W A L L E Y E   H U N T E R
Ice Fishing Articles by the On Ice Tour Staff
Walleyes with a Taste for Form & Structure
By Tommy Skarlis with On Ice Tour
Structure. It's a broad term that often gets tossed out in conversation with little thought. But in order to catch walleyes, especially during the winter months, structure is often the key.
There are really two types of winter walleye anglers. Those who get lucky and occasionally hit a pod of active fish, and those who are “structure fisherman” and treat the watery landscape with respect.
In short, you're better off in the second group. Luck only lasts so long. Understand structure and how walleyes relate to it, and you'll be ahead, usually tussling with more walleyes than the angler with a lucky rabbit's foot.
Experts agree. "Walleyes, especially in winter, are a structure relating species, therefore I focus on likely holding areas," says Ted Takasaki, pro walleye angler and president of Lindy Little Joe Tackle Company.
John Peterson, another walleye pro and the president of Northland Tackle, finds active fish on structure. “Hardwater, structure-related walleyes are usually aggressive feeders. Find structure with aggressive fish and the catching part is easy.”
Structure can be regarded as many things, though. We know walleyes relate to it, but we need to define what “it” is. Both Takasaki and Peterson recommend looking at high percentage areas first, such as large extending points, rock piles, mud flats and sunken islands – all good examples of walleye structure.
"They'll jump out at you on a lake map, almost seeming too obvious, but that's where you need to start," claims Takasaki.
Peterson adds, “The big key in pinpointing walleyes is finding the spot on the spot.” In most instances, walleyes relate to the same structure they frequented during the summer. Ardent walleye anglers save “spot on the spot” coordinates in their GPS units, and use them year around to catch walleyes.
Look for other prominent areas like a saddle between a hump and the tip of a point, or rock pile. On rock piles, seek out scattered sand patches, large solitary rocks, or the edge of the quickest break into deep water. Points, cups, and steep breaks on mud flats will hold fish, especially if you can find areas of harder mud than the surrounding area.
Once you’ve picked over the obvious with no success, or if you find yourself on a bowl shaped and featureless lake, the answer may be nothing more than a weedline or seemingly insignificant break. Slowly tapering transitions from a hard to soft bottom, like rock/sand or sand/mud, might also be substantial.
“Serious structure is sometimes a game of inches, like a six inch lip on a taper or a small rise in the bottom,” says Takasaki. “For instance, I learned from PWT touring pro John Kolinski a lesson I’ll never forget. We were fishing one of the Great Lakes and nailing walleyes on a specific coordinate, but nowhere else. The depth seemed all the same. Kolinski had to find out why this particular spot produced. He borrowed my Aqua Vu Underwater Camera and upon lowering the lens, reported that the spot featured a three to six inch rise, which was composed of zebra mussels. Without the camera we never would have known.”
My wakeup call came about four years ago on a classic walleye fishery in South Dakota. Only three anglers out of 30 were getting bit. I was one of the fortunate, but couldn’t understand why, until I noticed that the three of us were fishing in a string. I dropped an Aqua Vu down and realized that we weren’t lucky, but instead sitting on a prime travel and feeding area, a mud to sand transition line that was covered with cruising and feeding walleyes. Other anglers were less than 10 feet from the transition and getting nothing but frustrated.
To find structure ice anglers can’t afford to be lazy. Moving the Fish Trap just ten yards down a weededge can be the deciding factor between success and failure. Stay mobile, combing the structure, and eventually you’ll contact walleyes.
Takasaki agrees that movement is critical. "Keep drilling holes and working them with your flasher until you hit numbers of fish, not one or two, but a school."
“Once you locate them, it’s sometimes important to stay put,” Peterson adds. “And I don’t mean to plant yourself in one spot and grow roots, but to locate key feeding areas or the spot on the spot and to work it thoroughly.”
Walleyes tend to feed most aggressively early and late in the day when sunlight penetration is minimal. And at no time is this more noteworthy than during the winter months. Walleyes often binge feed. Like Dave Genz says, “We're all better anglers when the sun hits the treetops.” Staying on the move and locating as many hotspots as possible during peak feeding times will produce a “milk run” to utilize when activity slows during the day.
Too many ice anglers cash in their chips shortly after sunrise. We assume the bite is over until later in the day, but this isn't always the case. Walleyes are instinctive critters and they'll move and feed when their inner clock tells them to. If they can’t be found on the same spot where they started their day, check nearby edges and deep breaks. Still can’t relocate them? Keep moving and check adjacent structure. Move enough and you could hit the lunch hour rush.
Under lowlight or stained water conditions walleyes can’t hit what they don't know is there, so wake them up with a little sound. Spoons with rattles, like Lindy’s Rattl’r or Northland’s Buckshot will call ‘em in. With less aggressive ‘eyes, try using smaller versions, or the standard approach of a minnow on a Lindy Fat Boy or Genz Worm XL or Northland Forage Minnow or Glo-Ball Jig.
Glow might also help get their attention. Both Peterson and Takasaki agree on adding glow to the equation. In fact, through extensive field testing, both Northland and Lindy realized the importance of luminescence, and both now market the next wave of glows, ones that phosphoresced longer and in color. The results are Northland’s Super-Glo and Lindy’s Techni-Glo.
Don't rely on dumb luck. Consistently putting walleyes on the ice involves more than that. During the winter months, walleyes smother structure like Elvis did peanut butter and banana sandwiches. It’s up to you to be more than just a Hound Dog, so sniff out that structure and fetch up some ‘eyes.
Editor’s note: ON ICE TOUR – cofounded by Chip Leer and Tommy Skarlis – is an
intensive effort aimed at expanding the sport of ice fishing through instructional
articles, seminars, in-store and ice fishing contest appearances, and one on one
exchanges with the public. Learn more about ON ICE TOUR and the greatest of
winter sports at www.onicetour.com
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Since August 1, 1998