You can walk into any well stocked tackle shop to find a fine array of lures fit for beefing up your hardwater walleye ice fishing arsenal. Internet searches produce even more lures practically begging you to jig, swim, twitch, rip, nod, dart, and jiggle. But keeping track of it all, let alone deciding what to plug into your playbook, when, can be tough. So we set out to review a few hot and happening trends of interest to walleye fans, with tips from some of the Ice Belt's hot sticks.
Anyone who has been sunburned knows the power of ultraviolet radiation, yet the subject of "UV finishes" remains foreign to many ice anglers. It won't stay that way for long, because some lure makers are factoring electromagnetic rays into the ice equation.
When you apply a reflective base coat, often white or chrome, then cap it with fluorescent paints and optical brighteners, it's possible to create a lure finish that absorbs energy from ultraviolet light and re-emits it in wavelengths from the visible spectrum. Done right, it enhances the vividness of a lure's colors, potentially making the bait easier for fish to see. And, because UV rays penetrate deeper than visible light, the effect is pronounced in deep water and during low-light periods. But we're not talking night bites.
Such slick paint jobs have gained favor in some fishing circles, notably among open-water trout and salmon seekers, but their applications for icewater 'eyes remain largely untapped. "I think UV finishes are the next big thing," says Northwoods guide Tom Neustrom. "UV gives anglers something different — something besides glow. With UV you get much more color differentiation."
Having fished Rapala Shad Raps cloaked in the company's UV Bright, and helped test new UV Jigging Rap finishes, Neustrom is a believer in their power to make 'eyes take notice. "UV is especially beneficial in low-light and dark-water conditions," he says. Veteran guide, touring pro, and on-ice educator Mark Martin agrees. Like Neustrom, Martin has put Rapala's UV finishes to the test on a variety of walleye waters, and has found situations where they increase his catch rates.
"UV shines in tannin-stained and dirty-water conditions," he says, explaining that in the relatively clear waters of Lower Michigan's famed Saginaw Bay, ultraviolet finishes get the nod when inflows from the Saginaw River and other tributaries lower water clarity. "Same thing happens on many otherwise clear natural lakes when heavy cloud cover rolls in during the day, and when the snow melts and water runs down the holes in late winter," he says. "Even in clear water, UV is beneficial in low-light conditions, from sunrise to about 9 in the morning and again from 3:30 or so until sunset in the evening. After dark, glow takes over."
Martin fishes UV lures the same as similar lures with glow and non-glow finishes. "So far, I've had the most success with Rapala's Jigging Shad Rap," he says. "Probably because it's profile matches the shad and bluegill forage in so many of the lakes I fish." A typical cadence calls for 25 to 30 seconds of jigging, followed by up to 35 seconds of settling time. Lures are fished tipped with a bit of Berkley Gulp! softbait or minnow head.
Clack And Dart
Back in 1991, when In-Fisherman wrote the book on ice fishing (literally, Ice Fishing Secrets), large-predator jigging lures could be lumped into three categories: flash lures like the Acme Kastmaster and Swedish Pimple; swimming lures like the Jigging Rapala and Northland Air-Plane; and simple leadheads like Lindy's Fuzz-E-Grub. I'd argue it's still a valid system, though the three original groups have gained a multitude of members, not to mention numerous forks in their family trees.
In the second category, for example, two of the hottest trends of late include darter-style swimmers like Salmo Chubby Darter and Lindy Darter, along with lipless rattlebaits — fondly called clackers by some. Both excel in a number of situations, notably calling walleyes in from a distance. Ace ice guide and open-water walleye pro Kevin McQuoid explains the Lindy Darter's allure on large systems such as Minnesota's mighty Mille Lacs Lake includes its ability to attract the attention of nearby 'eyes with its rattles and flashy gyrations on the uptake, then close the deal with fine swimming moves and subtle twitches on the fall and pause phases.
