Fishing for winter walleyes in the Dakotas is like panning for gold or drilling for oil. Here are some prime spots for prospecting this month. (January 2006)
Photo by Ron Sinfelt
By late afternoon the sun is ducking down behind the snowy banks of the cold blue horizon in the Dakotas. Most people are comfortably inside, getting ready for a tasty dinner.
Walleyes are similar in their dining preferences. In January, during the dead of winter, they like to chow down at sundown. By that time of the day the temperatures are starting to plummet to the depths of the thermometer.
And fishermen are happy about that, as it means that the odds are increasing for the best walleye bite of the day on the Dakota lakes harboring this popular game fish. That evening bite during the first month of the year is the time at which some of the best ice-fishermen here make it a point to be on the lake somewhere.
One of those is Steve Bourcy, owner of Devils Lake Guide and Outfitters. Bourcy specializes in ice-fishing in this northern latitude. He's fished the lake 25 years, and guided ice-fishermen on Devils Lake for 10 years. Obviously, he thinks Devils Lake is great.
Some of the best ice-fishing in the Dakotas can be found in our natural lakes and smaller waters. And the techniques Bourcy uses on Devils Lake can be applied to many of the smaller lakes, which should have very good walleye populations this winter.
At Devils Lake, Bourcy heads up fishing expeditions throughout the winter. "The walleye fishing on Devils Lake is fantastic," he said. "I dare to word it as 'fantastic.' It's how you go about it -- where you go and when you go."
The ice-fishing is typically good just after the lake freezes, which of course is usual on many northern Great Plains lakes. But throughout the winter, fishermen catch lots of walleyes, and the occasional really big fish. A few go more than 9 pounds.
"Some of the big walleyes will suspend in Devils Lake," said Bourcy. "It isn't something you see all the time, but when you see them, it is good to catch them."
There are certain times when the fish just seem to get into a feeding mood. They swim through the prime areas looking for something to eat.
"And toward dark is notoriously the best walleye time anywhere," said Bourcy. "That seems to be the key to catching walleyes on Devils Lake -- getting there on time, and your bait presentation."
He sometimes uses one of the Rapala lures with no bait on it, and jigs it for fish. But three-fourths of the time, he prefers the minnow head fished just off the bottom.
"I personally just fish one hole when I'm walleye fishing," said Bourcy. "I'm looking for the more aggressive walleyes."
If he can't find them, he'll use what he calls the "dead-stick" method, in which an angler fishes the bait completely still. "When you dead-stick later on they will come in and stare at it for a while before taking it," he said.
But it's the extremely aggressive walleyes that he always tries to entice first. They move quickly. "It seems like if you are paying attention to your Vexlar (sonar), jigging one hole, they won't give you more than a flash when they come in; sometimes they won't even give you a flash. That is how fast they come in, how aggressive they are. If we see them come into the Vexlar and hang by the bait for a while, and they take off, then we will dead-stick them. They aren't as aggressive in that situation."
For dead-stick fishing, Bourcy likes a Kastmaster lure tipped with either a full minnow or a minnow head. "Sometimes we use the small slip-bobbers with a plain gold hook and a minnow," he said. "With dead-stick, it is leaving it and letting them come to the bait and take the bait. Like I said, a lot of it is just watching your Vexlar and reading your Vexlar.
"I'm not promoting them, and they aren't a sponsor, but if you are looking to catch fish consistently and up your average, or go after big fish, a flasher unit or Vexlar is crucial -- it's vital. If you are just gong to fish and catch fish sometimes -- then, no."
Bourcy doesn't fish as many holes as some ice-fishermen typically do. Just hooking the fish in one hole can be a challenge. The fish are sometimes exasperating in their ability to stay off the end of the line.
"A lot of times with the walleyes, when you're aggressively fishing them, it can almost be a baseball game," he said. "You swing and miss, swing and miss. They'll come in and hit it so hard, so fast, it's easy to hit them too late or too soon. They won't give you a second chance. They're real aggressive sometimes."
That kind of action is for the most active fish. The thing that makes it so challenging is that the mood of walleyes changes, and then the way you have to catch them and hook them is completely different.
