torsos, we huddle close over holes in the ice and wait for a bite. Seven-foot rods and 12-pound test transform into toothpicks spooled with 4-pound. Lures contract accordingly. For no other reason than "it's cold," walleye fishers swap customary sized presentations for stuff that seems more suitable for panfish.
Among the reasons ice anglers believe big ice walleyes respond best to smaller, subtle approaches is that the fish often react to finesse with finesse. Subtle approaches beget subtle responses, perpetuating into a cycle—the more walleyes sluggishly chase and hesitate, the more we feel compelled to scale back. Gentle bites following long periods of inspection by fish—the usual routine when using smaller lures—prompts us to slow down and downsize even more. Meanwhile, a larger, more aggressive presentation may have been the answer. Anglers may be surprised by the assertive responses they'd incite from heavyweight walleyes if they'd try larger, more aggressive approaches.
Meccas like Lake Erie or Lake Winnipeg aside, hundreds of additional waters host copious populations of large walleyes where bigger, heavier, less traditional approaches score big bites. Sometimes, on pressured waters with full-grown fish, the worst mistake is to opt for small, subtle presentations, which often oblige walleyes and other predators to respond with subtlety or disinterest. Big lures often tag as many 2-pounders as they do 6s, proving that our perspective on big versus small isn't always accurate.
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The #7 and #9 Jigging Rapala were for years standard ice lures for walleyes. More recently, anglers have grown fearful of these relatively heavy offerings—which I call bombing baits—opting instead for tiny spoons and scaled-back approaches. I might suggest that it is the Jigging Rap's substantial heft—and its rapid, somewhat random "dartiness"— that still compels more big fish to eat it than almost anything else on hard water.
On other fronts, bladebaits remain the most overlooked presentation on ice. For big fish, this may be the most versatile category. Not only do remarkable lures like Patrick Sebile's Vibrato, Scott Stecher's Cicada, or Buddy Banks' Silver Buddy give off a lot of flash and vibration, they also offer fishy profiles and tremendous triggering qualities. They may not always produce volumes of smaller walleyes, but for bigger fish, I can't think of a more under-appreciated class of baits.
Fast-sinking lures, including Jigging Raps and select bladebaits, mostly shine on hard-bottom structures. Heavier jigging lures often fail to produce over soft-bottom basins. Your experience may differ, particularly if you're fishing baits well above bottom, but for working structures with hard packed sand, gravel, or rock, bombing baits often reign supreme.
At the opposite end of the sink-speed spectrum are big flutter spoons, many designed for trolling. Silver Streak, PK Flutterfish, Lake Fork Flutter Spoon, and others such as the 1/2-ounce Do-Jigger are outstanding "call" baits, ideal for decoying predators into your fishing area and occasionally triggering a big bite. Hybrid swimmers such as the River2Sea Glassie Vibe, LiveTarget Golden Shiner, and Rapala Rippin' Rap all decoy fish and induce strikes, given a fair shake in the right scenario.
For the past three years, exceptional fishing during fall has for me transitioned naturally into early, mid-, and late-ice bites. Wielding 3/4-ounce Vibratos, #9 Jigging Raps, and a few other options, I've continued catching big fish from 50°F water through the ice season, ending in late February. As far as walleyes go, formation of first ice probably isn't all we make it out to be. It's certainly not a life altering event that prompts fish to halt feeding or to abruptly switch forage because the surface has sealed over. It's why one of the finest strategies is to launch your boat just days before ice-up. Find and catch some walleyes and then return to the same spots with the same lures when safe ice forms.
Although walleyes won't likely have moved during ice formation, or often even in the ensuing weeks, what does change is the ability to move lures on a horizontal plane. We often make short pitches with these heavy jigging lures and work them back to the boat, but that isn't possible on ice. But by using baits with glide in their motion—Jigging Rap, Vibrato, and big flutter spoons—you can maintain some of the same attracting and triggering qualities these lures exhibit. Drop a #9 Jigging Rap on a slack line into 20 feet of water and it may come to rest 10 or more feet from center. The lure may initially disappear from your sonar screen, but you can often use this horizontal coverage to work fish into your area from a distance. Often, even when working from a boat, fish may follow the lure until it changes its posture and dangles directly below.
'Deke,' Shoot & Score
On Lake Erie, Captain Ross Robertson experiences a similar horizontal phenomenon, but here, current is the factor, which can sweep a lure outside the cone angle to a full 45 degrees from your position. A guide and tournament angler, Robertson approaches big walleyes on ice almost as if he's trolling big water. His results this past season were astounding, with over 100 fish exceeding 10 pounds. "The hardest thing for anglers to do on Erie is to leave schools of active 5-pounders to go search for 10s," he says, who last winter experienced the best ice conditions on Erie since 2003.
