W A L L E Y E   H U N T E R
Ice Fishing Articles from the On Ice Tour Staff
Introduced to Exotics
By Tommy Skarlis with On Ice Tour
These are the fishes, which find their way onto the hooks of anglers favoring other breeds. Walleye pedants catch them while jigging and toss ‘em aside. Panfish partisans bring them up, unintentionally, and seem agitated by the encounter. Respect is modest. Despite their status, “hardwater exotics”, like popular gamefish and panfish, feed beneath glazed waters and will bend a pole. And the label of “exotic” isn’t to represent something foreign and troublesome, like Eurasian milfoil and zebra mussels, but instead a tongue-in-cheek reference to wintertime fishes that warrant greater regard. I like to think of hardwater exotics as winter’s next frontier.
No kind, other than possibly catfish, is more associated with dark and warmed water. They snatch surface buzzers in a toilet bowl flush and inhale jigs & pigs from cypress roots, but along the Ice Fishing Belt, black bass also forage below the ice. And sans the aerial acrobatics, hardwater bass can be as thrilling.
As rudimentary as it sounds, the chief criterion is finding a body of water with considerable numbers of bass, and usually, those are destinations with limited pike. Most of these waters are heavily weeded and riddled with bays and backwaters. Weeded bays provide prime habitat for hardwater bass, especially at first and last ice, and those are your best periods for hooking fish anyway. Historically, bass activity spikes at first ice, wanes as the shallows lose greenery and oxygenation, and fires up again during late ice – pay attention to season closures in your area.
Bass are weed-loving critters, and at no time is this more evident than first ice. Search right in the thick of things, giving added mindfulness to pockets, lanes, and heavy weedlines. Submerged timber and weed covered humps can also harbor bass. And there’s a strong chance of finding bucketmouths anywhere masses of sunfish reside.
Bass will hit spoons, jigs, and free-swimming minnows, but nothing turns ‘em like rattles. For spooning bass, I pump a silvery Lindy’s Rattl’r Spoon ornamented with three Micro Power Grubs, rigged chandelier-style. Chip, on the other hand, replaces the treble on his Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon with a single, long shank hook and threads on a single two-inch Berkley Power Grub. Trust me, soft plastics work all year long.
Stationary tip-ups provide tremendous support to jigging. On Ice Tour contributor, Brian “Bro” Brosdahl learned a technique from fellow guide Dick “Griz” Gryzwinski. It’s simple. Put the jigging rods down and put trust in a field of tip-ups. Bro rigs a squadron of Finicky’s Fish Factories with single, wide-gapped hooks and a lively shiner minnows. Shiners out-fish all other minnows 10 to 1, including suckers and chubs. With bass, Bro and Griz are firm believers that you catch more fish by sitting tight; properly placing tip-ups; moving a legal distance away, and not tromping around. Rare are the moments when these guides aren’t carrying jigging rods, but this is one.
Our whiskered friends find occasion to feast beneath the ice, and in some regions, the action’s pretty hot. Catfish seek the least current and most warmth Mother Nature affords, but impressively, catfish, namely channel cats, go there to feed as well as slumber.
On rivers, seek out the deepest holes. Sometimes that means slackwater sections away from the main channel, and in other situations cats nest in the heart of the channel, especially in widened stretches with limited current.
Reservoirs that feature old river channels can be catfish havens. Look for bends and drops in the channel – slight three, four, and five-foot depressions are sometimes all it takes. Deep holes positioned off shoreline points also warrant exploration.
Many consider catfish to be crows of the waterways, eating only expired morsels. Although cats will take dead bait, I’ve personally had better results with live minnows. Rig one tip-up with an active minnow and fair sized hook, and situate it just inches from the bottom. In hazardous timber, I tie on Lindy No-Snagg Hooks; Chip likes the visual stimulation of Northland Super-Glo Attractor Hooks. Fix dead bait on another line, maybe a cut sucker or smashed shiner minnow, and squirt it with Berkley Catfish Attractant – that’ll test their sniffers. Another trick is pegging a Northland Firelight Glow Stick or Lindy Glow Stick Float Night Light a couple of inches above the bait, adding visual stimulation. After all, catfish are known night feeders, so give them every opportunity to zero in on your bait.
On Ice Tour contributor, Glen Schmitt partakes in a hardwater cat or two. “One of the weirdest things I’ve noticed is that catfish suspend when they’re active, sometimes mixing with crappies. I attack suspended catfish with jigging spoons and minnow heads.”
Schmitt finds his suspended kitties over deep holes, ones he describes as “wintering holes”. And he notes that late winter seems to produce best, and that’s good, because gamefish seasons are closed in many regions, thus affording you another crack at big fish.
Sometimes the Swan Song, the arrival of eelpout marks the end of a walleye bite. True, it does happen, but that doesn’t mean the enjoyment has to end. Love the “ling” and labor for “lawyers”! If you consider eelpout to be part of the complete ice fishing experience, their status improves, and you might quit building picket fences with the frozen ones.
