Targeting BIG Walleye Through The Ice
After writing my last blog highlighting what I have been up to over the past few months, I thought a more in-depth article about how I am targeting walleye would be a great follow-up. There are many variables to success on the ice and in this blog I will go over my process for targeting quality migratory walleye.
I look slightly stressed or relieved! Read the crazy story on this fish on my Facebook page!
Location, location, location
I’m not about to give up any waypoints, but I will tell you exactly what I look for before setting up on the ice. I never ever randomly choose a location, like ever. If you take a look at any detailed bathymetric map, you’ll notice lines indicating the changes in elevation, these are contour lines. Walleye can be found following and searching for schools of bait and traveling along contour lines and on the flats. On the ice I use the Navionics map app on my smartphone to navigate and decide where I will set up based on contour lines and depths. Walleye typically spend the evening in the shallows and move to deeper waters throughout the daytime and then back to the shallows at night. A great place to set-up is in-between the deep and shallow areas on a mid-range flat.
The prime time to fish is during low light periods (sunrise and sunset). On an overcast day, walleye could be on the move later in the morning but it can mean a more productive bite throughout the day. The bottom line when it comes to location is that walleye are constantly on the move and setting up on a prime travel route will increase the odds of success by potentially intercepting these cruising fish and peaking their interest. Walleye are beefing-up throughout the fall and winter months in preparation for spring spawning.
Arriving on the ice shouldn’t mean drilling one hole and setting up camp for the entire day. Drilling multiple holes upon arrival gives you the opportunity to move around throughout the day without making additional noise during the bite windows if you’re not seeing or catching fish. Walleye are very sensitive to noise and can spook easily at the sound of an auger or ATV. Make all the noise you need to when you first get out on the ice, and then avoid further noise by getting away from crowds and keeping the loud sounds to a minimum. If I don’t see any activity relatively quickly, I will move to another hole until I am marking fish on my flasher. If I am seeing a lot of fish moving through, I will focus on figuring out how to trigger them to bite.
Shelter, comfort and warmth
Staying warm, dry, well fed and hydrated will up your game on the ice. Portable shelters are a great way to transport equipment and also keep you out of the wind and the elements. Paired with a propane heater, you’ll be fishing in comfort (and style)! I always have food to snack on and even warm-up food (like bagel sandwiches wrapped in aluminum foil on low heat) over my heater during my outings. Water is also very important because dehydration will make you feel very cold regardless of having a heater on or not. I use the Rapala M1 Flip-Over Cruzer Ice Shelter and a Mr. Heater Buddy Heater with a 5-pound propane tank. This is my winter home! A good fitting snow suit is also key, and floatation suits are ideal while on the ice.
I’m currently using two augers – the 8-inch Normark Husqvarna Auger and the 6-inch Swede-Bore Manual Ice Drill. I typically only use the Swede-Bore for early ice panfish (smaller diameter, lighter to carry) but thought I would mention it in case anyone is seeking a manual auger. I’ve recently upgraded the auger bit on the Husqvarna to a 10-inch to help with landing larger walleye. Maintaining your auger throughout the year will ensure that it runs smoothly when the season is in full force.
Keep Your Lure Moving
Location is meaningless if you don’t have your line in the water and your bait isn’t moving. Lure movement triggers walleye instincts to kick in. When I’m in the ice, I am jigging constantly. Fish have lateral lines and can feel vibration through this sense. Keep in mind that it doesn’t mean you should jig like a maniac, but it’s the first step to bringing a fish in while still presenting your lure as naturally as possible. The jigging tactics I use are simple: lift-lift-lift and drop, fluttering and using a ‘call bait’ like the Rippin’ Rap to bring fish in. The key ingredient is to let the fish tell you what they want and this is possible with a flasher (more on that below).
There are endless lure options out there and by no means are my preferences the only way to go. I’m going to highlight some presentations that have worked for me over the years. I’m certainly not afraid to try something new and my favourite lures have changed time and time again. This year I have been most successful with the Rapala Snap Rap in size 8 and in Hot Tiger, Gold Olive Tiger and Gold Orange (to name some of my favourite colours). I love this lure because it offers an aggressive and quick snapping-back gliding action when jigging. I have modified it by dropping down the stock belly hook using a Fastach Clip (thanks for the inspiration, Gord Pyzer). Another good treble hook is the Gamakatsu EWG short shank. I tend to gravitate towards the larger lures and larger minnows to target the bigger walleye and avoid perch tearing my minnows off.
As you can see I use a minnow head centred on the hook by removing the hook and threading the minnow and then reattaching. I generally start with a full live minnow (even 2 at times). If walleye are short-striking or nipping at the tail, I switch to just the minnow head.
Rod, Reel and Line Selection
Lures are everyones favourite topic to talk about and are fun to buy, but rod, reel and line selection is crucial to the process. Uncommon to most ice fishing set-ups, I actually prefer using a medium-heavy baitcaster set-up on the ice to target larger walleye. What I love about using a baitcaster set-up: comfort when I’m fishing with 2 rods (I can lower or raise my lure one-handed with a click of the release button or turn of the handle), faster gear ratio when bringing a fish up and lastly (I think it’s just the bass angler in me) I love setting the hook and bringing a fish up with a baitcaster! A baitcaster is ideal for heavier lure presentations, but a spinning set-up is better for lighter presentations. All my reels are backed with 15lb Sufix braided line with a micro swivel and a 10lb Sufix fluorocarbon leader. I check and change my leader often because the slightest nick in the line can result in heartbreak. My baitcast combos are the medium-heavy R-Type rod with a Shift reel. My spinning combos are the R-Type Spinning Ice Combo.
Draw your weapon!
For those that may be new to ice fishing electronics, a flasher is just that – a sonar designed for ice fishing. Flashers have become increasingly popular over the years and there are many options available at different price ranges. Some options can even be used year-round by purchasing an additional transducer. If you think about the transducer on a boat, it has a shape designed to effectively read when in motion. An ice transducer is stationary and has a cone-shaped beam starting more narrowly at the top of the water column and wider at the bottom reading the entire water column below. Since using a flasher for the first time on the ice, I never looked back to fishing without one. The ability to see the depth, if there’s fish below, how they’re reacting to your presentation, and seeing it all in real-time makes it a key item for ice anglers. It really allows you to fine-tune how you work your presentations and negotiate a bite from sometimes picky walleye. I have used a few different flashers on the market over the years and currently have the MarCum LX-9 as I also like taking underwater video. Other units I’ve enjoyed using include: the MarCum LX-5, the Humminbird Ice 45 and Ice 55. I’ve recently upgraded my battery to a lithium to lighten the load and also achieve longer battery life – I will keep you posted on the results.
Drilling multiple holes prevents tangling a fish in the transducer cable in the heat of the moment.
“Let Them Go, Let Them Grow”
Releasing these larger fish not only increases the chance of catching them again someday (when they’re even bigger) but also keeps these quality breeding fish in the gene pool. If you do plan to take a photo, keeping the fish in the water as much as possible will prevent the eyes and fins from freezing over and will also increase the survival of the fish. Having a large cooler or tub filled with water is another great way to store the fish temporarily while getting ready for a photo. Release shots are my favourite and I’d love to see yours through my social media pages: Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Google+.
Breeder’s ain’t eaters!