The Transition from Soft to Hard Water
They say that a good baseball player fails about 70 percent of the time. A hitter who reaches base just three times out of 10 is considered excellent! The average ice fisherman is probably going to stack up about the same, especially if the species being sought is walleye.
Ice fishing in general is challenging, but ice fishing for walleye is downright mind numbing at times. Several factors make it difficult to find and consistently catch winter walleye.
Unlike other species of fish that find a winter habitat and then stick close to that spot all winter, walleye are more likely to be on the move than just about anything with fins. This goes double for walleye living on Great Lakes bodies of water like Lake Erie, Little Bay de Noc and Saginaw Bay.
All of these fisheries are similar in that anglers are faced with targeting huge amounts of water, much of which is distinguished by being almost featureless. Miles of sprawling flats interrupted only occasionally by a small rock or gravel outcropping pretty much describes the bottom habitat that Great Lakes walleye call home. Faced with a featureless bottom like this, it’s no wonder that walleye are constantly on the move to find food.
Because walleye are constantly roaming over large areas, about the only thing an angler can do is try to determine “geographic regions” that routinely hold walleye and target those areas. The proverbial needle in the haystack, finding these “high potential” spots is a job best handled not on the ice, but before the ice forms.
Any good deer hunter spends copious amounts of time scouting prior to hitting the woods with gun or bow. Scouting helps the hunter determine the travel routines of the animals and where best to intercept them.
Ironically, ice fishermen are faced with a similar dilemma, but very few anglers scout prior to hitting the ice. Instead, the typical ice fisherman heads straight to a spot or spots that have produced in prior years. Sometimes this strategy works and sometimes it doesn’t.
Spending a little time fishing in open water just prior to the ice forming can help in narrowing down productive areas to target once the ice forms. Once the surface water temperature dips to 40 degrees or below, Great Lakes walleye start abandoning their tendency to suspend in the water column and primarily spend their time on or near the bottom.
Slow trolling (1.2-1.5 MPH) minnow style crankbaits near bottom is a good way to cover lots of water and also to pinpoint geographic areas that are holding walleye. A second equally effective approach would be to drift jigs or live bait rigs tipped with minnows.
Targeting the bottom and monitoring the sonar for signs of life are the keys to scouting for areas that may have a higher percentage of holding walleye once the ice forms. With the help of a good quality color sonar/GPS unit, it’s pretty easy to identify areas where the bottom is exceptionally hard. Rock or gravel outcroppings are going to show up on the sonar unit as both a wider and brighter band along bottom. Even if no fish are holding on these hard bottom areas, saving the location of them on the GPS unit makes sense as these are exactly the kinds of structure walleye are going to turn up using eventually.
Obviously, any place that actually produces a fish is worthy of saving as a GPS coordinate that can later be revisited when the ice forms. By establishing a “milk run” of spots that have produced fish or spots that have promise, an ice fisherman can eliminate much of the unproductive water and dial in on the most promising locations.
Mobility and Navigation on Ice
In the same way that using a boat to locate fish late in the fall covers water, a serious ice fisherman is going to need a quad, UTV or snow machine to cover water efficiently. Equipping these machines with GPS navigation equipment is critically important.
At Fishing 411 TV we use the same GPS navigation gear found on our fishing boats for ice fishing. Mounting a GPS to the handlebars of a quad or snow machine allows us to navigate precisely to waypoints saved during the open water season.
A snow machine is without question the most efficient means of covering frozen water. Typically snow machines also have more torque and power to pull portable shelters and all the gear the modern ice fisherman totes. Wide track models like the Ski Doo Skandic are designed to traverse deep snow and slush and also to haul heavy loads of fishermen and gear.
The typical snow machine these days is made more for speed than for navigating deep snow and slush. The Skandic is available in both four stroke and two stroke models. The two stroke models have more torque and are lighter than four stroke models, allowing them to pull more gear.
In the winter very few species of fish bite readily all day long. Walleye tend to feed most aggressively in low light conditions that favor their “cruising” hunting style. Because the water under the ice tends to be clear compared to other times of year, walleye hunt early and late in the day and use this natural cover of gloom to slip in close enough to strike at forage fish.
Like sharks that are constantly on the move, schools of walleye roam around following their nose and instincts to find forage. Prime time is no time to be moving around hunting for walleye. Instead it makes more sense to sit tight on known fish producing spots during prime time keeping bait in the water.
During the middle of the day, moving aggressively to try and find fish makes more sense. While walleye are less likely to be actively hunting during the middle of the day, that doesn’t mean they won’t bite at a meal of opportunity.
Any fish that are caught during the middle of the day are a bonus and even more valuable these spots are in turn added to the “milk run” providing the angler with that many more options for future fishing trips.
The other piece of wisdom that makes sense in approaching walleye boils down to fishing style. Some anglers fish for walleye aggressively, using lures that have a lot of action like jigging/swimming bait, spoons, blade baits, etc. Other anglers favor a more subtle approach using jigs tipped with minnows, minnows dangled below tip-ups or dead stick fishing methods.
The best approach is frankly to do both at the same time. In Michigan, anglers are allowed up to three fishing lines per person. Targeting walleye on ice makes the most sense to set out at least one tip-up baited with a live minnow, then to jig with a rather aggressive lure type using a second rod and to set out a dead stick with the third and final line.
Set the tip-up close by so it’s convenient to check this fish trap often and make sure the bait remains lively. The aggressive jigging and dead stick approach are going to be best accomplished from the same location with the aggressive jigging approach in your strong hand and the dead stick positioned close to your off hand.
The process of jigging often attracts walleye, but it is the subtle dead stick that routinely produces the bite. There are a variety of ways to set up a dead stick, but one of the most simple methods is to rig a No. 8 size treble hook at the terminal end of a reel spooled with six or eight pound test fluorocarbon line. Then put one or two small split shots on the line about two feet above the treble hook, just to sink the bait.
Bait this rig with a live minnow hooked through the back and lower the rig so the bait is positioned about 12 inches off the bottom. Set the rod down and let this dead stick rig remain motionless.
It’s amazing how often the dead stick produces the majority of the bites. Dead sticking is deadly, but at times the active jigging approach produces better. Going with both an active and passive approach every time on the ice, simply increases the chances of catching fish.
Summing It Up
Ice fishing for walleye is rarely a slam dunk. Occasionally an angler sits down on a school of active fish and commences to catch a fast limit. Unfortunately, these instances are rare compared to the typical day which involves a lot more work and far fewer bites.
To consistently catch winter walleye requires putting in the extra effort and scouting prior to the ice forming. On the ice it’s important to keep a mobile attitude and to move often during the middle of the day. Ironically, it’s just as important to sit tight early and late in the day when walleye are most likely to be active.
Fish for winter walleye using both active and passive presentations. Most importantly, pay close attention to what’s working on any given day. These are the subtle clues that when compiled can potentially add up to a great day of ice fishing.