If there’s one thing my lifelong fishing obsession has taught me about the wandering ways of walleye it’s that I never know where, exactly, they are in a waterway at any given moment. What I have learned, however, is that it’s where their food sources are that depicts their location.
Ice fishing’s no exception. But patterning baitfish movements when a waterway’s frozen over can be a challenge. Instead of covering swaths of water while watching the screens of my electronics, or while casting or trolling in search of their predators, my offerings are limited to being fished below a few choice holes.
How do I know where to place those holes? Some of it is years’ worth of knowledge of fishing a particular body of water. But even then, it’s really more that I analyze the bite by utilizing my equipment to decipher where baitfish are, even more so aren’t, while I’m on the water.
In short: Under the ice, walleye roam deep, shallow and everywhere in-between in search of food. But you’ll never know just where they are unless you drill a hole and see for yourself.
Search And Ye Shall Find
If it’s not spring—when walleye are following their urge spawn over feeding—they are following forage. It’s as straightforward as that. To put it simply: Locate forage and you’ll find where these fickle fish are feasting.
A good example of this would past Ice Fishing Vacation/Schools (fishingvacationschool.com) held on Lake Huron’s Saginaw Bay; instructed by fishing pros Mike Gofron, Mark Brumbaugh and me. (This year’s event, by the way, will be held on the same waterway February 5 through 8, 2012.) Here we have found exceptional bites in the most commonly fished depths of 18 to 20 feet, yet, we’ve also had outstanding catches in water as shallow as 6 feet. How we figured out where the best bite was through trial and error; by first fishing where we thought forage and feeding walleye should be, then realizing they weren’t there and moving on.
This particular bay is relatively shallow so, in general, we start in depths of 18 feet to 25 feet; making sure to drill holes as close to breaklines as possible. Baitfishes tend to swim along these drops in the bottom, just as we follow roads. It’s easy to locate these changes in depth with my Lowrance sonar/GPS and Navionics mapping program. With the Navionics SD card in the unit’s card reader and the map in the background of the GPS readout, the entire Saginaw Bay hydrographic map is right there before my eyes, as well my exact location in conjunction to the layout of the underwater land.
Change, And Then Change Again
As a group, the school’s instructors and students utilize many different lure styles. Personally, from the compartments of my Plano waterproof Stowaway tackle totes, I’ll pick the perfect minnow silhouette and horizontal swimming action of a Rapala Jigging Rap, as well the vertical lift and fluttering fall of a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons and Forage Minnow Spoons. As scent plays a huge role in making walleyes bite, I always tip my lures with live minnows if they are small—kept lively in a foam-lined Plano bait bucket—or just the heads or tails of larger ones. I also use the scent-wafting Berkley Gulp! Minnow Heads.
But even with my favorite jigging lures tied on and baited up, if my Lowrance sonar and Marcum underwater viewing system show me there’s neither fish nor forage in the area, then I know it’s time to move on.
Move Quickly And Quietly
Overall, our students catch a lot fish in the deeper water of the bay. But when deep water of Saginaw Bay doesn’t give up fish to the extent we know it can deliver we seek new areas, heading shallower as we go. But when moving over thin water you need to do so speedily and stealthy as fish here spook easily. And it’s the little things we do that make the transition smoother and catching easier.
Tossing my pre-rigged ice rods into a 5-gallon bucket just will only cause twisted and tangle lines; instead, I surround the lures, while they’re attached to the rod’s hook keeper or foot of the line guide closest to the reel, with a Lure Secure lure wrap and then place them into an Otter Sportsman’s Case. (The Sportsman’s Case is a foam-filled rectangular container, similar to a briefcase, which holds up to six ice rod combos snug and secure.) By using the aforementioned, I don’t have to fumble around while untangling lines and possibly hooking myself once I’m ready to fish.
Once all the school’s instructors and students get to a new spot—as close to structure as possible, such as one of the bay’s many weed beds or rock piles—we all drill our holes and set up our portable shanties as quickly so as to let the environment around us quickly settle down.
Contrary to popular belief, the best auger for cutting holes over shallow water is a gas-powered auger. They cut fast and the chore is over quickly. I use StrikeMaster power augers because their blade design, which shaves ice better than a razor to well-lathered whiskers, is like no other and they drill holes swiftly. And I don’t let the sound of StrikeMaster’s powerful Solo engine keep me from using it over shallow water; from under the ice, all that’s heard is the blades carving ice. Not much of the engine’s noise penetrates below the surface. In mere minutes, the task of boring holes is done.
Besides using my Lowrance sonar, I also like to use my MarCum underwater viewing system when ice fishing shallow water. With an underwater camera, I can look out to the sides and find structure like weeds and rock, and re-drill holes closer to them if need be; I’m also on the lookout for baitfish, and, of course, their predators.
Because fish in shallow water are easily spooked, I like to give an area at least an hour-and-a-half’s worth of angling before moving on. No matter how quiet an angler is, noise is going to be made and baitfish and walleye will scurry out of the area for some time before venturing back.
Get Set And Go
Locating walleye when ice fishing is a matter of moving until their forage is found. Whether you start shallow and work your way deeper, or the other way around, the moral here is to move until you find fish. But remember to tread lightly when you do.
Overall, you’ll never know just where the baitfish and walleye are unless you drill a hole and see for yourself.
Mark Martin, who resides in Southwest Lower Michigan, is a professional walleye tournament angler with Anglers Insight Marketing (aimfishing.com) and an instructor with the Ice-Fishing Vacation/School (fishingschool.com). For more information, check out his website at markmartins.net.