Ice Fishing River Walleyes
January 01, 2016
Of all the factors that can affect winter walleye location and behavior — and thus dictate where you drill and how you fish — current ranks high among the least understood. Ditto for the flowing-water fisheries themselves. Ice Belt rivers large and small are mostly underfished, while even legendary current-washed walleye destinations — think Erie, Huron or other Great Lakes walleye Meccas — are misunderstood by the masses.
All of which is unfortunate, because current can be one of your biggest allies in the quest to deal with current and walleyes. Not only does a consistent flow concentrate fish in predictable areas throughout the season, but intermittent undertows can dramatically increase fish activity levels — including feeding behavior. Indeed, I'd argue that the ability to predict, read, and react to current is one of ice fishing's last frontiers.
Which helps explain why, last winter, I set out to explore the subject of current as it affects the walleye faithful, and pick the brains of some of the finest icemen in the business. One of my stops was the mighty St. Louis River. This Minnesota-born Lake Superior tributary, which meets the big lake along the Wisconsin border between Duluth and Superior, is a classic case in point. Although it can produce walleye action so icy hot that even fish-hungry locals ring the DNR to close the season, the river's rejuvenated fishery gets little press outside the local area.
One fine late-February afternoon, I joined guide and avowed river rat Capt. Charlie Nelson, of Duluth, on the river for a glimpse at how current shapes the walleye scene under the ice. I wasn't disappointed. First off, the fishery is in solid shape. Like many urban rivers, the St. Louis has benefited from Clean Water Act mandates, and has in recent years produced bumper crops of walleyes. According to Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Specialist John Lindgren, three good year-classes — from 1995, '96 and '97 — produced an abundance of walleyes that are now in the mid-20-inch range. Another recent strong hatch stoked the system with fish in the 15- to 17-inch class. Suffice it to say, Charlie had a good icepack to use as a classroom while explaining the intricacies of icing river-run walleyes.
As in so many fishing situations, catching the hottest bite is often a matter of timing. Last winter, for example, the annual surge of Lake Superior spawners into the St. Louis estuary produced a fantastic early to mid-winter walleye bite on relatively shallow flats in the river's lower reaches, not far from the seaplane base off Park Point in the Duluth Harbor Basin. The fishing was so good in such staging areas, in fact, that Lindgren fielded calls from anglers concerned that too many walleyes were being harvested. "I knew it would slow down as the fish moved upriver," says Lindgren. "The bite typically tapers off in January, but it lasted longer this winter." Indeed it did, but in its wake, walleyes could still be had for anglers targeting the intersections of current with key structural areas.
While some anglers remain loyal to the staging flats so hot earlier in the winter, others follow the action along the shipping channel toward the Blatnik Bridge — which is exactly what Nelson and I do. "The Duluth Harbor is broken into two different bites," he explains as we drill holes and check depths in the shadows of an oceangoing cargo ship resting in port for the winter.
One of the more reliable options occurs along the edge of the channel in 20 to 25 feet of water. It's not uncommon to see fish houses lined up over key depths on the breakline. Adjacent to the channel, walleyes also feed on expansive, 6- to 8-foot flats. "The fish slosh back and forth between the two areas," Nelson says, explaining that he goes into search mode until discovering the best areas — then hunkers downs over active fish. One of his inside tips for the flats is watching for "lines" of anglers there, too, because the current creates networks of dunes on the bottom, arranged in roughly parallel lines. "Some days it's best to be at a specific depth and point along the base, break, or peak, on a specific dune," he says. "I fish two holes, a jigging spoon in one and a minnow under a slip-bobber in the other."
The spoon serves as an attractor, and fish that don't hit the metal often nail the minnow. His go-to jigging presentation is a minnow head impaled on a Â¼-ounce Lindy Rattl'n Flyer Spoon, which he likes for its time-tested combination of 'eye-catching colors, fish-attracting rattles, and Techni-Glo phosphorescence. Plus, the trademark "wings" give it a gliding, fluttering descent predators find hard to resist. Appropriate that Nelson favors the Flyer, I think, considering he's a recently retired F-16 fighter pilot with three tours in Iraq to his credit, along with countless sorties elsewhere. As we part ways, I express my thanks for his service to our country, as well as his information on walleyes in current.
Roughly 750 miles of asphalt to the east, I tap another Great Lakes walleye fiend in tune with the topic of 'eyes and flow: Capt. Ross Robertson. A hard-charging charter captain and decorated veteran of walleye wars in competitive venues like the Cabela's Masters Walleye Circuit, Robertson is a walking textbook of walleye data. He's also a student of the storied currents in and around Lake Erie's Bass Islands, as well as those of Lake Huron's Saginaw Bay.
