A fellow from Missouri called me recently to ask about fishing in Northwest Ontario. I began to describe the waters he wanted to visit during the fall period and suggested he might not be able to get out on the water every day in a bass boat.
He sounded perplexed. “These lakes you’re describing can’t be that big,” he said. “I fish Table Rock most of the time. Now that’s a big lake.” “Do you have an atlas?” I asked. He said yes, so I asked him to find it. “You see Lake of the Woods, there? That’s about 6 Table Rocks. Now scan that area.”
He whistled as his eyes passed over Lake Winnipeg, which is bigger than Lake Erie. Then he spotted Lake Manitoba, Rainy Lake, Lac Seul, Lake Nipigon, and that little pond called Superior.
Using my best Walleye Dundee, I suggested, “Now those are lakes, mate.”
Caption: Author with a big-water pig caught following Tony Roach, who drills more holes in a day than most men drill all winter.
Superior is 530 miles long. From there to Lake Ontario, over thousands of square miles, walleye fisheries are scattered like pearls pitched by the angling gods. Chequamegon Bay, Green Bay, the Saginaw River, the Bass islands on Lake Erie, Bay of Quinte, Big Bay deNoc, and dozens more dot the map.
Surrounding the Great Lakes, hundreds of big lakes like St. Clair, Lake of The Woods, Lake Champlain, Red Lake, Manistee Lake, Lake Winnibigoshish, and many others maintain walleye populations that behave much the same way, and one reason is current.
Big waters have unavoidable currents that may or not be distinguishable when using the usual heavy spoons and lures, yet sometimes sweep half-ounce spoons right out of the transducer cone. We sometimes drill holes up to 6 feet down current in order to watch our lures with flashers.
Recognizable or not, current is a condition that positions walleyes in open water and under the ice on big lakes. The primary factor, as always, is forage. And big-water forage suspends.
Things are different where the wind might have 50 miles of fetch across frozen deserts. Walleyes behave differently. My biggest walleye through the ice came out of Bay of Quinte in Ontario—an ounce shy of 12 pounds. It cruised under the hole 12 feet off bottom in 21 feet of water. Walleyes tend to grow huge on the pelagic species of the Great Lakes and those other big lakes all around the region.
Walleyes travel in packs like ravenous wolves—often using the entire water column under your feet because the emerald shiners, smelt, alewives, lake herring, and other species they feed on suspend.
Current and pelagic forage often have more to do with determining where big-water walleyes will be than structure. But when structure, forage, and current come together, great things happen.
Famous walleye pros like brothers Scott and Marty Glorvigen stress the importance of main-lake points on big water. “Shoreline points that extend out to deep water or all the way to the main basin intersect currents, which are all but inescapable on big water,” Scott said. “The pattern for locating walleyes is very similar on the Great Lakes, except the acres turn into miles. It can take an entire day to cover one of these points on the Great Lakes.”
Similar to river location, walleyes hold in eddies, voids, and behind current breaks close to the main current, which carries forage along with it. Smaller baitfish using open water to feed on plankton are swept past predictable locations. Current voids are found on the upcurrent side of obstructions like points. Water is stopped against the structure and the current is swept around that cushion of dead water.
Caption: Tony Roach covers water fast and fishes fast with big lures on big water, using aggressive jigging techniques to maximize flash.
The most active walleyes tend to hold right on the edge of that void on the upcurrent side, where moving water hits the structure and changes direction to sweep around it. Slightly less active walleyes hold on the edge of eddies on the down-current side of the point.
Generally, current direction can be determined by watching the angle of the line going down the hole. If not, try dropping a line down with only a small split-shot attached. Currents can be running south one day and east or west the next, but tend to settle into predictable patterns determined by the gradient of the landscape under the ice, when convection (heat transfer) and wind have smaller effect.
When walleyes use structure on big lakes, they can hold as deep as 80 feet, but the universal “action zone” tends to be from about 18 down to around 40 feet.
