Recently I was treated to some exceptional fishing on Saginaw Bay. What makes this particular experience noteworthy is that the fishing didn’t occur on open water, but rather on a moon-scape environment of frozen water. Luckily I was actually trolling crankbaits on these same waters a few days earlier and had at my disposal some very fresh GPS numbers to explore.
Normally ice forms on Great Lakes fisheries slowly over time.
In this case extreme cold caused the ice to form much quicker than normal, giving anglers like myself a bonus month of ice action. It’s not often that ice fishermen get to explore Great Lakes walleye haunts before the first of the year!
When it comes to ice fishing on Great Lakes waters, there is no guarantee from year to year that safe ice will form. The polar vortex winters of 2014 and 2015 generated some of the best ice fishing conditions in recent history.
Meanwhile, the winters of 2016 and 2017 were another subject. The weather phenomena known as el nino pushed wave after wave of warm gulf air into the Upper Great Lakes region. As a result ice fishing was pretty much a “no go” deal.
When I cut my first holes of the 2017/2018 ice fishing season, I couldn’t help but smile and feel a little guilty. I was very confident that fish were in the area, because just days prior I was fishing the same numbers on open water!
It’s rare that an ice fisherman enjoys this much confidence, because finding fish on ice is more difficult than accomplishing the same thing in open water.
Catching walleye is about being “on fish” and trolling is one of the popular ways that open water anglers go about finding fish. Ice fishermen on the other hand typically find fish by hole hopping again and again until they eventually sit down on fish.
Sort of like “ice trolling” ice fishermen are constantly on the move until they find life below the ice they can concentrate on. Having mobility and the mind set to move and keep moving until fish are found may be a little “old school” but it works. Thankfully some modern technology can make the process of finding walleye on hard water much easier.
ZEROING IN ON FISH
Finding walleye below the ice doesn’t have to be a random experience. On bodies of water like Saginaw Bay that have little in the way of bottom structure, walleye compensate by wandering the edges of modest depth contours.
In places where the bottom gradually slopes from shallow water to deeper water, finding walleye becomes a process of paying special attention to even modest changes in depth. One of the most useful tools in locating walleye in these situations is having high quality GPS mapping software that breaks down bottom depth into increments as refined as one foot contours.
Premium after market mapping software like the NAVIONICS + USA/CANADA chip makes it easy to zero in on places where the bottom tapers a little more quickly than other areas, identifying subtle but important fish attracting structure in an otherwise sea of nothingness.
Another interesting and very useful mapping option is the C-Map Insight Genesis Custom Mapping provided by Lowrance Electronics. Essentially this software allows anglers to create their own custom depth contour maps by recording their own actual sonar readings and using that data to create refined depth contour charts. Like the Navionics mapping software, Insight Genesis allows accurate depth contours down to one foot increments.
Of course using the Insight Genesis option for ice fishing first requires fishing in open water to record the necessary sonar readings. Anglers who understand the benefits of Insight Genesis make a point of recording their sonar soundings every day on the water. This important step provides a base line of critical data they will ultimately put to use on future fishing trips. Setting up a Lowrance HDS unit to record all sonar soundings only takes a couple key strokes. In turn, taking these simple steps provides an exceptionally accurate sonar log that can later be converted into custom fishing maps that can be used during subsequent open water fishing adventures and even used to help find fish during ice fishing adventures.
CONTOUR ICE FISHING
In the winter because anglers don’t have the luxury of moving about and using sonar to rapidly locate fish, the next best option is to use mapping software to zero in on places that have a high probability of attracting and holding walleye.
DEPTH CONTOUR SHADING
Another interesting tool for finding walleye that may be associating to subtle breaklines or bottom structure is a process known as depth contour shading. This simple step enables the angler to pull up a mapping screen on their Lowrance HDS GPS unit and then highlight specific depth zones in a particular color. These visual graphics make it very easy in turn to identify all the places that have similar depth zones.
Contour shading makes it easier to find interesting areas like high spots on reef structure and also key depth contour zones that connect various pieces of bottom structure. When fish travel from structure to structure, they often follow logical depth contour corridors that effectively become fish highways in the process.
Mapping software helps anglers find interesting contours and bottom structure that potentially harbor walleye. Pinpointing these “spots on the spot” however requires drilling lots of test holes and in turn using sonar to take depth readings and ultimately to confirm the presence of fish.
Another useful tool in creating digital fishing information that can be used over and over again is the simple step of naming waypoints as you find and catch fish. An unnamed waypoint quickly becomes ambiguous information because the details that surround that particular waypoint are ultimately forgotten. Naming a waypoint and recording some simple descriptive notes on your sonar/mapping unit gives that data meaning today and more importantly critical applications for future fishing trips.
Over time, important seasonal and also presentation patterns start to develop as an angler adds more and more waypoints and details about those waypoints to his mapping unit. The information that is being recorded can easily be downloaded to a memory chip and transferred to other mapping units.