Though clackers such as LiveTarget's Golden Shiner, Northland's Live-Forage Rippin' Shad, Rapala's Clackin' Rap, and Salmo's Zipper have been around open-water for a while — and enterprising icemen have experimented with them here and there for walleyes and pike — they're now gained credibility on ice. In-Fisherman Field Editor Gord Pyzer, who's explored the clacker scene in depth, says he keeps a rattlebait rigged on at least one rod at all times when pursuing walleyes. As with darter-style swimmers and any bait new to your arsenal, a key to success is having the determination to tie one on and give it a fair shake — without losing faith and switching to a "confidence" lure after a few jig strokes.
Metal Of Honor
No walleye arsenal would be complete without the wobble, flash, and flutter of spoons, which for good reason have been a staple of the ice trade for decades. "No single spoon does it all, but you don't need a multitude of them, either," Neustrom says. "Most times you can get by with three that cover the bases in speed of the drop, wobble, and weight (for water depth or current)." Over the years, he's watched a parade of spoons sizzle, then fizzle. "We've all seen lures come on the scene for a season or two that are really pretty or someone catches a big fish on them, but they're situation baits that don't stand the test of time," he says.
Proper weight and wobble are critical, and it's a balancing act that's hard to achieve. A longtime Northland pro staffer now working with Rapala, Neustrom says that Northland's Macho Minnow ranks high among his favorite all-time spoons. "Again, it's all about proper weight and wobble," he says. "There's no rattle, but the clicker makes just enough noise. Because of the design, you don't need meat. You can add it, but I fished it many times without any tipping because the wobble is so enticing on its own."
In contrast, spoons like Luhr-Jensen's Crippled Herring are "too heavy, too stiff, and fall too fast; you have to add meat to them to make them work," he says. "The Swedish Pimple is a great spoon, same with the K-B Wobbler. I look back over 30-plus years of ice fishing and these are right up there. We used to use large spoons, sizes 7 and 9, in 12 to 18 feet of water, and caught a lot of big fish on them. Now the trend is toward downsizing and finessing, which is fine, because everyone's main goal is to get bit. And if getting bit means downsizing the presentation, so be it. But we caught a lot of trophy walleyes on big baits over the years, and still do. So you don't always have to downsize, the only exception being finessing negative fish, which really works."
Martin, too, has a soft spot for old standbys. "I've been using Little Cleos since I was knee high," he says. "These thick little spoons have a good wobble and flutter that catches walleyes, yet they're largely overlooked by the masses." Trademark Cleo cadences are "as erratic as possible," particularly when fish aren't around. "Jerk them up, slap 'em on bottom, attract attention," he says. Tweaks are basic. Add a snap to the spoon — for maximum action — and a ball-bearing swivel a short distance up the line. "Don't clip a snap-swivel to the spoon, any spoon, or you make it nose-heavy and kill the action on the fall," he says.
Having sung proven spoons' praises, it's worth noting that the frontier always holds promise as well. Northland's new Macho Whistler Spoon, for example, sports four beads and a propeller on a metal shaft, throwing it into a branch of the flash lure family tree with other noisy spoon concoctions like ReelBait's Fergie Special Spoons (which lacks the prop but features glass and brass rattles). Such noisy spoons trade flutter for clamor, but aren't totally without action. "The propeller slows the Macho Whistler's descent, allowing the cut-brass body to flash and flop," says decorated hardwater guide Tony Roach.
And what about bladebaits? They pack power and finesse into one presentation — and also overlooked by many icemen. Curved-blade Cicadas and straightmen like the Silver Buddy and Heddon Sonar have been around the block, while newer blades like Northland's Fish Fry Minnow Trap are gaining ground. And just last summer, of all times and places, while I was working a Cabela's North American Bass Circuit qualifier in Madison, Wisconsin, Vibration Tackle's Justin Blanchar dropped an EchoTail in my hand. Billed as a hybrid blade, it features a weighted nose and tail section designed for holding softbait trailers. "Try this on ice," he whispered. Good Lord willing, I will, as the quest to track rising stars and stalwarts on the walleye scene continues.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications and director of the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, masterswalleyecircuit.com.