It only takes a trip or two ice fishing to realize that regardless of the species, fish are spooky under the ice. As a lifelong big walleye connoisseur, I can confirm that walleyes are spooky year-round, and during the winter months, this is only compounded.
I suppose we could blame it on a plethora of factors, but more time to inspect a presentation and what is often the cleanest water of the year likely tops the list. Here are a few tricks to not only avoid spooking those giant walleyes but also how to catch them this winter.
One winter, I had a client who kept telling me he couldn’t see any fish on his sonar. His buddies in shacks less than thirty feet away were not only marking lots of walleyes, they were catching them, too. As I entered his shack to provide some coaching, the problem quickly presented itself.
He threw his thermos onto the ice after pouring a cup of coffee. Many might say this doesn’t matter, and some days it may not. I quickly set up my hummingbird mega live sonar, which allows me to see fish at least twenty feet out from the hole. In real-time, he watched a school of fish ten feet from the hole spook as he again tossed the thermos.
I’ve seen fish spook just from human foot traffic many days as well. The point is to be aware that fish, especially big walleyes, are paying attention when you mess up. When targeting walleyes, you need to act more like a turkey hunter rather than a duck hunter. Less commotion is always better. Simple things like ice creepers make a lot more noise than a plain boot, if not absolutely necessary, ditch the cleats while fishing.
Most of us can relate to a buddy catching fish only feet away when others aren’t, even on a seemingly structureless basin. In many cases, this also comes down to what footprint you are putting out. A simple trick to always remember is to set up on snow patches, no matter how small they may seem. This can allow for a quieter approach as you move around and, even more importantly, puts you in the shadows.
On gin-clear winter waters such as Lake Michigan’s Bay De Noc, something as simple as not clearing the slush out of your hole helps to decrease light penetration below. Believe it or not, this can be a make-it-or-break-it move. Be aware of how much commotion you are making.
If you want a big walleye, the first thing to do is go to lakes that have big walleye. I know it seems obvious, but many anglers try to target trophy fish in bodies of water that have few, if any, trophy fish. A good example hunters can relate to is if you want a big whitetail deer, camping out in Iowa likely will provide better results than the same length hunt in Mississippi. Look online at open water tournament results year after year to see those bodies that consistently produce fish of larger size. More often than not, though, larger lakes mean larger walleyes.
Once you select the lakes with a healthier population of trophy fish, narrow down the water by looking for transitions from hard to soft bottom, typically sand, mud, and rock changes. The best areas are those that not only have this transition but also feature quick access to deep water.
My best tool is to look at the mapping on my hummingbird GPS, which shows multiple colors that each designate a different range of water depths. This allows you to quickly find these more productive areas on your couch before you even fish or while ripping down the lake on a snowmobile.
Once we ballpark the areas that we want to try to fish, one of the biggest mistakes we make is assuming that walleyes are always on the bottom. The aforementioned live sonar has taught us that we often have our lures way below the biggest fish in the system.
With traditional sonar, the higher in the water column we go, the smaller the beam is that we can see the walleye. If a fish is halfway up in the water column, we literally have less than half the chance of even seeing them. Another way to look at it is if you do mark a fish higher, know that there are more there than you can see. Live sonar or forward-facing sonar has been critical in learning or confirming this. Decades of educated hunches can now be confirmed in seconds by someone who has little to no experience.
Inversely, traditional sonar is also not great at marking fish that are glued to the bottom. We learned years ago with the use of underwater cameras, such as an Aqua Vu, that fish very tight to the bottom, especially those not directly below the transducer often go unseen until they chase a lure up. At the risk of sounding like a broken record, live sonar also makes seeing these fish much easier due to the multiple beams and angled transducer.
Even if you happen to land on the mother load of walleyes, you still need to present what they want and how they want it. Walleyes often come through in waves and you’ll only get a few chances if you’re lucky, which is why I like to have a one-two punch in regards to lures at all times.
I prefer to fish out of a two-man Clam shanty that only has one seat in the middle. It has little to do with being anti-social and more to do with efficiency. This larger left-to-right space allows me to run two separate holes far enough apart that lures are less likely to tangle but close enough that a third hole in the center with my sonar transducer will pick up both lures.
In one hole, I prefer a lure to help bring them in, such as a rattlespoon or a jigging rap. This is used to help bring walleyes closer to the hole and basically blow their cover. That’s not to say these lures are just there as fishing’s version of a grunt call, because these lures catch plenty of aggressive fish, particularly in the low-light periods.
The second hole has a much more subtle approach and a rod that is often dead sticked or moved very little. The number of big walleyes that will zoom right up to a dead-sticked rod is mind-blowing. Even more mind-blowing is that if you move that lure even an inch before they’re ready, they will leave as quickly as they came.
On larger lakes, a small jig head, typically ⅛ ounce or less, with a large, longer shank hook like a VMC Sleek jig is a go-to. The larger hook is key to handle rigging live minnows and still getting a solid hookup. On bodies of water where wind and current aren’t as much of a factor or walleyes are extremely picky, something as simple as a tail-hooked live minnow with just enough split shot above to keep it below your hole can be lethal.
Regardless of the type of dead stick lure you choose, make sure to have a rod that has plenty of give. A soft tip that lets you see the bite and won’t let the walleye feel you at the same time is the perfect scenario. Don’t be afraid to give it more than a few seconds after you see the bite to make sure they have the minnow firmly. Patience is key.
Chasing big walleyes really is a lot like deer hunting. You can make a lot of mistakes and still have success on the smaller ones, but the big ones truly do get big by not being dumb. Once you get yourself in the right general location, being stealthy and having a one-two-lure presentation will dramatically increase your odds of getting a giant walleye topside this winter.