At Fishing 411 Jake and I have our own respective boats and routinely share the sonar and mapping data we collect during the open water period. We also transfer that data to a second GPS mapping unit on our snow machine for winter fishing reference. In doing so, we have a wealth of data to help us zero in on the most likely places to find fish.
NAVIGATING WITH PHONE APPS
Many anglers use their cell phone equipped with the affordable Navionics app to navigate on Great Lakes fisheries. Phone app maps are priced attractively and a good means of getting into the general neighborhood where walleye are likely to be found.
Premium mapping software is expensive, but once an angler owns the chip the information contained can be transferred from a unit on a boat to a second mapping unit mounted on a snow machine or ATV allowing that data to be used year around.
To save money,many anglers simply buy a second power cord and mounting hardware so they can mount the GPS unit from their boat onto an ATV, UTV or snow machine for ice fishing applications.
TIME TO FISH
After using mapping software to zero in on interesting structure, it’s time to do a little fishing. Using a combination of sonar and underwater video, ice fishermen can quickly confirm if an area is supporting fish.
Just as important these invaluable pieces of electronics allow anglers to gauge the mood of fish. Simply finding fish doesn’t mean those walleye are going to be in a feeding mood. Often walleye will appear on sonar or video, inspect whatever lure or bait the angler is using and then slip away unimpressed.
This is precisely why the most successful anglers are those who mix two or more fishing presentations in an attempt to offer walleye more than one option. For example, in states that allow ice fishermen three lines per person, a common set up includes fishing a tip-up as one line, a dead stick as a second line and jigging with a third line.
This one, two, three punch offers up three distinctively different presentations in an effort to quickly determine what walleye are impressed by on any given day.
SUBTLE, MODEST, MODERATE OR AGGRESSIVE
During the open water period anglers target walleye with a host of presentations aimed at determining the activity level of the fish. Ice fishermen can accomplish the same thing by using four different lure/bait groups.
The most subtle of these presentations are dead-stick rigs and set lines such as tip-ups. Both of these presentations essentially dangle a live minnow near bottom with minimal hardware in hopes the subtle but natural action of the minnow will elicit a strike.
To mix things up, set a tip-up using nothing but a small hook, split shot for weight and live minnow. On the dead-stick go with a small jig as an attractor/hook, tipped with a live minnow dangled motionless just off bottom.
The next most subtle presentation is the jig and minnow combination. The jig and minnow can be lifted and dropped slowly and twitched to create a subtle but enticing strike enduring action.
Next in line are jigging style spoons that create wobble, flash and in some cases fish attracting rattles. In general, jigging spoons create a more aggressive action than lead head jigs, but jigging spoons are not all created equal.
Slab style spoons like the Bomber Slab Spoon, Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and Hopkins Spoon are either stamped from solid brass or molded of lead that is in turn painted and/or plated. These spoons tend to sink faster and feature a less pronounced wobble and flash. Other stamped spoons, like the Luhr Jensen Krocodile Spoon, Bay de Noc Lures Do-Jigger Spoon or VMC Tingler Spoon are thinner, wider and generate a slower drop rate and typically more wobbling and flashing action.
Spoons are often tipped with a whole minnow, but a lot of anglers simply pierce one of the treble hooks through the head of a minnow and then pinch the minnow in half.
The most aggressive lures used to tempt winter walleye are a category of lures loosely known as “jigging and swimming” baits. The classic Jigging Rapala features a gliding fin that helped make this class of lure popular decades ago. Today there are dozens of similar lures all trying to get a piece of the jigging/swimming lure market.
All of the jigging/swimming or what some anglers call glide baits are designed to be fished horizontal, enabling the bait to swim, glide and/or dart when jigged. Jigging/swimming lures do an excellent job of triggering strikes from active walleye. Often the treble hook on the bottom of these lures is tipped with a small whole minnow or minnow head to add natural scent.
In the winter time little things can and often do make a big difference. Adding natural scent to lures and baits creates a scent stream in the water that can help attract fish and also convince them to bite.
Some of the most popular scent products are produced by Pro Cure makers of the Super Gel products. Super Gel is composed of natural forage species ground up and mixed with a sticky paste that doesn’t readily wash off in water.
Anglers who target walleye with all of these lure and presentation options are well on their way to figuring out which option is going to produce best on any given day. To change lures and presentations efficiently, consider rigging up several different ice rods.
Say for example a fish shows up on the sonar, but doesn’t seem interested in hitting the tip-up, dead-stick or the jigging/swimming lure. Quickly reeling up the jigging/swimming lure and dropping down with a pre-rigged spoon might just be what it takes to trigger a strike from that particular fish.2
SUMMING IT UP
The sprawling waters of the Great Lakes are a tremendous year around walleye fishing resource. In the winter time pinpointing the best fishing areas takes more work and a different approach. That’s why using technology designed for open water fishing is critically important to the hard water angler.
- written by Mark Romanack (Fishing 411 TV)