Hardwater Handbook: Ice-Fishing Adaptations

Catching winter walleyes often requires mobility and a willingness to adjust tactics.

Hardwater Handbook: Ice-Fishing Adaptations

Photos by Mark Romanack

Some of the best ice-fishing action for walleyes is occurring these days, with great opportunities all over the “Ice Belt.” In part, walleye fishing is booming because of high water levels across much of the nation. Higher water offers more habitat and improves reproductive success. Also, many walleye fisheries are flourishing due to progressive management strategies, including slot limits, reduced creel limits and modest possession limits.

Collectively, hardwater walleye anglers are enjoying some of the best opportunities of our generation. For those who haven’t experienced the action, the time is now.

RUN AND GUN FOR ’EYES

Compared to many popular species, walleyes are fairly active during the winter months. The early and late-ice periods are always the “prime times,” but those exerting effort can expect good results throughout the hardwater season.

AdaptIce
A dead-stick setup took this monster walleye, but what works well often varies. (Photo by Mark Romanack)

When the season kicks off obviously varies by location. In parts of Minnesota, where ice conditions can be exceptional, early action is possible. In others, like Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio, safe ice might not exist until late January or early February. This goes double for larger bodies of water such as Saginaw Bay, Green Bay, Little Bay de Noc and Lake Erie.


Wherever they’re located, the most successful anglers all have something in common: Consistently finding, and staying, on active schools of walleyes requires a run-and-gun mindset. Red-hot fishing holes today might cool considerably tomorrow. Anglers must roam as necessary to keep on fish.


Tools of this strategy include a UTV, ATV or snow machine; portable flip-style ice shelter; portable sonar/GPS unit; cellphone and a lightweight auger capable of cutting countless holes each day on the ice. These allow ice-anglers to locate fish quickly and stick with them. Also, communicate with other anglers in the group to expand your search area; then zero in on solid spots when fish are found.

BREAKING DOWN STRUCTURE

So, key to success is covering water. But, where to begin your search?

Typically, winter walleyes stick close to structure when available. In waters made up mostly of flats with a few reefs, shoals or breaklines mixed in, fish often roam from spot to spot. On waters with ample structure, fish often move less and remain near predictable spots.

AdaptIce
Mobility is key to hardwater success. (Photo by Mark Romanack)

Using the plotter screen from a GPS unit that shows bottom contours and key features such as breaklines, shoals or sunken islands, anglers can quickly locate and target high-probability spots. Mount the GPS to a UTV, ATV or snow machine’s handlebars to cover ground and zero in on attractive structure.


Early and late each day, walleyes often move right up on top of these structures taking advantage of their ability to hunt effectively in low light. As the day progresses, they generally drop off from the tops of key structures and position in nearby deeper water. Try to stay on fish as they move shallow and deep throughout the day. With some experience, one can begin predicting these likely haunts.

Often the same waypoints routinely producing fish in open water also hold winter ’eyes. Setting up a course of spots that customarily hold fish and systematically checking them is a solid fish-finding approach.

THREE CLASSIC LURE GROUPS

Ice-fishing for walleyes often boils down to owning and successfully employing three basic lure groups: leadhead jigs, jigging spoons and jigging/swimming hard baits. On any given day, one or more of these will surface as the most effective option.


Of the three, jigs deliver the most subtle presentation. Often a clean ball jig tipped with a live minnow is the best producer. Countless ’eyes have fallen to the simple presentation. However, it isn’t always the top choice.

Jigging spoons come in a wide variety of options. Some sink quickly and deliver little action; others might feature a slower fall rate and more pronounced wobble. Most produce best when tipped with a live minnow or a minnow head. Some iconic must-haves include: Bay de Noc’s Do-Jigger and Swedish Pimple, VMC’s Tingler Spoon, Northland’s Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and Custom Jigs and Spins’ Slender Spoon.

Then there are jigging/swimming hard baits. These include classics such as the Jigging Rapala and Moonshine Shiver Minnow, plus lipless cranks such as the Rapala Rippin’ Rap and the famous Bill Lewis Rat-L-Trap series. These lures often fish best without live bait. Attaching a minnow or minnow head can dramatically reduce actions. Instead, if desired, sweeten them with natural scent products such as Pro Cure’s Super Gels, greasy, sticky pastes that blends ground-up natural bait with a binding agent to prevent scent from quickly washing off lures.

JIGGING OR DEAD-STICKING?

On certain days, walleyes will favor active “jigging” approaches or less active “dead-sticking” presentations. Jigging often draws strikes from actively feeding fish. Dead-sticking, meanwhile, produces best on fish not fooled by traditional jigging tactics.

A dead-stick setup utilizes a small jig tipped with a live minnow lowered to bottom and left motionless while the rod sits in a nearby rod holder. Jig with one rod and dead-stick with a second.

It’s amazing how often walleyes avoid the active presentation to hit a motionless minnow suspended near bottom. Dead-sticking works best when the rod features an ultra-slow action and exceptionally light tip paired with light and ultra-clear fluorocarbon line. This allows walleyes to pick up the jig and swim away without feeling resistance. A properly rigged dead-stick should utilize 4- to 6-pound-test line and a soft enough rod to allow walleyes to hang themselves.

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Photos by Mark Romanack

AGGRESSIVE JIGGING STRATEGIES

Active jigging is best accomplished with assistance from premium sonar showing not just fish, but also the lure. Both portable liquid crystal and color flasher-style sonar units work. To begin, set the sonar unit’s gain or power setting just high enough to easily see the jigging lure as it’s lifted and dropped in the water column. Set up properly, a sonar unit shows the lure, the presence of baitfish and walleyes when they appear.

When a walleye shows on sonar, it’ll look differently depending on the specific type of sonar unit being used. With liquid crystal-style sonar, fish and the lure will “mark” as solid lines. The smaller lure will mark as a thinner line than a walleye. With flasher units, both lure and fish will “mark” as a blinking light. Smaller targets like lures mark with one color; larger targets mark with a different color on the flasher screen for easy identification.

When a fish appears in the hole, try triggering a strike by teasing it. Jigging while lifting the lure slowly upward creates a “cat and mouse” game forcing the walleye to pursue or drift away.

As the lure is lifted a few feet off bottom, the walleye will respond by also lifting up off bottom. Sonar is crucial here because anglers must be able to see both lure and fish to try and gauge the fish’s “attitude.” As the lure is being lifted and jigged simultaneously, an active walleye will likely surge up off the bottom without hesitation and smash the bait.

Less-active walleyes might give chase but quickly lose interest and return to bottom. When this happens, drop the bait back down and repeat this process to try coaxing a bite.

If after a couple times this doesn’t trigger a strike and the fish drifts off, bait’s likely the issue. If a jig and minnow isn’t producing, swap to a jigging spoon or jigging/swimming lure and try again. When the next fish appears, repeat the process.

By switching lure groups and monitoring reactions to each presentation, anglers can discover the bait type fish want on a given day. Many anglers spool up several different rod and reel combinations (where legal) for quickly changing presentations as conditions dictate.

BE MOBILE, BE ADAPTABLE

Mobility is crucial to finding and staying on schools of fish. And adaptability is key to actually getting bit. Anglers must be open-minded regarding changing lures and presentations. Just because fish smashed a jig and minnow combo yesterday doesn’t mean it’s the best option now.

Move to find the fish. Gauge their attitude and interest. Then, adjust your strategy as needed to be successful.

Get Your Fish On.

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