Ice Fishing Methods for Trophy Walleyes
February 05, 2015
"Predators that get to trophy size have to take in more calories than they expend," Guide Dennis Foster says. "That's why I spend so much time using larger lures and baits during winter. I often use lures that give off a lot of flash and vibration. But the main part of my system depends on big livebaits on tip-ups."
The first order is to fish waters that have big fish. "Gotta do your homework," he says. "I check fishery reports and talk details with local fishery biologists. I talk with other guides on lakes that produce big fish. Lots of information today also is available on the Internet.
"Contests like In-Fisherman's Master Angler Awards also provide clues. Fisheries like portions of Lake of the Woods, Lake Winnipeg, Fort Peck, and Saskatchewan's Last Mountain Lake, to name a few, are consistent winners."
Guide Jeff Matity of Matity's Get Fishing, who fishes Last Mountain and who offers a contrasting presentation approach to Foster's, says that the presence of small perch and mid-sized ciscoes boosts growth rates of pike and walleyes there, while whitefish support fish once they reach trophy size.
"Each fishery has reasons it has trophy-size fish," Foster says. He also knows that at times big fish eat smaller baitfish and go for smaller lures. But by feeding on bigger baitfish, trophy walleyes gain the most calories through the least amount of effort, and in the process are less likely to get caught.
"Big fish survive because they learn to feed when the odds are in their favor," he says. "They usually are active only for short periods when they're most likely to find and catch a big meal. For walleyes that typically means the morning and evening twilight periods, with the evening a favorite for me."
Foster finds that first ice and last ice are the best periods for big fish. "They're more active at first ice because they're still feeding to get ready for winter; and at last ice because they're getting into prespawn mode," he says. "I catch some big fish during mid-winter, but it's a matter of sitting them out on good spots. Might not even get a bite for four nights then have a couple big fish move in to feed during a 20-minute window. It's not a high-percentage affair for someone who only gets to fish once a week.
"Overall, I like last ice best—especially the two weeks just before the end of it all. By that time I'm fishing the edges of big shoals adjacent to spawning areas. That's where using fishery research information to identify potential areas is helpful. Then it's a matter of fishing potential areas to identify sweet spots. Once you find those, they're typically good year after year."
Foster uses HT Magnetic Polar Pop-up Tip-ups. "They're compact, lightweight, and the magnetic mechanism makes them smooth and reliable," he says. "Keep them clean and lubricated and check to be sure the drag is properly set."
For a leader he uses a 3-foot section of 30-pound Seaguar fluorocarbon. "The thin diameter and low memory provide a stealthy presentation, which is vital in clear water when fish have a long time to examine stationary baits—plus the abrasion resistance lets me land pike as well as walleyes.
"Redtail chubs, creek chubs, shiners, and suckers can be hard to find but they're vital for how I fish. I spend a lot of time contacting bait dealers and paying whatever it costs to get baits 6 to 8 inches long that are lively, tethering them on #1 octopus hooks."
To keep baitfish lively he uses The Oxygenator Bait Transporter, a tough, insulated 7-gallon cooler that keeps big minnows in optimum shape by infusing oxygen using a recirculating pump.
"Big minnows are visible from a distance, allowing you to cover more area, even when using stationary sets," he says. "I set baits several feet off bottom so they aren't hidden in the bottom gloom, and stand out silhouetted again the bottom of the ice. Big fish like rising to take bigger baits, whether they're set on a shallow drop-off edge, or positioned farther down the drop-off, including at the base of the drop.
"I monitor the tip-ups, clearing ice and snow so they function properly when Mr. Big comes in and eats. It's vital to check baits from time to time by lifting each set. If everything's satisfactory, I reset and move on to the next one—if not, I put on a fresh minnow. Lifting a bait to get it moving, or adding a fresh, lively baitfish is what most often triggers a strike. It's a constant process; you can't just set baits, sit back, and wait.
"Once I tend the tip-ups, I also have holes drilled strategically so I can jig. I use bladebaits and lipless lures, options with lots of vibration and flash. I like Chubby Darters at times. And bigger spoons tipped with a minnow head. This approach with lures complements what I'm doing with the livebaits, because the lures often bring in big fish that end up eating a livebait."
Smash and Grab, Decoy and Convert
Jeff Matity, with brother Jason, runs Matity's Get Fishing, a promotional entity that specializes in teaching about all forms of freshwater fishing. They're based near Regina, Saskatchewan, and Jeff knows Last Mountain Lake well, having spent many years guiding on it.
They're hardcore, inventive anglers and In-Fisherman followers. In-Fisherman Editor In Chief Doug Stange has fished with Jeff to do television, including a stint of ice fishing last December, with the resulting segments playing on the Sportsman Channel this October through December. We focus here on one of their more recent experiments with walleyes, with Jeff describing an approach that relies on ReelBait Flasher Jigs, which probably are considered open-water options by most anglers.
Matity: "By now, most anglers are familiar with having a second rod ready to drop another lure down once fish are brought in with a larger and more aggressive lure that they won't take. This 'decoying' has become popular on Lake Winnipeg, where walleyes often come in on a lipless lure like the LiveTarget Golden Shiner. If the fish won't take the lipless lure, the angler quickly reels and drops a smaller spoon, or drops the lipless lure to the bottom, and in a hole near the main hole drops the spoon. That's what I call decoying and converting.
"On Last Mountain, the main decoy lures are some of the same lipless lures used on Lake Winnipeg, along with ReelBait Fergie Spoons and PK Spoons, usually sweetened with bit of walleye cheek. But we also use the 1-ounce version of the ReelBait Flasher Jig tipped with a 2-inch portion of cut cisco belly, to bring fish in and trigger them, before we have to resort to a secondary lure. It's something the fish haven't seen and we catch a lot of fish, especially for the month or so of first ice. I also always add a drop or two of Pro-Cure Mr. Ice Gel to the blade on the Flasher Jig.
"To bring fish in and trigger them, we use a technique I call the Smash and Grab. We cut lots of holes in a good area and move from hole to hole, spending only about a minute or so in each hole. We drop the 1-ounce lure to the bottom, then jig it up as high as we can and let it plummet to the bottom, where it thumps down hard. We do that three or four times, maybe do a little dancing of the lure on the bottom, then lift the jig a foot and scrutinize our electronics to see if a walleye has been drawn in. If we don't see a big mark we move on. If a fish comes in and doesn't take immediately, we tone things down with some rod-tip shakes, followed by dead-still pauses.
"Beyond catching fish, we cover a lot of water and determine which holes are likely to be hot during prime time, based on how many fish we see in which holes. Of course we also get fish that decoy but don't commit to the larger Flasher. We convert them with a 1/4-ounce Flasher like the Short Shank Original Glo, tipped with an inch-long portion of cisco belly or minnow head.
"Cut holes about 2 to 3 feet apart, drop the big lure in one hole, the smaller lure in the other. Drop the smaller lure to the bottom. Pick up the bigger lure and use the smash-and-grab technique. If a walleye comes in and won't commit, open your bail and drop the big jig to the bottom, pick the 1/4-ounce jig off the bottom and lift it up just above the fish.
"One trip last winter there were four other anglers plus Jason and myself. We were the only ones using the techniques described here. We caught 32 of the 50 fish that day, including a couple of 11-pounders."