The winter of 2016/17 was a tough one for dedicated ice fishermen in the great lakes. Warmish temps kept much of the really productive Walleye water….well, water. We were hard pressed to find good ice on Saginaw Bay and found none on Lake Erie, our usual hot spots for winter walleye and perch.
We made due with one of the best spring walleye seasons most people could remember. Most locals attribute the phenomenal spring walleye season on the Detroit river, to the lack of winter ice fishing pressure. The “spring run”, which never ended, produced great fishing right up until everyone switched to duck, deer and bird hunting in the fall. My buddy Steve and I filleted over 300 fish, and threw back many more, adhering to our own self-imposed “slot limit” of 16”-21” fish, during the spring run. We weren’t alone, everyone seemed to be doing as well. Curiously, of all the fish we caught between early March through September of 2017, including quite a few fish in the 6-9 lb. range, not one was a female as near as we could determine. None that we filleted were, and almost every fish that we netted and released was full of Milt (sperm) instead of eggs, made obvious by their gratuitous release of seed all over the boat. I don’t know what that portends, if anything, but it was an anomaly for certain.
Winter of 2017-18 is another story all together. With normal cold temps early in the season, first ice, in shallow, proved as productive as ever. Everyone has their “secret spots” even on a bay like Saginaw that is as thoroughly fished as any body of water anywhere. On a typical winter Saturday, thousands of snowmobiles, quads, shanties and even a few ski planes can be seen on the bay. Our first ice secret spots yielded good Walleye and jumbo perch fishing…and by Jumbo, I mean 13-14” perch!!
Now as we’re into January and the region, as well as most of the Northeast quarter of the country, experiences record setting cold, the bay is locked up and the real exploration begins.
Now is when the big walleyes and big limits start. Deep water is the rule. At least deep for the bay. First ice saw good fishing in 6-9 ft. of water. Now we’re running 7-9 miles offshore and fishing 19-24 feet deep. The cold has been brutal but it’s been worth it.
The equipment matters a lot in ice fishing for walleyes. Your snowmobile needs to be in tip top shape, have good carbides and studs for the slick ice that is normal. Your shanty needs to have the right type of tow bar, skids attached to the bottom, preferably a quilted cover to retain warmth and discourage interior frost and it should have a comfortable, padded chair to deal with the sometimes long sits, hunched over staring at the graph.
Yes a graph, whether LCD or flasher, is THE most important tool for walleyes through the ice. I use a Lowrance LCD unit and it makes such a difference that I wouldn’t fish without it. My tackle is pretty important too. I swear by my set-up. Others may do things a bit differently but I’ll stick with my rig. I use two fairly stiff graphite rods, with light and sensitive tips, 26-30” in length. Adjustable length rods like mine are best to find the ideal jigging position. I use Medium sized spinning reels, with a fast retrieve, a good drag, even in sub-zero temps, and very importantly, instant anti-reverse bearings so there’s no slack when setting the hook. I load my reels with spider wire or similar, no stretch braid, 6-8 lb test which is usually very fine diameter, but will take a ton of abuse before breaking. Take care when spooling up. Tie a good locking knot AND then wrap a tight layer of tape over the first 4-5 wraps of braid, spool the remainder of the braid over the tape. If you don’t do this you will be pulling your hair out while fighting a fish and your entire 100 yds or so of braid spins freely on the spool while the spool doesn’t move. Icy conditions will shrink the aluminum spool of your reel enough that the formerly tightly wound line will be loose on the spool and as you wind furiously to land a fish, you’ll gain no line. Mono stretches enough that this won’t happen but braid is so “non-stretch” that it won’t hold onto a spool that shrinks slightly from the cold. That is a huge frustration that is easy to avoid. To the braid, I tie a very small but high quality swivel. Low stretch fluorocarbon mono, to match the occasion, is the leader…about 24” Most of the time I use 4-6 lb Maxima as it has proven itself as the best leader material for icy cold water in my 40+ years ice fishing and winter steelhead fishing. I won’t use anything else.
For lures, it depends on the day, though I have my reliable standards. Jigging Rapalas, DO-jiggers, Moonshines, Airplane jigs, Little Cleos, Smoothies, in about that order are my go-to hardware. Some rules of thumb for colors that I like are, glow-in-the-dark usually, Blue and silver Rapalas for Saginaw Bay, brown and gold for Erie. For spoons I seem to have the best luck with a “wonder bread” pattern, that is, blue, red and yellow dots on a white (glow) background.
Two of my favorite options are “drop-shot” stealth rigs, a bare hook, with a dorsal hooked minnow, about 6-8” above a weight, or one of many homemade painted brass horizontal spoons. I’ve been making and using them for years and I have great luck. There’s really nothing on the market that replicates them. They’re great for subtle presentations and I can make them whatever size, shape or weight I want. They’re often the only thing that works for me. Of course, all of the above require a good walleye bait minnow. A secret weapon that I sometimes resort to is anise oil….WD 40 can be pretty effective as an attractant too.. Go figure. How you work your lure is up to you. Everyone has their method, and it usually changes depending on how aggressive the fish are. Sometimes the tiniest flutter, right on the bottom is best, sometimes dead-stick and sometimes aggressive vertical jigging works. My rule of thumb is start subtle and watch my graph. If the red “marks” that glide in right on the bottom, stick around and raise up as you lift your lure, stick with it. If they disappear as soon as you move the lure, slow down. Clear water requires more natural colors and lures closer to the bottom. Dirty water calls for brighter, gaudier colors and a little more elevation so that your lure will be seen from as far off as possible….maybe even something with a rattle.
Get your snowmobiles, quads and augers gassed up and get out while the gettings are good. There may be a January thaw coming anytime. Good luck and stay warm.
Brandon Vaughan has over 40 years of personal and professional experience in a broad array of hunting and fishing disciplines, from Alaska to Belize. Past professional experience includes working as a professional guide in Alaska and around the Great Lakes region. In addition to hunting and fishing throughout the lower 48, Canada and Central America, Brandon has been an Orvis Endorsed Fly-fishing guide, a fly-fishing and fly-tying instructor, a hunting guide and shooting instructor.