Go Mobile to Catch More Ice Walleyes
January 18, 2019
Some of the most impactful nuggets of wisdom I’ve collected from guides, professional anglers and other fishy types have come at the least expected times. During some down-time on a filming trip with Fishing Hall of Fame photographer and videographer Billy Lindner, one of those moments occurred. We were dragging live-bait rigs on one of the many mudflats on Minnesota’s famous Lake Mille Lacs when I asked Billy what he’s learned from his underwater observations of walleyes over the years. After all, few have spent as much time pursuing walleyes from behind a lens, trying to capture their behaviors for the education and viewing pleasure of anglers across North America. He replied simply, “Fish swim; walleyes swim.” Hmmm. Seemed relatively rudimentary.
I asked him to expand on that. He explained he’d seen literally thousands of fish, previously happy, filmable and mostly stationary for days and hours before a camera appeared, until a sudden urge had them running.
Ironically, that morning we had fish pinned down, ready for the camera, until the 9 a.m. bell rang. Fish vanished from our graph. Still, Billy’s lesson stuck. I replayed the many times my “consistent” walleye bite vanished for no obvious reason.
Moving walleyes demand mobile angling approaches. Decades ago, ice-fishing pioneers built home-made shelters, used power augers and fished fast-moving baits for aggressive fish. Today’s anglers have many specialized tools, each for specific scenarios. These aid our search for hardwater walleyes and turn tides in our favor.
Note, effective mobility is not just constant motion. Staying put, at times, can be the right call. The trick is knowing when, where and how to move.>/p>
Outlined below is a system to guide your mobile walleye fishing. There’s also advice gleaned from years trying to film televised ice shows, and tips from guides that modernized effective mobile hardwater walleye tactics.
What to Wear — Hi-Tech Garments
The first step toward more fish is being comfortable. I don’t just mean warm; when moving, added warmth means sweat, which makes you cold. Cotton, whether jeans or white tube socks, is an enemy. It traps moisture, making you colder. Restructure how you dress.
I’m amazed at how many slap on jeans and bibs and fish: big mistake. Use 1-2-3 layering approaches. The first layer should be synthetic long underwear to pull sweat from skin.
The second is a fleece top and synthetic sweatpants/performance pants to loft air and handle extra moisture.
Last should be a durable windproof and waterproof outer shell. Striker Ice Suits not only serve this purpose but offer customized ergonomics for ice-anglers — convenient, accessible storage, precision padding in the knees and seat. Suits also float should the unthinkable happen, which definitely matters if you need it.
Now properly dressed, remember to ventilate; moisture needs to escape. Most ice-specific outerwear has vents in armpits and groin. I also ventilate along the outside of legs above the knee to let moisture and heat escape.
Modern Mobility — A Plan for the Day
Craft a plan around a few different structures, and plan to fish all day. Focus on likely locations morning and evening, when ’eyes are most active.In the morning, fish often concentrate and feed shallower; stay on rocks, sand or weeds with nearby deep water. You may still need to drill nearby areas, dotting a rock pile with 15-20 holes, but it’s not time to make any quarter-mile moves.
Today’s electric augers are capable and offer benefits over gas counterparts. They drill easily, have ample battery power and can be lighter and quieter. I still use gas augers for mid-winter and beyond as ice thickens, or in Canadian shield areas with thick ice all season. That said, if each hole you drill is considered a “cast,” more casts equals more fish seeing your lure, the result usually being more fish caught.
Midday means moving, maybe hundreds of yards, to new spots but also hole-hopping on a single structure. It’s time to hit the next gear. Activity has likely waned with growing light at depth, so drill more holes and drop more baits directly on them.
Fish will come from a certain distance for lures, but at midday, target windows shrink. Fish remain, but it’s on you to bring presentations to them.
As evening comes, assess things honestly. If you’re on fish and marking them consistently on electronics, don’t move. Spray fresh holes from deep to shallow ahead of evening’s feeding migration. Better yet, strategically drill out inside turns or other funnels that concentrate walleye movement.
Inside turns, depending on degree of curvature, act as highways for walleyes approaching from deep. Having holes drilled and ready allows you to easily hop around, targeting pods of approaching walleyes. Tip-ups stationed at the top of the break, rockpile or bar can alert anglers to fish that have already moved up for the evening feed.
Spread out and cover as many routes as possible to intercept walleyes in the evening moving up in different stages.
Seal the Deal
We’ve found fish; let’s catch them. My primary tool is a 1/8-ounce flutter spoon of nearly any variety tipped with a minnow head. A VMC Tingler will almost figure-eight when pulled upward and then dropped on a slack line, throwing lots of flash and vibration.
Do this without fish onscreen to draw them into the transducer’s cone angle. Work the first walleyes you see fairly aggressively. Be ready to temper your approach from there. Walleyes are predators. Moving bait can be essential, but every fish is different. “Take their temperature”: let them tell you what they like while they’re still some distance from the bait.
Present lures with a rod designed for 1/8-ounce spoons, like the St. Croix CCI Perch Eye Spoon rod. It’s manufactured from tubular carbon, a first in ice-fishing rods but widely used in technologically advanced open-water rods. It’s blended with about 20 percent fiberglass for stability and flexibility to the blank, crucial with big fish. Its fast action tip transitions quickly to a robust backbone to drive small trebles into hard mouths. The tip section handles these spoons’ weight perfectly so as not to overload.
You’ll see how aggressive fish are after the first few encounters. Do they spook when you drop the bait in their face, or chase it to bottom and hover over it? Do they follow it up several feet off bottom?
Aggressive tactics for eager fish produce best, but we know mid-winter fish, under pressure, are tight-lipped. You really must break down the bite.
As tough customers approach, work them with small, roughly marble-sized oval motions from the rod tip. Most fish are over-worked at this stage; experiment with several variables. Draw something larger with your rod tip, like a golf ball, then back down to just squeezing the cork of your rod grip.
Many walleyes make you work them off the bottom as you watch them retreat, then approach again several times. Approach these on a per-fish basis; don’t experiment with too many jigging strokes on one visit. Let fish leave, then re-set and use new looks.
New looks each time can reveal much about the bite. Trust electronics when bites get tough and try to “move” as many fish as possible. Active fish chasing you on electronics want the right wiggle or jigging stroke.
Search baits are the next class of lures to try. Jigging Raps are probably the most successful ice-fishing lure ever; they’re great on clearwater systems where visually feeding ’eyes prowl. On stained systems, and often during midday hours, I like vibration and rattle-style baits like the Rippin’ Rap or the Slab Rap to call fish from afar. These pull fish in, but they won’t necessarily stay. That’s when finesse approaches — smaller flash spoons, micro jigging raps or live bait helps.
Let’s face it, drawing fish in is a major part of the battle. Search baits bring curious fish nearer, so you can offer a buffet of options that eventually will suit their preference. I’ve seen this system of midday mobility with early and late lockdown pay dividends from Lake Erie to the Canadian shield.
Covering water offers more shots at fish. Success is often measured by how many holes you drill. Trust what you see on electronics so you’re on fish during a major feeding pattern. Spend the day chasing them so you can repeat the process until hard fins and sharp gill plates find their way up the ice hole.