Robertson likens current to a light switch that turns fish on when it arrives and stalls the bite when it fades. "Wind causes current on Erie," he explains. "Especially when it's coming 200 miles down the pipe at us." Regardless of wind direction, necked-down current funnels are key fishing areas when the water's moving. "It's almost like deer hunting, where you set up in a high-percentage area and wait," he notes. Much of the fishing occurs on funnels found on mud flats in 28 to 34 feet, but the exception to this theory occurs late in Erie's ice season, when walleyes being staging for the coming spawn. Then, Robertson forgoes the funnel effect and focuses on shallower sand flats adjacent to rocky structure, which attracts prespawn walleyes.
Given the right current, a variety of presentations catch fish. Swimming lures like Jigging Rapalas are good, and spoons including Swedish Pimples, Lindy Rattl'n Flyers and Northland Fishing Tackle Macho Minnows are perennial favorites. Robertson likes the latter spoon because, "It fishes heavy, with a subtle fall."
Still, bladebaits such as Reef Runner's Cicada top his playlist. Silvers and golds are top finishes, which he often dolls up with a strip of fluorescent green prism tape. "Black nickel can be good, too," he says. "It's one of those finishes that doesn't work that often, but when it does, it really works." Other than tape, little tweaking is in order. Robertson swaps a Cicada's stock hooks for Gamakatsu trebles (#8 on a 1/2-ounce blade, #6 on the 3/4-ouncer), which he attaches with a split ring. Small emerald shiners are his favorite tipping fare. He typically adds a pair of them to a blade, carefully balancing the whole affair for maximum action.
"Bladebaits are overlooked," he says. "And the Cicada is my favorite because the curved blade dances and flutters in the current with just a simple roll of my wrist. Plus, for some reason, I'm usually better able to react to fish with a curved blade than a straight one. Oftentimes I jig aggressively until I bring fish in, then use the blade like a finesse rig, lifting and dropping it like a leadhead."
When walleyes are lethargic, he ups the animation ante. "I rip to the point the blade looks like a ping-pong ball on my sonar," he says. "Fish glued to the bottom get up and check it out." As curious fish swim close, he tones down the presentation with subtle strokes and pauses to seal the deal.
The finer points of presentation lose relevance when current falters. "It's amazing how the current — and the fishing action — stops and starts," he says. "Adjacent to the Bass Islands, you have to be in current to catch fish." When the flow ebbs in his favorite funnels, Robertson goes on the hunt, seeking areas where a 1/4-ounce jig is swept off to the side of the hole, and can't be seen on sonar. It's worth noting that water color can also be a clue to ideal current. "I look for clarity that's roughly halfway between clear and chocolate milk," he says.
Of course, a host of other factors affect walleye location and behavior in relation to current. Just ask Charlie Kasberger. Longtime proprietor of River Bend Resort, located on the Rainy River a long cast from its confluence with Lake of the Woods near Baudette, Minnesota, he's spent years studying the dynamics driving fish location and activity on this walleye-rich complex of river, estuary, and main lake.
"Much depends on the forage," he offers. "Shiners like current, and a good fall shiner run is typically synonymous with good walleye fishing in current areas." Like Robertson, Kasberger knows the value of funnel areas, in his case gaps and washouts where bottom contours direct the Rainy's flow as it enters the main lake. "For example, Four Mile Bay is an excellent place to fish walleyes," he says. "It has current and a channel, and the channel edges are the place to fish."
In the river proper, corners are key, particularly in depths of 14 to 16 feet with ample flow. "The beginnings and ends of holes are good, too," he says, noting that the sharpest, steepest breaklines often hold the most current-run walleyes. As for the flow itself, he notes that in years of anemic current, fewer walleyes reside in the main river.
For jigging in the flow, Kasberger prefers a 3/8-ounce leadhead tipped with a minnow. "These are about the only jigs heavy enough to get down there," he says. "Gold is a great color. I always start with golds and pinks. Glows work well, too."
Jigstrokes are tailored to the flow. "You have to keep the jig moving, but not so much that it gets swept away," he warns. For Kasberger, peak fishing coincides with classic 45-minute bite windows early and late in the day. The walleyes are moving, and your odds of catching big fish are best. In this respect, tackling walleyes in current is no different than chasing their slack-water cousins.
And speaking of the lake, it's interesting to track catches from the various depths and flow areas. Close to the river mouth, walleyes often dominate — while saugers comprise the bulk of the catch in deep water with low to zero flow. "You don't see saugers in current as much as walleyes," he says. That's not to say you won't catch walleyes out in the lake — because you will — it's just that where food and flow create ideal conditions, walleyes rule. Late in the ice season, an influx of flow-loving prespawn fish further tips the scales in favor of walleyes in current-washed areas.
*Dan Johnson of Harris, Minnesota, is a frequent contributor to In-Fisherman publications. Contacts: Capt. Charlie Nelson, stlouisriverguy.com; Capt. Ross Robertson, bigwaterfishing.com; Charlie Kasberger, riverbendresortlow.com.