Last ice is one of the hottest times of the year to catch winter walleyes, and you don’t have to risk your life to cash in on the bonanza. In fact, the increase in late-winter walleye activity and ice-fishing success begins long before the ice begins to d
Walleye that have been lethargic and semi-active during the dead of winter awaken as the days begin to lengthen and walleye sense that spring isn’t that far away. The wakeup call is further enhanced by changes in water temperature and Ph due to run-off. These subtle changes take place well in advance of actual break-up, but they spur walleyes to a heightened level of activity that anglers can take advantage off.
As winter wanes, walleye become more active and more predictable. The closer spring gets, the more time they’re going to spend in the shallows chasing baitfish, which also move shallow in anticipation of spring. The only stimulus greater than the need to eat is the need to procreate. Long before the actual spawn takes place walleyes gravitate towards barriers such as dams and rivers, inlets and gravel shoals where they will spawn in early spring. Savvy anglers position themselves along these travel corridors that transient walleyes are using to migrate towards the shallows. During the waning days of last ice, expect hot action in as little as a couple feet of water.
Moving water is like a siren’s song to late-winter walleyes. Look for late-ice walleyes to be drawn to wherever creeks or streams enter natural lakes. Even subtle flows like drainage ditches can attract pre-spawn walleye and adjacent flats in the main lake can be a hotspot. On manmade lakes, look for walleye to head towards the reservoir’s source. Where a chain of lakes exists, walleyes will congregate below dams that block their migration.
Expansive Great Lakes bays and estuaries are home to prodigious numbers of walleyes that roam wide and fair in search of baitfish. Come last ice though, the walleyes zero in on rivers and streams that feed the bays. The migration is not a hell-bent-for-leather rush, but more of a gradual push that gives anglers plenty of opportunity to intercept.
The elevated metabolism and activity levels mean walleyes will spend increasing amounts of time in the shallows as last ice approaches. During the bright midday hours, expect walleyes to retreat to the security of deep water, but schools of marauding walleyes will begin patrolling adjacent structure and break lines on a more regular basis before ending up in the shallows from dusk to dawn. The same fish-holding humps, reefs, and structure that provided hot walleye action on first ice will be dynamite again when the ice starts to melt. Expect the really skinny water to be hot from dawn to early morning and again in late afternoon until just after dusk. Fishing after dark is a time most anglers don’t explore, but it has tremendous last-ice potential.
Shallow is a relative term, but it might mean as little as a couple feet of water. Walleyes invade the shallows to harass and corral schools of baitfish. Under low–light situations and under the cover of darkness, walleyes have the advantage. Their superior vision allows them to feast on unsuspecting schools of baitfish and hunt in marauding packs. Still, walleyes are on edge in the skinny water. They realize they’re out of their element and are ultra-spooky when in the shallows. Buzzing snowmobiles, the rhythmic thumping of a spud, the drone of an ice auger and a cluster of noisy anglers will send a pack of walleyes hightailing it for deeper water. Keep noise to a minimum and avoid crowds. Punch holes well in advance of prime time.
Several Michigan walleye waters produce predictable last-ice walleye bites that you’ll want to take advantage of this winter.
Little Bay De Noc
“We definitely see a big influx of fish from Green Bay right at the end of the season,” claimed Kevin Lee of Sall-Mar Resort in Rapid River (906-553-4850; email@example.com). “The last couple years we’ve been lucky to even have ice at the end of the season.” Lee said that as the waters of Little Bay De Noc have gotten clearer walleyes have tended to use increasingly deeper water during much of the year. Last ice though is one time when the walleyes move back shallow to traditional structure. Lee said expect to find schools of walleyes on last ice in the 20- to 40-foot depths on structure on Center Reef and along the East Bank south of Gladstone. Lee said that the waters of Little Bay De Noc have become so clear that you can see bottom in 26 feet of water. As a result, anglers have had to fish deeper or at night to be successful.
Last-ice walleyes in Little Bay De Noc are on the move headed towards reefs or river mouths where they’ll eventually spawn, so anglers need to be mobile willing to make a change if the ‘eyes aren’t present. Then again, positioning yourself in a prime location and waiting for the walleyes to come to you can be a good tactic, too.
Typical walleye fare still produces on last ice in LBDN. “Your Jigging Raps, Do Jiggers, Swedish Pimple and Rattlin’ Buckshot lures are still going to be you best bets on last ice,” claimed Lee. Many anglers tipped their lures with a minnow, but Lee catches dozens of walleyes each year on the bay using a clean Jigging Rapala.
Indian netting has taken its toll on Little Bay De Noc. “The fishing is still good, but it’s nothing like it was 10 years ago.” Even with fewer walleyes Little Bay De Noc remains a good bet on last ice.
My biggest walleye taken through the ice was caught on last ice on Saginaw Bay. I was within a stone’s throw off the mouth of the Saginaw River with my friend Don Luenberger. Don told me to fish a hole he’d had good success in the day before. I’d only jigged my gold/orange Do Jigger a couple of times when I felt a familiar thump. After a spirited, anxious battle I had a 29-inch pig flopping on the ice. Fish like that are rare now, but you’ll still find hot action on last ice on Saginaw Bay.
“We usually still have ice at the end of the season,” said Ernie Plant of Frank’s Great Outdoors (989-697-5341; franksgreatoutdoors.com) in Linwood. “Anywhere off of feeder streams or rivers around the bay can be great on last ice. Walleyes are attracted to flowing water that time of year so fishing can be very good in 3 to 6 feet of water off places like the mouth of the Rifle River near Standish, in the shallows out from the mouths of the Pine, Saganning and Pinconning rivers, west of the Kawkawlin and the Saginaw rivers and near Quanicasee.”
