"We try to learn an equal amount from bites and rejections. I want to see how several fish react to that spoon before I change. It can be a mistake to change just because the first fish to appear can’t be triggered to strike."
Guide Tony Roach uses the camera function on his Marcum LX9 to discern clues about moods walleyes display to aid in lure selection.
They appear out of a hazy distance, all around the lens. Baitfish everywhere. And suddenly they’re gone, followed by the lurking shadows of predators. Walleyed monsters come sifting past. Wow. They’re down there. Under the howling winds of an icy desert—a scene out of Blue Planet. An underwater camera can fill gaps in knowledge—those primary divisions between pros and regular Joes in the fishing world. Many gaps that can be filled in a lot of ways. The biggest gaps cause false priorities. Finding the right pattern is pretty tough without having the right priorities at first light.
Famous walleye guide Tony Roach (763/226-6656) says most people focus on the right things at the wrong time. “The most frequently asked question is, ‘what color are you using?’” Roach said. “Everybody’s keyed on color and that’s great, but if you don’t have the right size you’re screwed. It can work the other way, too. Right size, wrong color, bad karma, but I’ve found that matching baitfish size tends to be a critical factor most days.” What separates Roach from the pack is diligence in using methods that quickly determine the species and average size of the predominant baitfish in the areas he’s fishing. “It happens summer or winter,” Roach said. “I’ve seen bites where you can’t pull a size #5 Shad Rap 10 feet without having it molested while a size #7 in the same pattern gets completely ignored all day. We see the same thing with spoons. A1/2-ounce version can be hot while the 1/4 ounce version of the same spoon, in the same pattern, is not. Size matters.” Walleyes may not be as selective as trout, which turn their noses up at a fly 2 millimeters longer than the naturals on the water. But differences of a quarter inch can be another matter entirely.
Roach starts most mornings on the ice looking specifically for bait-fish to determine the species involved, where they are in the water column, and how abundant they are. “Staying on baitfish size, type, and location is more important than anything else we do,” Roach said. “It’s like solving a jigsaw puzzle every morning. But solving it helps us determine what size, color, and type our lures should be.”
The search begins with one man making lots of holes and another right behind him with a Marcum LX-9 sonar-camera combo. “We’re looking for baitfish and predators,” Roach said. “You can’t tell exactly how big the forage fish are by viewing them with a camera, but you can get in the ballpark and experiment from there.”
“Matching the hatch” isn’t just for trout. Tony Roach puts his clients on walleyes fast by observing details about the habits, habitats, and physical features of baitfish.
Different areas of a lake suggest different forage types and sizes. “Out on main-lake basins you have bigger tullibees (ciscoes) and perch, so larger spoons almost always work better,” Roach said. “Inshore you typically have smaller perch, shiners, and darters (logperch), so I start with smaller spoons there. When the bite gets tough, most people have been brainwashed to downsize. Sometimes, that first change needs to be to a bigger spoon.”
Never let a good chunk go to waste. When walleyes approach the hole they often lose their breakfast. Even if you can’t retrieve it, note the size and, if possible, the species. “Always inspect stomach contents when cleaning fish, too,” Roach said. “Cameras and state-of-the-art sonar can only tell you what they’re likely to eat. Stomach contents are hard facts.”
Maps can be important. Roach uses physical lake maps to chart the location of the hot bites and bottom types every day to help identify patterns. Some maps indicate bottom substrates, and if that’s part of the pattern, it helps. “Maps are huge in winter, but you can’t find baitfish by looking at a map,” Roach said. “Flashers tell you if the bottom is hard or soft, too. One of the most over-looked areas to fish in winter is a transition from one bottom type to another, and I can find them quicker with a flasher than with a camera. People see a rock pile and they fish it. They should be hunting for the edge of it, where rock gives way to something else. That transition is key all year long.”
On the ice, Roach uses eyes and camera to match spoon size and color to the most abundant forage in the area, but when visit-ing new areas he relies on the kindness of strangers. “I call guides, lodges, and bait shops to ask all kinds of questions,” he said. “If they can tell me what forage the fish are keying on in what size, I might be able to put several pieces of the puzzle together before I even load up the truck.”
