Winter Walleyes on the Weed Wall
September 24, 2010
Most anglers presume all weeds die when ice forms on our waters. They don't. Chances are if you find green weeds, the walleyes will already be there.
Walleye anglers are traditionalists. They rely on traditional lures, traditional live-bait varieties, and above all else, traditional walleye structure. Conventional winter walleye zealots are no different - you'd be hard-pressed to find a classic rock hump or shoreline point they didn't like.
But with the explosion of interest in ice-fishing come new ways of thinking. Hardwater anglers are continually accumulating fresh data and redefining what is known. And the unorthodox marriage of weeds and walleyes is cause for a rule change.
Rovers by nature, walleyes cruise the edges of structure, following its curves, turns and jettisons. Imagine a pod of walleyes - in hot pursuit of baitfish - tracking the irregular perimeter of an offshore rockpile. A deep weedline presents similar tangible circumstances. Walleyes will glide along a vegetated edge as if it were a brim composed of gravel, sand or boulders, effectively transforming cover into structure. Weeds, because of their ability to conceal both predators and prey, are generally regarded as cover, but when greenery is recast as a physical feature - guiding hungry walleyes - vegetation transforms into structure.
The theory of weeds as structure becomes more relative as lakes age. Rock and gravel zones lose footing to erosion and siltation, some naturally, others spurred by man. Walleyes must adapt to these changing habitat conditions. They are left with no choice but to embrace weeds.
It's the deep outside weedline that walleyes are most interested in. The exterior edge of a grove of leafy cabbage, a bed of coontail or a milfoil mat will fashion ideal weed walls, or more accurately, feeding lanes. Walleyes trace such contours during their routine dawn and dusk food runs. During these lowlight periods, yellow perch, small panfish, schools of baitfish and other weed-inhabiting edibles - including bullheads and crawfish - are vulnerable to carousing packs of walleyes.
Locating healthy vegetation is job one. Nothing beats time on the ice and knowledge of the features on a particular lake, but a great deal of information can also be derived through mapping and graphing. Hydrological maps often reveal sections of lakes that are full of weeds. Look for locations with the most and deepest vegetation, in addition to swift access to deeper water. Maps also offer readings from a Secchi disk - a device that measures water clarity. Such data provides clues to whether there's a relatively deep or shallow weed edge.
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
For instance, a Secchi result of only 5 feet tells us that there's limited sunlight penetration, resulting in the absence of herbage below 6 or 8 feet of water. Conversely, a Secchi reading of 8 or 10 feet might indicate weed growth down to 12 or 14 feet of water. Hitting the water with said knowledge narrows the search area and saves time.
Once you're on the ice, submerged greens are easily detected with a portable flasher. Weeds appear as thin bars or flickers on the face of an electronic flasher. Powerful units by Vexilar and Zercom are able to fire through winter's inaugural sheet of ice, which is typically solid and clear, to expose vegetation. Otherwise, just plan on drilling plenty of holes and graphing your way to the weedline.
What does the ideal weed wall look like? For starters, it features an abrupt edge. Predator species, like walleyes, find blunt weed edges more suitable for stalking and cruising, and smaller fishes - walleye food - find sanctuary, albeit sometimes false sanctuary, beneath a towering canopy. In my experience, patchy and progressively fading weedlines, which offer no distinct edge, attract fewer winter walleyes.
Weed walls that merge with favorable bottom structure are especially promising. For example, a deep weed edge that skirts a pronounced shoreline point provides twice the allure. Structure, such as a point or bar, has its own attractiveness, but when it's associated with a distinct weedline, you've really got something. Intermixed rocks are another premium, and so is submerged timber. The concept of "allied structural elements" is significant in all facets of ice-fishing. The more structure and cover an area has, the more fish it will hold.