The influx of runoff and moving water produces a murky tinge to the shallows that walleyes prefer. “It’s good if it’s a little murky,” said Plant. “You want a little tinge because walleyes are going to be very spooky in the shallow water.” Plant said that stealth is extremely important when fishing walleyes in the shallows. “One key is to stay away from the crowds,” advised Plant. “You get a couple guys running power augers or a few snow machines running by and it’s over. Drill your holes well in advance of when you expect the action to take place, which is usually early and late in the day.”
Plant said that up to 60-70% of the walleye spawn in the bay. Some fish will run up the rivers in the fall, but those are normally males. The bigger females will move into the shallows, do their thing and head back out into the main lake. The window of opportunity is short and sweet, but hit it right and the fishing can be incredible.
Plant said that you’re not going to catch the hawgs that Saginaw Bay was known for 10 or 15 years ago, but catching a limit of 4- to 5-pound walleyes during the hot last-ice bite is not uncommon. A variety of jigging spoons will fool last-ice walleyes including Northland Rattlin’ Buckshot spoons, Swedish Pimples, Moonshine lures, Custom Jigs and Spins RPM jig and Do Jiggers. Do Jiggers are a favorite of mine because they are a light spoon that flutters slowly down when jigged in shallow water giving walleyes plenty of time to strike.
There are numerous access sites and road ends where ice anglers can get on the bay. For more information contact the Bay City Operations Service Center office at 3580 State Park Drive, Bay City, MI 48706 989-684-9141.
Michigan’s largest inland lake at more than 20,000 acres, Houghton Lake is also one of the Wolverine State’s most consistent walleye waters. With few spots over 20 feet deep and little structure, walleyes can be widely scattered on Houghton Lake much of the year, but come last ice you’ll find walleye in very predictable locations.
“Moving water is a big attraction that time of year,” claimed Jeff Dow of Lyman’s On The Lake Resort (989-422-3231). “Out in front of the creeks and rivers like the Cut, Denton and Knapen can be really good then.” Dow said that schools of pre-spawn walleyes cluster in the 6- to 8-foot depths on last ice prior to moving up the streams to spawn. Dow said Houghton Lake produces steady walleye action that’s supported by natural reproduction.
Limits of two to three-pound ‘eyes that will average 16 to 20 inches are common on last ice. Houghton Lake usually has upwards of 20 inches of ice during a typical winter so safety usually isn’t an issue right up to season’s end. Dow said that two tactics take Houghton Lake walleye-tip-ups baited with lively blue shiners are good because anglers can back off and use a passive approach to prevent spooking walleyes in shallow water. Others use jigging spoons like Williams Wobblers and Swedish Pimples with minnows. “I don’t know if it’s the water clarity or what in Houghton Lake, but purple is always a good color,” offered Dow. “Gold, silver, pink and chartreuse are good colors, too.”
Both lakes Cadillac and Mitchell are among the state’s most consistent producers of walleyes. Similar to Houghton Lake, both lakes are relatively shallow and featureless. Walleyes relate to subtle humps, scattered rocks, weedlines during much of the year. On last ice, the walleyes become a little more concentrated and the angler who can be on the ice during the waning days of the season can cash in.
The last few days of the ice season finds avid ice anglers playing hooky to get in on the hot last-ice walleye bite. On Cadillac, off the old Navel Reserve building on the northeast corner of the lake is typically a good spot on last ice. Typically the walleyes are nice 17- to 22-inch fish, but you’ll catch a lot of short fish, which bodes well for the future of the fishery.
It’s pretty hard to beat a jigging lure, like Custom Jigs and Spins RPM jig (customjigs.com/products/rotating-power-minnow), for Cadillac walleyes. Try the new No. 5 size in the rainbow of new glow patterns the lure comes in. Most anglers fish it clean, but adding some scent or a minnow head can help.
The channel that connects lakes Cadillac and Mitchell is always a draw for last-ice walleye on both lakes. Like Cadillac, Lake Mitchell’s relatively uniform depths has walleye widely scattered during most of the year, but one hotspot on last ice is on the north end of the lake where Mud Creek empties into the lake. Look for the roller rink building along the road there. A rocky bottom there in 8 to 12 feet of water attracts spawning walleyes. Early and late in the day is best, and if your timing is right, taking a limit of chunky walleyes is not too difficult.
For information on lodging and amenities in the area contact the Cadillac CVB at Cadillac Area Visitors Bureau, 201 North Mitchell Street, Suite #102, Cadillac, MI 49601. Phone (231) 775-0657, Toll Free (800) 22-LAKES, Fax: (231) 779-5933 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.
Last ice has its perils and rewards. Last ice is shaky ice and should never be trusted, but if you can get on it safely, walleye’s will be in a heightened activity level and schools of pre-spawn walleyes can be found in predictable locations.
As the ice starts to deteriorate, an extra measure of caution needs to be used. Ice conditions that are safe one day can change quickly as intensifying sunlight, current and increasing temperatures melt ice quickly. The window of opportunity can be short. Take extra measures like wearing a life jacket or even a survival suit, carrying ice awls and a GPS and make sure you have you cell phone in a water-proof bag or container and go with a buddy or two. Most of all, use your head. No walleye is worth an icy dip or worse yet, loosing your life. There’s always next year.