Staying On Point
Roach doesn’t need to aggressively apply underwater cameras every day. “If you fish the same lake often enough, patterns emerge that last for a week or more,” Roach said. “But changes occur for reasons we can’t always fathom. People think of perch as clinging to structure, but I find them suspended off bottom in the open basin all the time in winter. They can be 5 feet off bottom or more, and if you keep watching the wall-eyes will come tagging along behind them. They’ll be suspended, too. Bad time to snap the spoon up into their field of focus. Best to have it waiting for them, 5 feet up.”
Choosing the right spoon often results from spotting baitfish on camera or checking stomach contents of walleyes, then matching length and shape to minnows they key on.
Roach sometimes learns what other anglers can’t—simply because he’s looking for things they aren’t. By watching baitfish he discovered ciscoes (tulibees) often rise up on structure early in the morning before moving out over the basin flats—a typical scenario from first ice through mid winter. Walleyes won’t follow. They tend to stay on structure all day through early ice most years, switching to perch or spottail shiners by mid morning. “Our pattern evolved into using big silver-blue spoons to imitate cis-coes in the morning,” Roach said. “We know when the bite trails off because walleyes stop suspending and seem to disappear. At that point we switch to smaller black-silver or perch-pattern spoons, depending on what we’re seeing down there. Downsizing as the day progresses is our usual response on a typical day early in the season, but the op-posite can be true later in the season.”
Eventually, ciscoes, smelt, larger perch, and many other forage species move off structure and stay there as insect activity increases in basin areas. “Ciscoes and perch both need structure during early winter,” Roach said. “Ciscoes seem to stick around as part of their usual post-spawn ritual, but by mid January they stop using it. At that point, walleyes often abandon structure altogether and move into basin areas for keeps.”
Larger baitfish have the confidence to leave structure as insects (mayflies, caddis, fish flies, etc.) hatch from eggs to nymphs. “Yellow perch stay on structure and cover for protection,” Roach said. “But when the invertebrates start to hatch and come out of the mud during the second half of winter, larger perch move out into those soft-bottom basin areas rich with insects. When we see that happen, we’re back to starting the day with larger spoons.”
The Right View
Roach scouts with the camera in both horizontal and vertical viewing modes, but he religiously fishes with his cameras in the downview (vertical) position. “I drop the camera slowly,” Roach said. “Ciscoes can be right under the ice, and I want to see one if it’s there. Ciscoes either suspend or hug bottom—one or the other and seldom both at the same time. If you see one up high, it tells you something about what the walleyes are doing.
The Marcum LX9 camera-sonar combo that Tony Roach uses.
“Horizontal viewing, with the camera on or near bottom, creates a spook factor,” he added. “Scouting, I’ll go down there to make sure they’re not hiding in the rocks or uneven bottom areas. But when fishing, I always look down. Bites are always more aggressive when the camera is poised 6 to 8 feet above the action—where water clarity allows.”
Cameras reveal the makeup of structure displayed on sonar, and can find those critical transitions between bottom types that are so important to baitfish and walleyes. Sometimes, in order to clearly see a transition, the camera has to be lowered all the way down. “I never drop the camera all the way to bottom right away,” Roach said. “I drop it slow. Sometimes we see surprising things. We might see only perch for days and suddenly millions of shiners appear out in the basin where they don’t belong. If I see that, I immediately switch to a smaller silver spoon.”
Reactions Prompt Strategies
Size matters, but you have to start some-where. “I generally start with a larger spoon every day on the ice,” Roach said. “A ½-ounce spoon that drops quick covers water faster. The flash can be seen from greater distances, drawing fish in from farther away. It’s important to see which fish react and how they react at first light. It can make the rest of the day go a lot easier. Even when they reject the larger spoon, I’m learning something. We try to learn an equal amount from bites and rejections. I want to see how several fish react to that spoon before I change. It can be a mistake to change just because the first fish to appear can’t be triggered to strike.”
All these sizes and shapes can be effective for walleyes, depending on the forage they key on. The PK Lures PK Spoon (top left) is weighted uniquely for a wobbling drop with a round profile. It’s smaller cousin, the PK Predator Spoon (bottom left) has a similar shape with a flicker blade for added flash. The Northland Tackle Macho Minnow and Forage Minnow (center) have slender profiles. The Macho is designed to drop fast during a hot bite, while the smaller Forage Minnow appeals when walleyes want a slower drop and smaller profile. Custom Jigs & Spins Slender Spoons (right) fall horizontally and flutter on the drop. Size and color is all about matching the hatch, but all these spoons have different actions and drop speeds that appeal to different moods walleyes display on sonar and cameras.
