Enjoy Michigan’s Vast Walleye Resource…
Michigan is blessed with some of the best walleye fishing in the mid-west and when snow flakes start dancing and ice begins to form on area lakes, the fishing fun can be red hot. However, many anglers are not aware of the hot bite that is available as first ice forms. But, like any gambling man will tell you, there is no such thing as a sure thing. Finding and catching walleyes takes a working knowledge of their habits and using the proper tools to ice your limit.
It happens every year about this time. Old man winter arrives and along with snow comes freezing temperatures that turn rough seas into placid solid ice. First ice is when walleyes go on a feeding spree. Almost like they are celebrating the new season, they become active and put on the feed bag. Savvy anglers look for them in shallow water, usually near drop-offs or on the deep side of weed beds. This is when wolf packs often congregate near structure like: rock piles, fallen trees, gravel bars, hard clay or abrupt changes in bottom contour.
Start in about 10 feet of water. Drill holes on the deep side of green weeds, especially if the bottom is highlighted by a sand bar. Walleyes will hold in the weeds and pounce on minnows that swim across the sand bar. Weed edges offer good ambush points where walleyes hide in the shade and charge at lightning speed to gulp vulnerable baitfish. Any rocky structure is a magnet for roaming walleyes that use outcrops as cover, where they wait for roaming schools of baitfish that frequently school near rocks. Of course Michigan’s Great Lakes walleyes can be the exception to most walleye fishing rules, when ice first forms your best bet is to seek fish in deeper water, say 17-22 feet, as thicker ice forms and winter turns to spring, you can find big water walleyes roaming the shallows. On Saginaw Bay it is not unusual to have excellent late winter fishing close to shore, in shallow water less than 10 ft. deep.
Michigan hosts superb walleye fishing on many inland lakes. One technique that has proven effective on lakes Cadillac, Portage and Houghton, is a Jigging Rapala. Most savvy anglers tip the bottom treble with a small crappie minnow and a size #5 Rapala is the ticket for limit catches. One trick that fools wary fish in clear water is to place crappie minnow heads on the bottom treble and jig the offering close to bottom. Whether fishing deep or shallow the idea is to make the offering look like a feeding minnow. Begin by crashing the lure into the bottom, which causes a puff of sand that mimics the action of a minnow sucking food off bottom, bring the lure up a few inches and give it a dancing action by jigging the rod tip 6 inches and allowing the lure to drop fast and have a circling swimming action. Keep bringing the lure upward 1-3 feet off bottom, pause and jiggle or twitch the rod tip to give the minnows an erratic shaking motion that drives hungry walleyes into gulping the lure.
First ice walleyes can be caught using tip-ups and minnows. For this brand of fishing you need to take a page from lake trout angler’s diary. Scale down the braided heavy line and replace it with clear monofilament 6-10 lb. test, use a barrel swivel to attach 18-24″ fluorocarbon 6 lb. leader and a small size 8 or 10 treble hook which is lightly pinned near the minnow’s dorsal fin. A size 5 split shot or 1/8 oz egg sinker is placed above the swivel to hold the minnow near bottom. Most tip ups are set very lightly, so they spring easily and allow walleyes to take the minnow, gulp it deep and run with the offering without detecting the pressure from the tip-up line.
Walleyes prefer a blue shiner, but grays or even a sucker minnow 4-6” can provoke strikes. Place the minnow about 12″ off bottom when light is low during overcast weather, late evening or early morning. On sunny days keep the offering in the strike zone, say 6-8″ off bottom. The idea is to have enough room below the minnow to allow roaming walleyes to glide under the offering, tip their body upward and slurp the bait. Actually, walleyes vent food by sucking water through their gills at lightning speed and catching the bait inside their toothy mouth.
Bay de Noc Lure Company, Gladstone, makes two fantastic jigging lures for walleyes: Do-Jigger and Swedish Pimple. Stick with the smaller size Pimples in shallow water. Try metallic finishes and tip the hook with lively minnows, minnow head or piece of sucker cut bait. My all time favorite jigging spoon for monster walleyes, weighing over 10 pounds and northern pike, is the famous Do-Jigger. I prefer the smaller size in clear water, inland lakes or when fish are finicky. When walleyes are in a feeding mood, or when I’m trophy fishing, I switch to the larger size and tip the treble hook with one large minnow and two small minnow heads.
This spoon is legendary for drawing walleyes from far distances and teasing them into striking with a vengeance. The trick is to work the spoon high in the water column, start by pumping the spoon near the surface, let it fall a few feet, pump three or four times and let it fall again, keep up the pump-fall action until the lure is dancing on bottom. Then, work the lure toward the surface. On Saginaw Bay, Bay de Noc, Houghton Lake, Muskegon Lake and other trophy walleye hotspots this spoon is almost guaranteed to draw monster fish. One trick that works on any body of water is to work the Do-Jigger with your right hand, keep the spoon mid-way off bottom and when a walleye shows on your electronics twitch the rod in your left hand, which is a smaller spoon close to bottom. Walleyes that are attracted to the flashing, swimming big spoon will cruise along bottom directly beneath the dancing lure, with an enticing wiggle they will notice the smaller offering and gulp it.
Some Michigan ice anglers go nuts when first ice forms and they risk life and limb to drop the first lure in a walleye hotspot. I’d hold off if I were you, wait until ice is safe and fish with a friend. Most anglers pull gear onto first ice and it is a good idea to use a spud and check ice as you venture further from shore. Avoid any unsafe looking ice, river or creek outlets and stay away from protruding cattails, reeds, any structure that may cause the ice to be thin. Use ice cleats or Arctic Spurs to give you good footing on slick, newly formed ice.
Electrons can be the most important element to guarantee success. They are used to determine depth, mark structure, locate walleyes and most importantly show you the jigging lures. By watching electronics you can spot your lure, see when walleyes slide into striking range and give your lure an enticing jiggle, mixed with a pause that causes fish to slam the lure. It is this old fisherman’s opinion that without electrons you are missing what ice fishing is all about, you are simply fishing blind. Learn how to use modern electronics and you will more than double your catch in a single season and be icing limits when others are bored, cold and fishless. Savvy Michigan walleye gurus use GPS units to get on hotspots and electronics to see fish that they entice into striking.
Next time you drive past a local walleye lake and see anglers in pop-up shanties, rest assured they are staying warm while looking for fish on electronics. By combining jigging lures with tip-ups set away from the shanty anglers stay warm, catch more fish and enjoy Michigan’s vast walleye resource.