"One key to catching the 10s, 12s, and 14s on Erie and elsewhere is to get away from noise and traffic, just like in the open-water season." Analogous to a fine-tuned trolling program, he says depth control is a major factor on ice. "I catch more big fish working 3 feet or more off bottom. My biggest walleye last winter, a 14-pounder, bit a foot below my boots. I kept working the fish up in the water column until my swivel popped into the hole, and then two big eyeballs appeared just before my rod jumped."
While big baits aren't always the key to triggering big Erie 'eyes, Robertson uses them religiously to decoy wandering fish into the real estate below his hole. "Most days I have two baits down separate holes. One's a bigger decoy lure—a 7/8-ounce Nils Master Jigging Shad, 3/4-ounce Cicada, or 3/4-ounce Swedish Pimple. For maximum attraction, I also like a big salmon spoon, like a Silver Streak, which puts out huge flash and vibration. The second rod usually sits on a bucket, and is rigged with a smaller spoon, while I actively rip the 'deke' bait.
"Often, a big fish slashes in from nowhere and collides with the big lure," he says. "But it's equally common to bring in a big mark (on sonar) and watch it stop short. That's when I let it go slack to the bottom or quickly reel it up before picking up the rod with the smaller spoon. Once a big fish has followed the big lure in, she's committed and eats the smaller triggering bait right away."
Robertson adds that beyond the abundance of giant fish, Erie's strong current compels anglers to use 3/4- to 1-ounce lures, which aren't easily swept away. He also likes large swimming lures and bladebaits because they prevent bites from drum and 3- to 4-pound walleyes.
Whether he's deking big fish with a Cicada, Jigging Rap, or Silver Streak spoon, he uses stout 32- to 36-inch custom rods to rip lures upward before letting them flash and shimmy off to the sides. Because current and sideways swimming actions can pull even heavy lures out of the visible cone, it's important to use sensitive graphite rods and pay attention to your line, should a big fish crush a lure off the sonar screen.
One of the big fish tricks Robertson employs involves a 3/4-ounce Reef Runner Cicada tipped with several small minnows. He also does this with standard jigging spoons. He removes the Cicada's two double hooks and replaces them with #6 Gamakatsu round bend trebles on small split rings. He then lip hooks one small emerald shiner on each tine, for a total of 4 to 6 minnows. The effect is a flashy chandelier-like package that uses the subtle kicking motion of the minnows to make the blade barely rock and shimmy.
"Usually, I deadstick this bait, let the minnows add flash and slight action. Not all the minnows need to be alive or kicking. Just one or two lively ones are enough to present a tantalizing target. Fish usually can't resist it."
Robertson says the biggest problem he sees with anglers using these lures on ice is the tendency to overwork them. "With each little pump of the rod, you're moving a bladebait a lot farther than you think. There's a time and place for "stomping" a blade aggressively, but that's usually for attraction only. I rarely catch fish that way. Just give the bait a short, rapid pump, quickly lifting the rod tip several inches before letting the blade fall back toward bottom. A second or two after it comes to rest is usually when a walleye bites a bladebait."
Weirdness from Winnipeg
Even out on the endless flats of Erie or Manitoba's Lake Winnipeg, hulking predators occasionally turn tough. But adapting here doesn't necessarily mean scaling back size or speed. Likewise, despite notions to the contrary, the seemingly outlandish presentations used by top anglers here translates to other waters. Even occasionally on Winnipeg—and certainly on smaller big-fish lakes— the prevailing notion seems to be that big walleyes must be more selective and more likely to bite a small spoon or livebait, rather than something large and gaudy. Usually, the opposite is true, although given fishing pressure, it's often necessary to try something slightly different.
Ace tournament angler Alex Keszler, one of Canada's top sticks, has lately been triggering giants with some creative approaches. An old hand at the lake trout game, Keszler's been using 6-inch tubes with exciting results. Doing his best imitation of "The Most Interesting Ice Angler in the World," he says, "I don't always use the big tube, but when a giant comes in window shopping, I drop it down and often get whacked. Stay sharp, my friends . . ."
Rigged on a 1/2-ounce jighead and 5/0 Gamakatsu hook, Keszler's big tube represents a tantalizing slab of fleshy goodness. Though not many companies offer a 6-incher, a few possibilities include the Gitzit Super Tube, Water Wolf Tubezilla, and Canyon Plastics Giant Tora Gitzit.
"A big tube swims around under the ice with a lot more horizontal movement than you'd think" he says. It acts a little like an Airplane Jig. Something about the tube's appearance and motion make it look edible."
