Panfish Ploys For Picky Walleyes

The walleye bite can get tougher at this time of year, but this expert says if you downsize to panfish gear, you can still enjoy a good day on the ice. (January 2007)

Brian Brosdahl enticed this lunker walleye to bite on a sunny midwinter day by using a tiny jigging spoon.
Photo by Noel Vick.

A healthy heart can palpitate a few times when a white-tipped walleye swims toward your lure while you are looking down a hole in the ice. Then frustration sets in when the fish swims past your bait while showing no intentions of making a kill. You may even curse the lake and kick the minnow bucket if the next walleye behaves in the same manner.

"I've seen it more than once," said Ice Armor pro-angler Brian "Bro" Brosdahl. "Sight-fishing in the shallows, dunking the underwater camera in deeper water, even on my flasher as a red bar rushes in and just sits there. They swim in, but won't take traditional baits like a jigging spoon and minnow. They just aren't hitting for some reason."

Walleyes simply get like that, you know, all moody and uncaring. Even chunky minnows look like Kryptonite to those soft, opaque eyes. Fortunately, such episodes can be predicted to some degree, but more importantly, countered.

What causes these bouts with depression? Brosdahl blames it on several issues, including but not limited to a high-pressure system tagged to a cold front, daytime sunshine doldrums, full stomachs and even the stereotypical "midwinter blues" -- that period where the snow is deep, ice is thick, shallows are vacant, weeds are history and the walleyes just aren't being themselves.

Surrendering isn't an option, however, and especially not when you're armed with the knowledge at Brosdahl's level. And when walleyes treat Bro like he and his standard walleye lures and tactics don't exist, it's time to play the "panfish card."

Brosdahl is a dedicated "pre-rigger," which means he attacks the ice -- no matter what day or the species at hand -- with a diverse and fully outfitted arsenal of rod-and-reel combinations. That includes two or three panfish-oriented presentations even when walleyes are the targeted species.

Brosdahl thinks a smaller, perhaps simpler and even slower-moving panfish lure can evoke reactions from walleyes that shun traditional stuff. Here are some of Bro's favorite panfish ploys for picky walleyes.

MICRO MINNOWS

While growing up ice-fishing with Brosdahl, we always called them "slivers" -- those nearly embryonic minnows that look like shards of silver from an active mine -- but now they are called micro minnows. I loved using them for crappies and perch, and still do, and later I learned that a miniscule shiner minnow or chub could turn the tide on a lazy walleye.

Besides its slight stature, what makes a "sliver minnow" so attractive is the swimming motion. To keep it looking spry and youthful, Brosdahl hooks it ever so lightly, just notching meat behind the dorsal fin, while making sure not to tweak its spine. He does so quickly, too. Young minnows are fragile, and can't be kept out of the water very long.

In his panfish-minnows-for-walleyes scheme, Brosdahl uses an equally stealthy No. 6 or No. 8 hook. His top choice is a Mustad Walleye Wide Gap. The hook is sharp and thin enough so it penetrates like a syringe.

Bro's minnow, hook and properly matched amount of split shot are buoyed by a Thill X-Change Float. Brosdahl prefers this specific model because he can feed line straight down the hole, completely lowering the presentation before attaching the bobber. This eliminates the cumbersome practice of sliding a relatively light offering through a slip-bobber and down a frozen hole -- an icy and troublesome proposition.

Brosdahl uses the sliver-minnow package as a secondary line positioned near his primary jigging hole. Or, if he's fishing out on the open ice, he will mount the sliver-minnow package -- including the rod and reel combo -- on an Arctic Warrior and set the drag loose enough so a walleye can run with only modest resistance. Clam Corporation's Arctic Warrior, like a tip-up, sends up a flag when a fish strikes. But you don't have to fight the fish hand over hand like a tip-up, because the battle transfers to the rod-and-reel combo that you have married into the system.

HOW ABOUT A SHOT?