"If you're dead-sticking and bobber-fishing, they will pop it in their mouth; it goes down, and they sit there. Generally they don't run with it like a northern. It sits there and slowly goes down."
With the slow-moving fish, Bourcy shows patience, holding off setting the hook as long as the bobber or bait is moving about, as the walleye is still messing with it. But once it's down and not moving, he goes into action.
"When it is stable down below you strike," he said. "Not when it is still going up and down below. If it is still gong up and down, the fish is still trying to grab it."
For Bourcy, that type of fishing doesn't involve the massive spread of holes that some fishermen try to work. "It isn't really the number of holes you drill on Devils Lake," he noted. "It is finding a good dropoff or tree area. It is that magic half-hour or magic hour. A lot of times we do a lot of drilling, but we would probably have caught them in the other place, too. Patience is important. If you aren't absolutely seeing them, then maybe move. But patience is key."
Another trend that he's noticed on Devils Lake: Smaller walleyes often precede the big ones in a biting spree. If an ice-fisherman starts catching smaller fish about 4:30 in the afternoon, the bigger ones will often come in as the sun gets lower. In other words, the bite picks up as the sun goes down.
"If at a quarter to five you haven't caught anything, you might consider moving," he said.
The flip side of that advice is that a lot o
f times you leave and later talk to your buddies who stayed and find out the fish bit like crazy after you left! Make your choices wisely.
The early-morning ice-fishing bite can also be good, but typically, few people are out at that time. It's very cold that early in the morning in January, in the Dakotas.
"In the morning most people don't start until sunrise," said Bourcy. "If we don't see anything after one hour of the sun, we don't waste any more time on walleyes. We lean into the perch at that point."
The size of the walleyes caught through the ice varies quite a bit, but at Devils Lake, Bourcy has been catching lots of 17- to 20-inchers. "It really varies from day to day," he said, "but if we are going to keep walleyes, we are catching some from 17 to 20 inches. That is perfect eating size. That is the size we generally bring home. We won't ever bring home a bucket of 6- to 12-pounders. We may get one to three that size, depending on the day."
Last year, Bourcy and his guides caught eight walleyes over 9 pounds during the winter, and 15 walleyes over 7 pounds. That trophy-walleye fishing during winter is a change from the 1980s, when Bourcy and others caught lots of jumbo perch.
"Now the lake is bigger," he said. "We do still catch jumbo perch, but the walleye fishing has totally exceeded anybody's expectations up here.
"Later in the winter, the eggs are ready to pop on the walleyes, and they are good and hungry. Basically, when you weigh in a fish at that time of year, an 8-pound walleye can weigh in at almost 10 pounds."
That size of walleye is creating considerable interest in the fishery. "It's getting known for its numbers of big walleyes," said Bourcy. "It's not just a perch fishing destination. And some come up to fish for huge northern pike.
Another trend that he's noticed at Devils Lake: Smaller walleyes often precede the big ones in a biting spree. If an ice-fisherman starts catching smaller fish about 4:30 in the afternoon, the bigger ones often will come in as the sun gets lower.
"But it is also just the word getting around. People are still being informed about Devils Lake. We have 140,000 to 160,000 acres of water, so we have a big lake."
Similarly excellent ice-fishing has been going on in the natural lakes across eastern South Dakota. Those lakes are much smaller than are the huge Missouri River reservoirs, but they have excellent ice-fishing and very good walleye populations.
They've been good ice-fishing waters for decades, and right now they're still at a high point in the natural walleye and water cycles. And anglers are catching lots of fish.
"Fishing has been phenomenal, actually," said Webster's Jason Coester, who's been ice-fishing the eastern part of the state near Webster his entire life. "It seems like every year there is a good lake that pops up that has good-quality fish. Waubay is still holding good numbers of walleyes and perch. Bitter Lake has been good."
Other top walleye ice-fishing waters in the region include Swan and Roy lakes. "Your average size is anywhere from 13 to 16 inches in Waubay, with an occasional bigger one," said Coester. "But the rest of the lakes all have healthy fish from 16 inches on up to 24 or 25 inches."