Don’t ignore depths of 5 to 15 feet, though, and don’t bypass water right under the ice around ice heaves. Walleyes use the shade lines and the ridge of ice extending downward to block current near ice heaves, where two sheets of ice collide in plate-tectonic fashion. The key, when walleyes hold on structure of any kind, is finding strong current running close as possible to slack water and drilling holes near that transition.
If a primary time to hunt structure exists, it’s from mid-winter through late ice. During late ice especially, walleyes begin to stack up on shoreline points as they stage near the mouths of rivers where they run to spawn. But walleyes also suspend a lot in open water from mid- to late-winter, as ice thickens, snow cover gets heavier, and plankton rises in the diminishing light. Baitfish and walleyes follow. Finding fish on structure is relatively easy.
Finding fish in the basin is work.
How Walleyes Use A Main-Lake Point
Area A is the “push zone,” where current voids are created by a cushion of water. Active walleyes hold here, close to the current sweeping past. Current is a food conveyor. Area A1 is an inside turn, where the depth contours form a corner. This can be the “spot-on-the-spot” for big fish. Area B is a boulder field that can draw big walleyes shallow during low-light periods (dawn and dusk). It intersects Area A1, creating another hot spot. Area C is the “eddy zone,” where currents sweeping past the point curl back in. The tip of the point is always a good spot, but the down-current side tends to be best.
Famous big-water walleye guide Tony Roach calls it a fine line. “Ice anglers struggle with it and I do too,” he said. “When to fish structure and when to fish non-structure can be a puzzle. Going to Lake Winnipeg or Red lake, where you have no structure, it’s a no brainer. But on lakes with structure, anglers always flock right to it. That doesn’t always work. Fish are going to chase food. They go where the food is.
Structure isn’t always where the food is.
Don’t waste time. When they’re not on structure, don’t hang around. I go directly into basin fishing mode if I can’t find baitfish or walleyes within an hour on structure.”
Moving off structure, Roach drills out a grid system in lines going north south or east west. “Drill 10 to 12 holes, fish them fast, move a quarter mile and drill 10 to 12 more holes,” he said. “I use all the tools to aid my search. In stained water you rely on teamwork. One man drills, the next carries a flasher, and a third might haul a camera in clear water.”
Days are short. It’s all about fishing fast.
“The one advantage you have is that when walleyes leave a piece of structure they suspend at that same depth,” Roach said. “Wherever the baitfish are in the water column, walleyes will be there. Ciscoes will feed on the invertebrate movements and plankton. Spottail shiners suspend anywhere in the water column. I tend to fish high when I’m looking for fish—about halfway to bottom. I’m trying to find fish for clients most of the time. In 18 feet I’ll be in the upper half—even the upper third, up high in water six feet under the hole.”
Roach looks for those ice heaves crossing basin areas. “In any ice-fishing situation, bottom-of-the-ice structure is every bit as important as bottom structure,” Roach says. “We’ve found packs of walleyes so many times up on pressure ridges and shade lines, it’s crazy. Just drill along side a ridge and start fishing right under the hole—where the depth finder first picks up the bait, then work your way down five feet at a time. You’ll be shocked how many walleyes cruise the edge, on the dark side of those shade lines at all depths. But keep moving. Just because we invest a lot of time drilling holes doesn’t mean we have to stay there. If we don’t find fish quick, we move.”
Big Water Tactics
“Whether I’m on Lake Michigan or Winnibigoshish or wherever, I generally start out with a 1/4-ounce Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon,” says Scott Glorvigen. ”We’re trying to call fish from farther away, I want noise, I want flash, and I want vibration when hunting for fish. A 1/4-ounce spoon isn’t really big. It isn’t small, either—but it’s small enough to attract both walleyes and perch. Perch let me know the food chain is working in the area, and are more likely to react to that slightly smaller spoon. A ¼-ouncer is a starting point you can go up or down from. A spoon can be tipped with a small minnow or minnow head. I draw perch or walleyes to the hole fairly quickly or I move. Once I start seeing activity, I drill another hole nearby and set up something subtle to go in a rod holder on the edge of a bucket. In most cases it’s just a minnow on a hook or light jig dropped down on a soft-action dead stick.”