Playing on the advantages of horizontal coverage, Keszler last winter also dabbled with a Rapala BX Swimmer—a 43â'„4-inch slow-sinking plug designed for open-water casting. "The lure swims away from the hole when you drop it down," he says. "I work it slowly with large strokes of the rod. Then you stop and let it hover and slowly wobble back down. Big fish are attracted to this bait."
Pat O'Grady of PK Lures frequently wields one of his Ridgeline Crankbaits to ice big 'eyes and pike on western reservoirs and lakes, including Winnipeg. The shad-profile crank sinks slowly on a slack line, then "hunts" horizontally with each sweep of the rod. O'Grady says anglers fishing Devils Lake and elsewhere have fished the Ridgeline for big pike with good results.
Big Little Details
Other factors, such as color, remain open for discussion. Robertson admits he's more interested in depth control and lure profile, size, and weight. I agree that color isn't always important but usually fish gold and orange hues in stained water, whether I'm using a Jigging Rap, Vibrato, or anything else. In Erie's crystalline conditions, anything can work, though subtle chrome finishes with green, pink, or blue are consistently good. One day last winter, three of us fished a hot bite for 4- to 8-pound fish, each using a different color #7 Jigging Rapala. The fish showed no color preference.
Tipping with bait is another question. Robertson nearly always adorns his lures with a chandelier of small minnows. He removes the treble from his Jigging Raps, replacing it with a #4 Gamakatsu round-bend. He tethers it to the lure's belly with back-to-back split rings, giving tipped minnows or minnow heads a free-pivoting action, and a bit of separation for reluctant biters. With this combo, like the Cicada, he often strums the line with his finger, giving it slight up-and-down dancing motions.
Tipping can be just the right spice needed in some instances, even though the addition of minnows or minnow heads can disrupt the balance of some lures. As Robertson suggests, use minnows small enough to preserve lure action. Don't unbalance a double-hooked bait by tipping on one side and leaving the other blank. If you're using big baits to call fish, tipping is unnecessary. And when big fish are prowling below, they happily gobble a large Jigging Rap, bladebait, or Salmo Chubby Darter without bait.
Like color, there's no clear answer about rattle, other than walleyes detect its presence in certain lures. Robertson says he's seen many times in clear water where rattles have spooked big walleyes. But he also says rattling spoons such as a new model by Silver Streak, can be critical for calling fish. Although audible lures often prove to be effective decoys, they're less effective for triggering wary fish.
Short End of the Stick
For anglers who relish fishing large or heavy lures, there's a lack of quality ice rods up to the task. Many companies offer 28- to 32-inchers, but most fall short in length and appropriate rod power and tip action for these hefty presentations. You need sufficient muscle through the lower three-quarters of the blank that transitions into a moderately fast tip—a compromise between measured give and stiffness to impart a range of defined movements to heavier lures, from quick darts to longer sweeps. Extra length helps with shock absorption and helps control surging fish, as well as for stand-up fishing on ice. Anglers in shelters may prefer slightly shorter 32- to 36-inchers, but they sacrifice some advantages.
Thorne Bros. has lead the way in production of classy predator rods, offering numerous longer, heavier-action sticks in their Professional Plus line. Master rodmaker Lonnie King builds several primo options in spinning and baitcasting, from 36 to 48 inches. I've fished two Thorne rods—a medium-heavy 42-incher and a 48 with an 11-inch Tennessee handle—for over a decade and cherish both, each coupled with a Shimano Stradic 2500 and 8- to 12-pound-test Ande Premium or Sufix Siege mono. To me, the 42-incher is the best Jigging Rap rod on the market—if you're a fan of longer rods. The extended butt section adds comfort and leverage over big fish.
I've also used Frabill's 38-inch heavy-duty Ice Hunter, and like it for working bladebaits and Chubby Darter style lures, though it's slightly fast and stiff for Jigging Raps, at least for my taste. Clam makes 34-, 36-, and 40-inch Dave Genz Split Handle Rods, which I haven't used, but which may be appropriate for some of these presentations.
Both Keszler and O'Grady prefer longer rods for these presentations. Keszler fishes a 5-foot 2-inch Rapala R-Type Spinning Rod, an openwater model available only in Canada, while O'Grady uses custom 42- and 48-inchers.
I've caught more 5- to 10-pound walleyes the past two winters than in any previous two seasons combined—and I hadn't visited either Erie or Winnipeg during this stretch. Follow the movements of big fish from late fall into early ice. Wield the same aggressive lures you use in a boat. It's big walleyes you seek, not a limit of peanuts.