The really large walleyes are no longer there in big numbers, said Coester. Even so, the average-sized fish is excellent.
"Some of these lakes like Bitter were all stocked," he said. "There may be a few 8-pounders in there. The year-class in there right now is 23 to 24 inches. That's good. And the fish in there are like footballs. They're nice, big, fat fish."
The glacial lakes in East River have a real ice-fishing culture going on them. Some ice-fishermen have been doing this their entire lives, passing it down from generation to generation. It's part of the fun of the sport.
That can be a big help if you don't know a lake: You can just go out among the main group of ice-fishermen and start fishing. You can easily talk to them and get some ideas on what's working at that particular lake.
In the last 10 years there's been a more mobile ice-fishing crowd in South Dakota and elsewhere. When the fishing's good at a particular lake in any given winter, large groups of ice-fishermen will get wind of it and show up. Some lakes grow walleyes better than do others.
Coester said the walleyes have been eating huge amounts of freshwater shrimp, a foodstuff very high in nutrient value that puts weight on walleyes quickly.
Sometimes they don't bite readily -- one reason that most anglers go after both walleyes and perch. "In January it's weird, because these lakes like Waubay, for instance, are places you go catch 100 walleyes and a few perch during summer," said Coester. "In wintertime it's the opposite. You catch a lot of perch, and hardly any walleyes. Most people go after perch (during winter). That's the way it is on the other lakes, too."
According to Coester, part of the reason for the slower winter walleye fishing may be that people fish with a different pattern during winter. "Obviously you aren't as mobile in an ice shack as in a boat," he said.
And the fishing depth is often different. During winter, fishing the bait just off the bottom is the usual thing to do. That may be a mistake, thinks Coester.
"People fish in 4 to 5 feet of water in the summertime," he said, "but nobody every thinks to do that in the winter. Fishing shallow is a key sometimes -- 4 to 5 feet depth." That's the depth he sometimes probes for walleyes moving around the lake looking for food.
In the last 10 years there's been a more mobile ice-fishing crowd in South Dakota and elsewhere. When the fishing's good at a particular lake in any given winter, large groups of ice-fishermen will get wind of it and show up.
"They are roaming," said Coester. "Maybe the baitfish are up in there; I'm not real sure. But they are definitely in there. There is some structure. Breaks go into deeper portions of the lake, and long points. There is some relation there, but not always. Sometimes you find them wherever you find them."
Like most other avid ice-fishermen, he uses sonar to help find walleyes. At the beginning of the season, before Jan. 1., when he needs to move fairly frequently, he deploys his portable ice shack. "Later on, I use a more permanent shack," he said. "It's still mobile, but not as mobile. I do move with them."
Coester also likes the evening
bite. For walleyes he uses Jigging Raps made by Rapala. "You jig it like you do a vertical jig off the bottom, tipped with a minnow head," he said. "I've been using a jigging Shad Rap, which is new by Rapala. It has shown real positive results."
Favorite colors are perch and fire tiger. "I would say perch and fire tiger are my go-to ones," said Coester. "Blue is not very far behind."
In South Dakota, ice-fishermen can use four rigs at one time. When Coester does use that many, he has a plain hook with a split shot, which he tips with a big chub. He then jigs with another rig. The big sucker chubs are for big walleyes.
"It works well," he said. "Just let it set there. Put it about 6 inches to a foot off the bottom. I'm using 6- to 7-inch chubs. I let them run with it for at least 10 minutes. It seems like what they do is hit it and attack it, then carry it a ways, then reposition it and swallow it. That is why we wait so long."
Last winter Coester caught a 9-pound 6-ounce walleye using that technique. "I went out and saw the flag go up, and didn't think there was anything there," he said. "I set the hook, and there he was. I've got a 10-inch hole, and I have a lot of room to play with. If you have a guy to grab them when their head comes out of the water, it sure helps."
And then there are the little surprises -- or huge surprises, as the case may be. "With this fishing technique you have a really good chance of catching northerns, too," Coester added.
And those toothy critters, as many of you anglers already know, can be a real handful!