Irregularities in a weed wall are another bonus because they cause walleyes to gather and hold. Troughs, pockets, fingers and inside turns hold more fish than straightaways. Troughs are slashes and clearcuts that occupy a myriad of depths and even bottom content transitions as they infiltrate shallower. Troughs yield access to all sorts of dining options, with many entrÃ‚Å½es being ambushed vs. hunted and killed.
Pockets are clearings within a weedy pasture that don't necessarily connect to the outside weedline, but walleyes still find them inviting. Pockets entombed by thick vegetation sometimes sacrifice walleyes at midday, largely due to the fact that heavy foliage blocks sunlight like a total eclipse, giving walleyes that around-the-clock "nighttime" advantage. Bigger pockets attract more fish, and they're easier to jig and battle walleyes in without fouling on weeds.
A finger is an extension of a weed wall that probes out and away. They come in all shapes and sizes, and bigger ones are often dubbed weedbars. Fingers that are part of structural bars appear on maps, but just as many occur randomly, arising seemingly from nowhere. Inside turns are junctures where a finger or bar curves away from the main weed wall, producing a curl, or "U." Of all the potential features of a weed wall, none is better than an inside turn. Last winter, my hottest early-ice walleye spot was the inside curl of a weeded finger that hooked so dramatically that it nearly arced around and touched itself.
Relative scarcity also ups the value of a weedline. Weeds have special meaning on bodies of water where gravel bars, rockpiles and other deep-ranging formations dominate the waterscape. While traditionalists are busy plying standard hard structures, you'll be able to snatch weed walleyes in solitude.
Concentrate on tinted and dark-water lakes during ice-fishing's first few weeks, particularly shallower and smaller lakes, because they're the first to light up. On these lakes, winter's rage - shortened daylight hours and sun-inhibiting snow and ice - progressively causes healthy weeds to lie down and perish. Subsequently, weed-oriented walleyes migrate to deeper breaklines, offshore structure and midlake flats. At that point, the search for weed walleyes moves to larger and clearer venues where deep greenery continues to flourish.
The best means for attacking a prospective weed wall is with a combined effort of jigging and tip-up rigging. Once you lo
cate the weed wall, saturate both it and the surrounding area with holes. Drill numerous holes along the weed edge and into the foliage (preferably over pockets), encircling fingers and hooks, and continue several yards beyond the weed wall, over deeper refuges. Space holes roughly 15 yards apart and figure on popping a minimum of a half-dozen holes per person.
Determine how many lines your fishing party is allowed and use them all - shoot for one jigging line per angler and as many tip-ups as is legal. Scatter your tip-ups. Emphasize their use over the deepest holes, beyond the weedline, as well as deep within the shrubbery. Unfurling tip-up flags can quickly identify hot zones and even hot baits. In most situations I select abnormally large minnows - small suckers, giant shiners or chubs - for rigging on exploratory setlines. Using larger baits often equals getting larger catches. After all, remote setlines are experimental tools, so push the envelope.
Commence jigging along the weed wall while your tip-ups are busy investigating the outer and inner realms. Successful ice-fishing requires participation - don't just sit on a bucket waiting for flags to fly! I'll bet on jiggers over flag-watchers every time. Jiggers should give each hole about five minutes before quietly moving along to the next.
You might already know where deep weedlines exist on your favorite waters. But when you're prospecting future honeyholes, pre-winter scouting is effective. Pass on an afternoon of napping in the deer stand or hailing mallards and do some pre-ice discovery. Marking weed walls is much easier by boat than through the ice. It's advantageous to storm first ice with a map already covered with red "X's" and a Global Positioning System unit teeming with coordinates.
A strapping weed wall draws walleyes all winter long, but the usefulness of underwater plants dwindles as they wither. Therefore, it's best to focus on weed walleyes from first ice through about midwinter. The only exception is on unusually clear waters where patches of greenery endure entire winters.
Hardwater walleye addicts need to acknowledge that weeds aren't solely prop-choking matter and largemouth bass habitat. Instead, regard weed walls as another weapon in your complete walleye fishing arsenal.
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