Suggestion number one is to target big eelpout, not constrictor-like specimens that cyclone around your arm, but mammoth 10, 12, and 14-pounders. And as history tells, most of the biggest ‘pout dwell in large lakes, including gigantic waters such as the Great Lakes, Lake of the Woods, and Leech Lake. In fact, Leech Lake hosts and annual Eelpout Festival that attracts 10,000 plus anglers from around the world.
Specifically, where do these bullish slobs roam? Eelpout favor steep breaks, predominately off large points, bars, and offshore humps. Eelpout also inhabit deepwater flats surrounding such formations.
The finest ‘pouting I’ve experienced occurred on top of a fairly small rock hump – less than an acre – that rose to around 40-feet from surrounding depths of over a hundred. At dusk, sizable walleyes assaulted the crest, and we pegged a few, but not long after twilight vanished, the third shift punched in. Burly, blue collar eelpout arrived with empty lunch pails, which they intended to fill with rainbow chubs. That night we caught and released over a dozen fish in excess of 10-pounds, with the largest pressing just over 17… Who wouldn’t draw pleasure from combating fish like that? And yes, ‘pout do fight.
Catching wintertime ‘pout, like cats, is more about spots than baits, but I do have some favorite presentations. First off, eelpout are drawn to luminescence. Creatures of the night, eelpout love freshly glowed phosphorescent jigs, so long as a minnow’s included, like a rainbow or large fathead. Leer likes glowing Northland Fire-Ball Jigs, and he’s sure that blindingly bright Glo-Ball Jigs will beckon ‘pout this winter. For me, it’s tough to beat a Lindy Techni-Glo Fat Boy XL. Add some rattle to your glow, like the spoons I just mentioned, and friends will call you ‘Pout Master.
Tactically speaking, jigging eelpout isn’t science. Just reverse hook a minnow, so it faces away from the head, running the hook point through the belly and out the back behind the dorsal. Don’t snap it, pump the jig methodically, never raising it more than a foot off the bottom unless your flasher or Aqua-Vu tell you otherwise. Recharge frequently, but the newer glows do phosphoresce longer, especially green and blue. Hitting it with Lindy’s new Tazer or Northland’s Glo-Buster – handheld light sources – will provide longer lived luster.
Arm yourself with the stuff of gladiators, including steadfast line, rod, and reel. Berkley’s Fireline Ice provides strength and sensitivity for big fish in deepwater. The same company’s Dave Genz Signature Lightning Rod (36-inch, medium-heavy) flexes and feels like a six-footer, and you can’t beat the smoothness and reliability of Abu Garcia baitcast reels.
Whitefish & Tullibee
Tullibee are actually ciscoes, and ciscoes are whitefish, but whitefish aren’t tullibee or ciscoes. Got it? Whitefish are a family, which includes lake whitefish, specifically, as well as ciscoes, and in some regions, anglers call tullibee, ciscoes. Whitefish grow large, commonly reaching into the sixes and sevens, but their range is limited to some degree. Whitefish inhabit numerous Canadian lakes, border waters, and various large and deep lakes on the stateside. Ciscoes coexist in many of the same lakes, but also range further south and are more widely distributed.
Prioritized, whitefish and ciscoes are food before fight, meaning their luscious and high calorie bodies provide nourishment to other fishes. Walleyes, pike, and lake trout grow large on diets of whitefish. Their second attribute is fight, because inch for inch, whitefish and tullibee pack tons of punch. Numero three on the list of attributes is willingness to bite – they feed frenzy-style. Volume goes hand in hand with willingness, because whitefish of all shapes and sizes forage in packs, sometimes gigantic schools. Lastly comes taste, ciscoes are tremendous when smoked, in fact I’ve actually snacked on smoke-cooked ciscoes while simultaneously jigging for them, which is sort of sadistic. Lake whitefish even make good on the grill, fryer, and in the oven.
Tullibee are one of nature’s easiest fish to find, and make strike. On Ice Tour’s Chip Leer first checks deep pockets, particularly during mid and late winter, when tullibee really hole up. His best spots lie near structure, like points and reefs.
Schmitt also favors deep water, to which he adds flats, and the fact that ciscoes commonly suspend midway through the water column, but will yo-yo high and low to attack – whitefish species have exceptional vision. Due to their suspending nature, whitefish and tullibee are easily tracked on a flasher, and electronics are essential to the search.
And that Superman-like eyesight makes them prime candidates for precision tackle by Lindy and Northland. Schmitt jerks ciscoes and whitefish with a #8 or #10 Genz Worm and maggots – bigger panfish sizes. Leer prefers a Creep Worm or Forage Minnow Fry, and he also attaches live maggots or Power Wigglers. In essence, an effective panfish system is applicable to whitefish and tullibee. Lure, line, rod, and reel selection are transferable, as well as jigging methods. Go light and enjoy the fight!
We’re not trying to convert you into a freakish, alternative angler who won’t be satisfied until icing a paddlefish, gar, and lamprey eel. No, instead, On Ice Tour just hopes you’ll appreciate so called hardwater exotics, sometimes fish for them, but never again treat them like junk fish.
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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