If he can’t raise fish with the spoon, Glorvigen goes to a size #7 Jigging Rapala, which is still fairly aggressive. “In open water fishing, yeah, bigger is better,” he says. “If the fish move in and aren’t necessarily grabbing the bait, I go with the relatively smaller 1/4- to 3/8-ounce jigging spoons and size #5 Raps.”
Roach goes with large presentations on big water, too. “I start with 3/8- to ½-ounce spoons, keeping it high in the water column, fishing 30 seconds or less and looking for a reaction. People follow with a camera to verify what species we’re seeing with sonar. I’ll rip the spoon in large arcs way over their heads, halfway down. In 30 feet I might be 12 feet off the bottom. Sometimes walleyes are right under the ice in big water. They might be anywhere, and all you want to see is a reaction. All of a sudden they skyrocket off bottom in clear water and nail it. I can see it coming with my Marcum and it’s pretty exciting. Walleyes can be aggressive in winter.”
Roach slows the fall of his Northland spoon but rips it up quick, sometimes 3 to 4 feet. He slows the fall when he marks fish that won’t rise to the bait, too. “If you drop the spoon right down to them, it freaks them out,” Roach said. “If they race up to it, I raise it slowly to make it look like it’s trying to get away. I tip with minnow heads a lot, but it’s not necessary during aggressive bites. Plastic can trigger fish even better than bait at times. Northland Impulse Smelt bodies are hot. I t-bone them horizontally or nose-hook them so they hang vertical. You get more action out of a spoon when you t-bone (“whacky rig”) those 2- to 3- inch soft-plastic jerkbaits. But some walleyes are scent oriented and a minnow head or minnow tail produces more strikes. I find that to be especially true in really clear water, so I even rub the shiner on my spoon before baiting up. Rapala Jigging Raps and Northland Puppet Minnows are always productive in clear water, too.”
Roach sometimes wraps a whole shiner like a wreath around all three hooks.
“Rigged that way, when you bounce it and let it drop, it falls really slow,” he said. “Walleyes snatch it in free fall a lot. Rip it, let it hit the silt, and rip it again. Works really well with the bigger Buckshot Rattle Jig in cloudy water. Rattling baits like Rapala Rippin’ Raps are effective in cloudy water fished the same way. Let it hit the silt, rip it up a couple feet, let it fall then jiggle in place. Give them time to find it.”
Ice fishing with Roach is like a military operation.
“Move out,” somebody yells when the fish won’t appear. Men scattered across the open ice (shelters take too much time) stand, reel up, and scramble to a trailer being pulled by an ATV or snowmobile. We rumble along on the ice roads, trying to cover every exposed bit of flesh from flying ice particles and snow, anxious to deploy at the next spot if only to get off that trailer. But we find fish. Big fish.
Spending a day with Roach without seeing at least one 8 pounder is unusual. Most days we catch several up to 10 pounds or more.
When spots are a quarter mile or more apart, it makes for a long day of drilling, hoofing, scrambling, and hauling on big fish that refuse to rise. Out there dawn to dark.
“Some days you pick up a few, then nothing, then a few, then nothing,” Roach says. “Nothing wrong with going back and cherry picking those spots that produced fish earlier on the way back. We often cycle through a series of humps and bars and when we get back to where we started, they’re biting again.”
Bumping along, I think about the Glorvigens. I know they’re out there somewhere. Wonder where? Leech, Winnibigoshish, maybe Green Bay. I hope their eyeballs are frozen in their sockets like mine.
Most days, the wind will rise with miles of fetch. Ice crystals will rattle against their flapping shelters as they huddle in the phosphorescent glow of sunflower heaters and color sonar. The nearest anglers might be a mile away—could be fishing the same piece of structure.
Somewhere below, schools of walleyes hundreds strong will make their way along a main-lake point. Jigs snap up, rise and fall 4 to 6 feet. Big movement and big jigs on big water under the ice.
Out there, less is seldom more.