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Taking Winter Walleyes To School

Taking Winter Walleyes To School

Learn how to improve your walleye fishing on Michigan lakes, using the tips and tactics derived from the pros on Saginaw Bay.(January 2008).

Photo by Mike Gnatkowski.

Having done their homework during pre-fishing, Martin and his fellow pro instructors knew where big schools of walleyes were hanging out in Saginaw Bay last January. The problem was getting there. A tardy winter almost resulted in cancellation of the winter fishing school a few weeks earlier, but a sudden blast of frigid air finally locked up the bay with enough good ice to allow safe ice-fishing.

One thing walleye fishing pro Mark Martin of Muskegon stresses in the school is safety on the ice when chasing winter 'eyes. Problem was, some areas on Saginaw Bay in midwinter still were not safe. Anglers needed to avoid small pockets of open water in the bay. Only a week earlier, an ice-angler died on the bay. Several others had narrow escapes.

Our caravan of more than 50 ATVs and snowmobiles set out along the bay shore, north of Hoyle's Marina in Linwood. The ice close to shore was safe, so Martin led the group parallel to shore for about five miles before heading east out onto the bay off Erickson Road.

Picking its way over pressure cracks and jagged piles of ice, the group eventually reached the 17- to 18-foot depths some three miles offshore where the walleye schools had been hanging out. Martin's knowledge of electronics and GPS instruments was key in avoiding potential hazards and locating the hotspots the pros found earlier in the week.

Once stopped, the group fanned out and began setting up shanties and drilling holes. My friend, Andy Gorske of Frank's Great Outdoors in Linwood, pulled up alongside me. We shut off our machines to talk.

"See that white ice out there a little ways?" I asked, pointing to some broken ice about a quarter-mile out from the group. "Let's go out and try near that." We fired up the snowmobiles and sped out across the slick ice before coming to the rough edge.

My Strike Master Lazer Mag auger quickly bored through the 10 inches of ice. After quickly skimming the ice, I readied my rods. Unfortunately, my favorite jigging rod was a casualty of the trip. Its tip was broken. Not wanting to waste time rigging another rod during prime time, I grabbed a rod already rigged with a slip-bobber.

Stripping line to set the bobber stop at the right depth, I dropped the bobber in the hole. The bobber stood up briefly, then, just as quickly, started slowly sinking below the hole. It took a split second to register the reason the bobber was sinking was that there was a walleye on the end of the line below it! I came up with a sharp hookset and was fast to a nice walleye. A few seconds later, I had a fat 18-inch 'eye on the ice. (Continued)

Buoyed by my instant success, I pinned another shiner minnow to the small treble hook and again dropped the bobber in the hole. Déjà vu! The bobber shot under the ice this time. I pounced on the rod and set the hook. The fish bored for bottom, but after a short tussle, the hook pulled free.

Unfazed by the loss, I put another fresh minnow on the hook and dropped it in the hole. The bobber probably sat for a minute or two before it shuddered and then, slowly, began to sink. Knowing the routine this time, I intentionally let the walleye move off with the bait before setting the hook. Solid resistance! The hook was firmly embedded in the roof of the walleye's mouth. He joined his frozen brethren on the ice.

The action remained hot and I iced another 18-inch eater and lost another good fish before Mark Martin, outdoors writer Eric Sharp of the Detroit Free Press, and the paper's photographer strolled up. I zipped down the front of my shanty to give them the fishing report.

"Well, at least someone has found the fish," Sharp quipped, while eyeing the three frozen walleyes next to the shanty. Apparently, no one else in the group had yet caught a fish.

"It's all about location," I joked. "The bite was so hot when I first sat down, I just now had time to get my jigging rod rigged up. I haven't even had time to have my morning coffee!"

About then, the Swedish Pimple I was jigging received a solid thump. When I came back on the rod, it bent double. At the same time, my slip-bobber started sinking out of sight.

"Grab that one!" I pointed, as Martin and the photographer got the camera rolling. The fish Martin hooked quickly got off, but after a minute or two, I had walleye No. 4 flopping on the ice. Half an hour later, a chunky 5-pounder filled my limit. By then, most of the group had ventured out in our direction and everyone was icing fish.

Martin is a professional walleye angler, seminar speaker and fishing guide who is a regular on the Professional Walleye Tour. Martin won the 1990 PWT championship and is known for his knowledge of a variety of techniques that catch walleyes throughout the year.

A native of Muskegon, Martin grew up ice-fishing on Muskegon Lake and other lakes in the area. Joining Martin was a cadre of guides and pro anglers, most notably PWT regular Mark Brumbaugh and Mike Gofron. Combined, the pros offer the student anglers a near one-on-one school of ice-fishing for walleyes.

Martin has been hosting his ice-fishing schools for five years. Students get the opportunity to learn from the pros, while enjoying hands-on experience on the ice.

The school typically opens with an evening seminar, when the pros reveal tips for tuning electronics, ice-fishing safety, picking the right lines for ice-fishing, jigging techniques, lure choices and more. Most of the students agree the seminar alone is worth the price of admission. Things learned at the seminar are reinforced by 2 1/2 days of on-the-ice fishing instruction.

Like the 2006 version of the walleye school, the 2007 school almost didn't happen. A wimpy winter in 2006 caused the school to be cancelled. The 2007 school almost suffered a similar fate. A prolonged spell of cold weather is required to lock up Saginaw Bay in a safe covering of ice, and it almost didn't happen last year. But the Alberta Clipper that blasted across Saginaw Bay in late January and early February provided the deep-cold weather needed to build good ice.

