Step offshore. Drill a hole. Hook a toad walleye. It’s not that simple, but almost.
Fishing pressure on classic walleye lakes drives a few secretive experts back to shore. Not to pack up and leave, but to hunt for the biggest walleyes they’ll find under the ice all winter.
Pat Smith works for Thorne Brothers, a fly-and-tackle retail outfit known for employing diehard fish heads. Tommy Skarlis is one of the most successful walleye pros in the country. Over the past 15 years, both have been looking progressively shallower for giant walleyes under the ice.
“When I say shallow, I mean 3 to 8 feet,” Smith said. “I find my good shallow spots during the summer, when it’s a prime-time, after-dark kind of spot. Walleyes use these same spots all year long. Summer or winter, these fish are incredibly spooky. I go out of my way to reduce noise during the prime low-light hours.”
Skarlis said walleyes come shallow for one reason: to feed. “It probably isn’t comfortable for them to stay in water less than 8 feet deep for long. The warmest water is deep. They have a purpose to fulfill and they’re not going to dawdle around. But do everything right and you’ll find walleyes — big ones — that will move 20 feet to slam a lure in shallow water.”
“The key is keeping track of underwater temperatures,” Smith said. “It’s not as stable down there as people think. Cold air masses enlarge that 33-degree temperature band, which is just above the freezing point and bad news. I use a Vexilar Deptherm 104 to read temperatures. Last year we found 36-degree water and caught some really big ones on Christmas Eve. But within a week, the temperature there dropped to 33 degrees and the shallow bite was over. Most years the bite lasts at least until New Year’s Day. Some years it lasts all winter. Water temperatures under the ice tell the story.”
Skarlis confines most of his shallow fishing to first and last ice. “Fish are there because the food is there, but watch for limiting factors,” he said. “If there’s a great fall bite shallow, the first-ice bite will be hot in 5 feet of water. If weeds stay green, the water will retain enough oxygen and cover. In late winter, thawing ice around the edges serves the same purpose by increasing oxygen levels and drawing baitfish shallow. I agree with Smith. Finding water over 33 degrees is a crucial factor.”
WHERE IT HAPPENS
“The same spots where you cast from shore in October and November will have pig ‘eyes under the ice,” Smith said. “Some of those spots hold up all winter. Another easy shallow-water walleye magnet is a neck, where the lake narrows to a few casts across. Necks tend to harbor flats that involve weeds. Look for a rockpile, some boulders, a gravel run, or any kind of hard bottom on that flat.
“The best spots are quite a distance from any kind of sharp breakup in 5 to 7 feet of water. The addition of a patch or line of healthy, green cabbage transforms it from a good spot to a hotspot. The best spots are always 5 to 7 feet deep because that’s where the weeds stay healthiest.
“Necks tend to have soft substrates, so walleyes are willing to travel well up onto the flat to find hard bottom. Necks and flats may not hold fish all winter like sharp-dropping inside turns right on the shoreline. The water might cool too much on those flats to hold walleyes deep into winter.
“So my favorite spots are a stone’s throw offshore, where deep water bends into the bank with an inside weedline at about 6 or 7 feet. An inside turn like that is pure heaven for walleyes, and holds them all winter long. The shallowest spots to ice fish are in 3 feet of water.
“Another shallow spot to look for at first ice involves long, flat points with rocks and an inside weedline in 3 to 4 feet of water — generally without a sharp-dropping break around it. It’s almost a spawning spot, with gravel to softball-sized rocks.”
Skarlis likes to sight fish. He darkens his Otter portable with the windows shut and a piece of carpeting on the floor to block all incoming light.
“Green weed edges are critical, and I drill a string of holes right along it where deep water bends in closest to the weeds,” he said. “Then I cross that line of holes from deep water, across the sharpest part of the break, right to the bank.
“Sight-fishing can be important because you may not be able to mark fish that shallow, and it’s a good idea to turn the depth finder off anyway.”
Productive shallow zones usually involve weeds, especially at first ice. “What most anglers don’t realize is that, even after the weeds die back, some big walleyes still roam shallow all winter,” Smith said. “When the amount of snow cover becomes extreme, deep spots have less light due to the thickness of the snow, precipitating a shallower bite.”
In clear or lightly stained water, shallow fishing is confined to low-light periods early and late in the day. Smith and Skarlis suggest getting there and setting up early. Drill holes an hour before the sun hits the treetops, and keep noise to a minimum.
Use lighter jigs with bigger hooks. “Never go over 1/8 ounce,” Smith said. “A slow drop is critical. The ideal jig is flat or concave on the bottom and weighs almost nothing. Flatter jigs fall slower with the same amount of weight. If you can’t find concave jigs, add Today’s Tackle Jig Discs to the eye of the jig. The lure parachutes into position with an enticing action. Jig Discs enhance spoons, too, making them vibrate on the drop.
“The hook should have the widest gap you can find. Shallow fish always whack the bait hard and a minnow spins a bunch when they hit it, so it can get in the way. You want the biggest hook gap as you can find.”
Smith made his own jigs with a wobbler style head and Northland Fire Ball hooks for years, but recently convinced JR’s Tackle and Maynard’s Tackle to produce lighter jigs (1/32 to 1/16 ounce) with bigg
er hooks for shallow bites. When things get really tough, Smith breaks out a Thorne Brothers Panfish Sweetheart rod rigged with 2-pound line and a Lindy Fat Boy XL tipped with maggots or wax worms.
“It’s not a carnival sideshow,” he said. “Scaled-down tactics really work.”
Skarlis opts for rattles in cloudy water. “Lindy’s Rattl’ N Flyer attracts fish from long distances,” he said. “The smallest one is 1/16 ounce. When I can fish with two rods, I like to dance a Flyer or Lindy Darter to attract walleyes while deadsticking a live minnow in the other hole.”
Smith also relies on deadsticking shallow, which means setting the rod in a holder built into the shelter or clipped to a bucket. “I deadstick with the Custom-Jigs & Spins Demon, or I use a bare hook — usually the Eagle Claw Wide Bend in a No. 8 or No. 6, depending on the size of the bait. A No. 6 works best most of the time, but sometimes you have to downsize to crappie minnows to get anything to bite. Then I’m going with a size No. 8.”
Look shallower, and stay in the shelter during productive low-light periods. Not to stay warm, but to keep competitors from seeing how big walleyes can be a few strides from shore.
“There are key spots in the shallows that hold walleyes all year ’round,” Smith said. “A lot of those spots are shallower than most people think. Shallow fish are far less exploited. People drive right past me all the time, heading for the abyss. Shallow fish are better and bigger. We’ve caught numbers of fish over 9 pounds in less than 9 feet of water, in some of the most heavily fished lakes around.”
Be careful where you step onto the ice. Giants lurk underfoot!