You came in early all week, banking hours for a premature exodus on Friday. It’s 2 p.m., the cubicles won’t clear for another few hours, but you’re good to go, and free to go. The nosy nerd next door leans over and asks where you’re off to so early. You simply smile and say “I’ve earned it…” He recoils back into the carpet-walled cell. You holler down the hallway for someone to hold the elevator door. That oh so familiar “I’m going fishing” tingling starts.
In the overflowing parking lot your pre-packed SUV glows with anticipation and a sense of readiness. In the rear rests a systematically packed portable fish house, arm and arm with a power auger. In the backseat, lies your FXE Snosuit and companion boots just waiting to be filled.
Vehicle starts on cue. GPS draws a line to the local lake of your choosing. Live bait to be procured on the way. It’ll be lines down within the half-hour.
Winter daylight wanes and time is precious. You’re an ice-fishing fool but don’t always have vacation days and full weekends to break down entire chains of lakes. No, in our hectic work world, fishing comes in glimpses and small windows. So it pays to be the organized opportunist.
From an ice-fishing perspective, ice-fishing for walleye is No. 1 when it comes to maximizing brief bursts of time, especially at either end of the day. Walleyes are classic low-light feeders, which coincides with the average first-shift schedule. Additionally, the ‘eyes are often planted in volume on urban and suburban waters. And with consideration for location, walleye feeding habits during timed milk runs are quite predictable.
Begin at the beginning — earmark a couple of lakes. Select one that’s a known ice-fishing producer; some lakes fail miserably as summertime candidates, yet inexplicably light up in winter. Choose a body of water that has fishy-looking spots you can walk to. You might not have time to mess around with a snowmobile or ATV, and plowed roads are typically for the after-dinner partying crowd.
See that one of your selections is a smaller lake, one less traveled. There are sleepers out there. State wildlife department and fisheries’ reports don’t always tell the whole story, although they do provide excellent online reconnaissance. Personally, one of my keenest first-ice walleye waters is rather petite and best known for its bass and crappies. Keep your ear to the ground.
When pre-mapping, either on a physical topographical or modern GPS map chip, there are clearcut structures and covers to seek for short run, heavy-hitting action. First on the list are weeds. Vegetation provides safe haven for baitfish by day. But when the sky darkens, and the vision advantage goes to the walleye, weeds become fields of massacre.
Beds of coontail moss are No. 1, with an exclamation point! Rolling mounds of thick coontail mats are magic at dawn and dusk. Look for the deepest coontail available, distinct edges, and any cuts or openings.
Second in line from the salad buffet is cabbage. Like coontail, if green and standing, weeded shallows can erupt into a bloodbath during lowlight periods. Even on stained-water lakes, I’ve had walleyes tripping flags hours after dark. Fear not thick cover, either. A rambunctious minnow kept just free of tangling stalks will summon walleyes in virtual blackness.
Hand in glove with weeds go overall shallowness. Remember this: Winter walleyes range shallower than the average angler believes. In my book, 10 feet is deep. In fact, twilight walleyes frequent depths of from 4 to 10 feet of water, especially when the surroundings are vegetated or rock covered. Combine rocks with weeds and you have the perfect storm.
Shallow crowns are candidates as well. Those seemingly “too shallow” 4-, 5- and 6-foot tops of bars, points and humps can swell with walleyes for an hour or so. Again, those aren’t all-day-long fishing spots, but when on the feed, walleyes instinctually move up. Position holes on the lip of the break as well as the tiptop, and then a couple more leading down the slope. Weeds across a hump make circumstances premium.
Narrows round out the list. Walleyes trace edges, be it a shoreline break, point, or the perimeter of a reef. Find a couple, or multiple, interfacing edges and you have a narrows or funnel. A narrows can form between two points, a point and an island, a point and a nearby hump; you get the picture. What makes one narrows superior to another in this instance is the “narrowness.” Find those ultra necked-down funnels. Not a football field’s width, but more like a tennis court, even a ping-pong table. Shearer walls prove themselves better, too. Ultimately, you’re looking for the tightest terrain for cutting walleyes off at the pass.
The prevailing premise is that you’ll be confronting a brief, albeit white-hot, bite. So there’s no room for messing around. That includes what you’re going to feed the fish as well as the readiness of your gear. Let’s look at the gear.
Don’t play small ball. It’s Game 7 of the World Series and you need to clear the bases. That requires substantially sized and flamboyant lures, as well as supremely animated minnows. From the lure department, select wide-bodied baits, ones with generous silhouettes and the capacity to move a lot of water. Best are big light-for-their size jigging spoons like Bay de Noc’s Vingla and the Moxie Minnow from Northland. They fish big but without being over-weighted for jigging the shallows. Additionally, these flash-type spoons wobble profusely on the pull and flutter erratically on the fall. Add half a shiner or big minnow head to cater to a walleye’s senses of taste and smell.
Also, because of the spoon’s unpredictable action, work in a swivel and 8- to 10-inch section of leader material to prevent line twist. The InvisaSwivel by Aquateko is far and away the best thing going for ice-fishing. Combine its durability, flexibility, clearness and self-lubrication even in the coldest water, and the decision is easy.
The spoon should be a beacon, too. There are multitudes of spoons available with snappy glow paint. Give them a hit of light every 5 minutes as well. Don’t let laziness prevail. Fresh glow makes a difference, especially on stained waters or after sunset.
I’m partial to spoons with broken patterns, too — natural metallic surfaces intermixed with glow, or classic colors like chartreuse and orange with glow. Solids don’t exist in nature. Look out the window. Find even a single leaf with consistent color throughout. You won’t. The same goes for baitfish; the same should hold true for your lures.
Consider the spoon your interactive piece. Take it from hole to hole, but limit the footslogging. Shallow walleyes will bolt when bothered. To that point, limit the number of holes drilled. Whereas during a massive exploration you might drill 100 or more holes, this is pinpoint ice-fishing. Do your best to land on the spot; that’s where GPS and map chips really prove their worth. Drill no more than two holes per line, tip-ups included. Trust the spot, sit tight, and let the fish find you.
About that tip-up … it’s the extra angler when you’re fishing solo. Arrive with it pre-rigged for walleyes and position the device near your jigging zone, within 20 feet.
Use a lighted tip-up, such as Frabill’s Pro Thermal Ready-to-Fish, which was engineered for night-fishing. The flag unfurls and a mercury switch triggers a bright beacon — fish on! In the absence of a tip-up light or buzzer, pull the rigs after sunset. Otherwise, tip-ups only serve to create nightmarish tangles or gut-hooked fish.
Big minnows are the ticket as well. Don’t be bashful. It’s easier to downsize a jigging spoon to accommodate lighter biters than to step out and re-bait with a smaller minnow. Dunk a whole shiner or rainbow. Pinch a split-shot 6 inches above the hook to keep the minnow in the money. Wider spacing won’t improve your odds, but can create a woven minnow lattice in the weeds.
Here are another fistful of preparatory acts that keep me in perpetual game form. I keep my MarCum flashers and underwater cameras charged 24/7; there are always fresh batteries in my headlamp and Frabill live bait containers; line is kept fresh on the spools and the auger leaves the garage full of fuel.
Take it from a guy who steals time to fish and maximizes the tiniest spans. If you’re mentally prepared and gear is packed by species and season, a solid couple of hours will make you forget about being ground down by a full day at the office.