Until 2007, the ice-fishing school has operated at the venues of Little Bay De Noc and Houghton County's Portage Lake System on the Upper Peninsula, where winter is a given.

For 2007, Martin said he knew he was taking a c

hance planning the outing on Saginaw Bay. But he said he likes to change things up to give students an opportunity to learn different bodies of water and apply what they've learned to different situations. Many of the students and instructors say attending the school is a bargain just to learn a new body of water.

For the most part, ice conditions were good for the classes held last January on Saginaw Bay. And you can say the walleye fishing was hot! Student anglers and other fishermen combined their catches for more than 600 walleyes in two days of fishing.

Despite the great fishing that takes place during the schools, Martin always stresses that key to ice-fishing is attention to safety on the ice. Martin said the schools take place on big bodies of water where ice conditions and weather likely will be a factor.

That's one reason why the use of GPS (global positioning systems) instruments is taught: to help anglers find their way back to safe ground at times of inclement weather. The second reason to teach GPS knowledge is to help anglers mark productive fishing locations.

Ice-fishing safety also includes teaching student-anglers several other facets of the sport: 1) the importance for staying in groups; 2) letting others know where you plan to fish and when you plan to return; and 3) proper use of a pair of ice creepers (wearing these simple devices can prevent a nasty spill that might otherwise cause severe injury).

Electronics in ice-fishing doesn't end with GPS instruments. The seminar also includes insights on how to take full advantage of fish-finders: graphs and flasher units, both.

For example, "Ice-anglers should be able to tune their (fish-finder) units and use the power to see their lures or even a split shot on their lines," Martin pointed out. It's a common mistake, he added, for many ice-anglers to improperly adjust their units to use their full power and maximize gain and sensitivity. Proper settings, he said, helps you see fish that enter your strike zone under the ice and how they react to your jigging cadence and other presentations.

Many times ice-fishing for walleyes is all about presentation. That's one subject Martin tries to instill in his students both on and off the ice.

"Jigging action is critical for attracting fish," Marin said, "but it's often the less-active minnow on a dead stick that gets bit." It's a matter of the "flutter, rip, twitch and swim" in ice-fishing lures, his instruction team agrees, as well as the lure chosen and how the fish react to the presentation, that makes successful ice-anglers.

For example, Martin pointed out, anglers shouldn't be so quick to pull their lures immediately out of the water to see if any bait remains on it following a strike.

"That's the worst thing you can do. Don't just reel in your lure right away. Instead do just the opposite," he advised. "Drop your lure to the bottom, and maybe even bounce it off the bottom a couple of times before raising it and holding it." Doing so makes a walleye think it has wounded the bait, as it falls to the bottom. As the lure is raised and stopped, the walleye frequently will hit it even harder, Martin said.

Ice-anglers also might not give much thought to how to pin a minnow to a jig or hook. But in their days of ice-fishing instruction with Martin and his team, anglers learn there are certain situations and presentations where it's best to use a whole minnow, a half minnow or even just the head of the minnow! You can even cut the minnow's tail off to give it a subtle, quivering motion when walleyes are super finicky.

Line choices for ice-fishing is critical, too, because walleye waters in the winter are super clear. Strong, no-stretch lines are a must when jigging, Martin pointed out.

"I recommend that guys use a clear, high-quality line, like Berkley XT, for jigging in the winter. An alternative is the new Crystal Fireline," he said. "But regardless of what line you use, you need to use as small a diameter as possible. I use an 8-pound fluorocarbon, like Vanish. It has very little stretch and is nearly invisible under water."

It's hard to absorb all the tips and tricks anglers learn during the course of the two-hour evening seminar at the outset of Mark Martin's Winter Walleye School. That's where the hands-on experience for two days often leads an angler to big dividends on -- or under -- the ice.

"It was a learning experience for me," said angler Larry Smith from the Keweenaw Peninsula in Michigan's U.P. "It was my first time fishing Saginaw Bay. It was great being able to fish a new body of water and learn some techniques that might work at home. When you take into account the two days of fishing, the experience you gain and the great tackle pack, it's a bargain."

Muskegon resident Ted Lee said the experience, tips and sharing of ideas made the school great for him.

"I usually have to deal with a lot of current where I fish," Lee said, "and I learned how to deal with that more effectively. There was a 60-year-old guy fishing near me who had never caught a walleye through the ice. Using the knowledge he'd gained at the seminar, he caught his first walleye and he was whooping and hollering like a little kid. He ended up catching his limit that day. You just can't put a price on the hands-on experience you get by fishing with a pro. I would suggest it to anyone. I'm sure that everyone, whether an experienced angler or novice, came away with something."

Anglers interested in attending the 2008 Walleye Ice Fishing School can contact Mark Martin at (231) 744-0330 or online at" You can also get more information on the school by contacting Frank's Great Outdoors in Linwood at (989) 697-5341 or online at"

For more information on lodging and accommodations in the Saginaw Bay area, contact the Bay Area Convention and Visitors Bureau at (888) 229-8696 or

There aren't too many shortcuts to catching winter walleyes, but going to school to learn the tricks and techniques to catch walleyes through the ice might just be one of them.

Good fishing . . . ice-fishing, that is!

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