There are nearly as many ways to catch walleyes as there are walleyes (millions of them), but the first step in being successful when targeting walleyes beneath the ice is the same as the first step in open-water fishing – having the right gear. Possessing appropriate rods, reels, tip-ups and line for the task at hand is job one.
Let’s start with rods; you want sticks that are neither too stiff nor too limber. I like medium to medium/heavy action rods, something that will allow you to set the hook properly but not jerk the fish’s mouth off on the hook set. Remember you are not fishing for 30-pounders, nor bluegills. Set the hook firmly but not severely.
I use the same rods and reels for both my jigging rods and dead-sticking rods. I use small spinning reels – you do not need a lot of line capacity (as you would salmon fishing). The difference between the rods and reels for each technique is the line.
I like Fireline on my jigging rod because it has less stretch than mono or fluorocarbon, but I always use about 12 to 18 inches of six-pound test fluorocarbon leader. I recommend Vanish. I use a tiny (like a No. 9 VMC) ball-baring swivel to attach the leader to the main line. The swivel is critical – it helps minimize line twist. And too large a swivel will interfere with the action of the jigging bait.
For my dead-stick rod, I run straight six-pound fluorocarbon, but again, a swivel and a leader, too. I use straight fluorocarbon because it’s stiffer than Fireline and is easier to work with if you’re using a slip bobber, which I often do.
It’s the same setup with a tip-up, swivel and fluorocarbon leader. The only difference is I like to put a small clip-on bobber right below the tip-spool. It not only helps rest your proper depth, but it tells you if you have a wind trip when you get a flag. If the bobber is still in place, you know a fish didn’t take off with the minnow. I prefer round tip-ups these days as they cover the hole, which helps keep it open if there’s blowing snow causing it to ice up. Clam makes a good one. Fluorocarbon is preferable to monofilament as it is nearly invisible and has such a small diameter that it slips between the walleye’s teeth without getting cut.
For dead-sticks and tip-ups, I prefer a #14 treble hook for live minnows, hooked lightly below the backbone about halfway between the dorsal fin and the tail. Always use the smallest split-shot you can get away with because it will allow the minnow to swim more naturally. If using a slip bobber, use just enough weight to maintain neutral buoyancy.
Your reels should not be completely anti-reverse, as back-reeling helps when playing a fish. I prefer to back reel rather than just depend on the drag, as it lets you feel the pressure the fish exerts. Remember, you’re using six-pound test. If you hook a giant, it’ll hold as long as you play the fish properly. Don’t horse it.
When it comes to jigging lures, I generally use either a horizontal swimming bait or a spoon. Horizontal swim baits – such as a Jigging Rapala or a Puppet Minnow – have lips on the end that give them a swimming action. A horizontal swim bait will cover more water than a spoon, which generally presents vertically up and down.
But spoons are very effective, too, especially when over a structure element. One of my favorites is Northland’s Buckshot Rattler, which adds the dimension of sound to the presentation. I especially like it if the water is cloudy or stained. I also like a Rapala Pilki, but they’re getting pretty hard to find. If you see them, buy a handful. And always use a small cross-lock snap to attach your lure to the line. It will not hinder the lure’s action.
In clear water, I like a spoon that flutters on the fall. There is a wide variety of them on the market, and I’ve been enjoying a lot of success with Clam’s flutter spoon in the last couple of seasons.
There’s a lot of debate about lure color, and my rule of thumb is to use metallic spoons, either silver or gold, on Great Lakes waters. The primary forage species there – shiners or smelt – are metallic in color. But I adjust spoon color to water color. If it’s cloudy or stained, I like something brighter, orange or chartreuse or some combination of the two. Fluorescent colors are good in stained or murky water.
I often choose more colorful spoons on inland lakes as the water is often less clear, and the prey species in inland lakes are often small bluegills or perch. At Houghton Lake, for instance, I’ll use a colorful spoon to start. Fire tiger is one of my go-to colors.
One item most anglers overlook when jigging with spoons is how the hook is attached to the lure. You want one of the treble points to be sticking out directly from the concave surface of the spoon. Hold it up and look at it. If the hook is not in that configuration, take it off and re-hook it. You want to hook any bait – minnow or half minnow, whichever you prefer – to the hook point that is sticking out. That ensures that the spoons flutter down naturally when you’re jigging. Put it on the worn hook point, and it will not flutter naturally.
One other tip with spoons – use two different sizes. If you’re actively jigging two rods, or are using a spoon on a dead stick, put a larger spoon higher in the water column, say three or four feet above bottom, while you’re banging the bottom with the smaller spoon. You always want to pound the bottom, especially if you miss a bite. Drop the spoons back to the bottom, bump them off bottom a few times, and then resume jigging.
All of these subjects are covered in our ice fishing/vacation schools, which are scheduled for Mullet Lake Jan. 29 – Feb 1, and Saginaw Bay Feb.12-15. To enroll, call me at 231-740-6427.