Brosdahl has been drop-shot rigging through the ice ever since the bass guys brought it to the forefront. Although his drop-shot rendition is lighter, more surgical and customized for ice-fishing, the intention and results are similar. The goal is to put a panfish-sized morsel in a walleye's strike zone, and consequently, causing the fish to go weak-kneed.

A true finesse rig, Brosdahl's version features a small bell-sinker or appropriate amount of split shot fixed to the end of his main line. He recommends using only enough weight to reach the bottom, not anchor to it. Too much weight yields opposition when a walleye takes it and swims. Remember, you're dealing with a relatively uninterested fish to begin with.

Some 6 to 12 inches above the weight, he ties in a short snell and tiny hook. How high up the line the snell gets tied on corresponds to what the walleyes are doing on that particular lake, at that particular time. Are they riding tight to the floor or somewhat elevated? Place your snell accordingly. The snell, Brosdahl said, "is merely a finger of line, maybe 2 inches long after the knot is cinched and snipped." He uses a loop knot or "drop-shot knot" to affix the snell. On the business end goes a No. 10 or No. 12 fine-wire Aberdeen hook. Yes, a hook of panfish proportions, not walleye lore.

Again, the sliver minnow gets the call, but this time it is hooked daintily through the lips, thus not crushing the nose or puncturing the skull. Brosdahl wants plenty of swim. He then lowers the sinker to the bottom and watches on the Vexilar when using the drop-shot presentation as his primary offering. As a supplement to jigging, the drop-shotting combo gets placed in a rod holder with the bail closed and the drag set light enough so a walleye can dine and dash without detectable opposition. This presentation works great with an Arctic Warrior as well.

What if even sliver minnows aren't getting the job done? In a pinch, Brosdahl resorts to a clump of maggots hooked on their fatter end, or tail-hooked wax worms. Tiny ice-fishing plastics are worth trying, too.

DROPPER RIG

I've become so confident in their production that I often start with a dropper rig, forgoing the atypical spoon or Rapala-like swimbait. The basic dropper rig consists of a vertical jigging spoon with its treble hook removed and replaced by a short strand of monofilament

or fluorocarbon line attached to a tiny lure or plain hook, which is fortified with meat.

In the presence of sleepy 'eyes, Brosdahl goes to a 4- to 6-inch drop-line ending in a No. 6 to No. 10 thin-wire Aberdeen hook. Tender jigging causes the spoon to boogie enough to draw attention and gets the meat moving in a seductive way. It sort of drives them to eat while being in a trance-like state.

In this package, Brosdahl lip-hooks a sliver minnow, but not the entire specimen. Before hooking, he snips off its tail just past the dorsal fin. Snipped properly, it'll still shimmy.

One variation replaces the minnow with five to eight maggots, while another features one threaded wax worm followed by two hooked at their tails. This is very panfish-like in look and feel.

In water that's not so deep, Brosdahl may simply present a small panfish-sized lure. His current favorite is the Lindy Genz Bug because of its delectably slow reaction to jigging motions and large-for-its-size hook, which buries nicely into toothy jaws.

He coats the hook with the head of a minnow slightly larger than a sliver minnow, like a shiner or fathead. When jigged, it pops upward and then settles appealingly slow. Walleyes, Bro says, typically take it on the drop.

CORE COMBOS

Choosing the right rod and line for this effort is crucial. Brosdahl leans toward rods with softer tips but lengthy blanks, as in 28 to 32 inches. The classic walleye pole is too stiff, easily ripping the lips off minnows. The Thorne Bros. Sweet Heart series of rods is the best money can buy. They are soft, but built from glass not graphite, while having some backbone.

Brosdahl's line of choice is P-Line Floroclear in either 3- or 5-pound-test. It has the strength to turn a walleye, while its skinny and virtually invisible profile doesn't offend fish.

One of the best things about feeding walleyes panfish baits is that you probably already have the tools in your tackle box -- simple small stuff. Weighted properly and teamed with small minnows, maggots or wax worms, the littlest presentations are capable of rolling the biggest fish. Just ask Brosdahl.

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