How those early-morning walleyes respond to a spoon tells Roach things that allow him to map out his presentational strategies for the day. “If they race right up to the lure and stick around, seeming very interested but not yet ready to commit, I downsize one size to see how they react to the same spoon in a slightly smaller version,” he said. “If they come in without racing up to the bait at all, that’s telling me I’m way off on size. If they stay below the bait and never come up to it, or if they disappear and never come back, the lure is way off base.”
Baitfish: Habitat And Behavior
- Big Perch (Perca flavescens) Nomads, cruising soft flats, often near isolated structure like humps and rock piles anywhere from 8 to 45 feet deep.
- Small Perch (Perca flavescens) Residents around rock or weed cover, typically in depths of 6 to 20 feet.
- Ciscoes (Coregonus artedi) Open water cruisers, looking for concentrations of plankton when they can’t find hatching or moving insects. Often suspend, but also root into substrates for invertebrates. They use the entire lake.
- Spottail Shiners (Notropis hudsonius) Bottom oriented, often on transitions that border different substrates. Early winter, look for them primarily at 8 to 15 feet; later in depths of 20 to 30 feet.
- Emerald Shiners (Notropis atherinoides) Open-water cruisers, much like ciscoes, but tending toward deep water all winter.
- Golden Shiners (Notemigonis crysoleucus) Cover-oriented (dense weeds, sometimes wood) spending most of the winter in depths of 8 to 18 feet.
- Silver Shiners (Notropis photogenis) Sometimes prefer rock, sometimes mud, rarely weeds; Often found near stream mouths in winter, where they back out of streams to find winter habitat, typically in depths of 6 to 25 feet.
- Logperch (Percina kathae-caprodes) Bottom-oriented minnows that seldom rise up from the gravel-sand areas they inhabit. They primarily hunt chironomids.
- Smelt (Osmerus mordax) Smelt are pelagic carnivores, often drifting over rocky structure in search of lake-trout, shiner, or minnow fry. (If spotted with a camera: walleyes in the area often drop everything and pursue.
- Alewife (Alosa pseudoharengus) Invasive but critical species for Great Lakes and connecting-water walleyes; Alewives typical-ly suspend, following clouds of fish fry wherever they go. Walleyes often suspend with them.
Walleye behavior also indicates shape and weight to Roach. “When walleyes
hit on the drop, I switch to a flutter-style spoon—something you can bend a little to increase flutter on the drop,” he said. “When they hit on the rise or the pause, I go with a heavier Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon or Macho Minnow. A heavier spoon is quicker to settle down after you pop it. But nine times out of ten, size is the most important factor. Just moving up or down a size solves the problem 90 percent of the time, and I’m still matching spoon size to the size of the most predominant forage in the area.”
Roach thinks he can make every walleye bite. “If I see a fish, I can catch it,” he said. “It’s up to me to determine how to make it bite. I won’t give up. I’ll try to coax a fish that’s leaving to come back in. Sometimes I drop the spoon to bottom and thump it a few times—anything to get them to turn around before I reel up to change spoons.”
“The main thing we’re looking for is abundance,” Roach said. “Which baitfish species are the most abundant in the areas we’re fishing. If we can get a good look at them, we match for size.”
Roach is a firm believer in matching the hatch. It’s the basis of his system, and he believes size is the most critical characteristic he needs to match, followed by color. The underwater camera is to determine baitfish location and density as much as it is size and species. When he finds walleyes without seeing baitfish or signs of baitfish, he knows the surrounding habitat will provide clues about the kinds of baitfish that live there.
When walleyes are found under the ice, pay attention to the substrates and habitat in the area. Bottom type can indicate what walleyes are feeding on, making size and color selection a little easier.
“Habitually downsizing when the bite gets tough is just wrong,” Roach says. “Better to keep track of the type and size of baitfish walleyes are feeding on in the area. Sometimes the reason they’re not biting is because they have bigger meals nearby, and your spoon represents a waste of their time and energy.”
The common perception is that ice fishing is entirely different from open-water angling. “I like to bridge that gap,” Roach said. “There are no secret spots anymore with GPS and charts. I look at open-water and ice as the same when I’m looking for fish. Size matters, and matching baitfish size to cranks and spoons describes two sides of the same coin. Success is based on gathering information on forage every day, all year.”