Lee Clancy: Be ready to follow the fish
To be perfectly honest, I can't claim to be much of an ice-fisherman. Despite my relative success this hard-water season in providing table fare for my wife, Katie, and I, the warm days of summer can't greet us soon enough.
Nevertheless, I am a fisherman, and my self-proclaimed somewhat-competence comes into question when Katie is unable to find walleye fillets in the freezer. Sometimes I have no choice but to brave the elements, and a little begrudgingly, catch some fish through the ice. (OK, it's not that bad — I do enjoy ice-fishing, but if someone could design the perfect ice-fishing gloves, I'd really appreciate it!)
To maximize my productivity on the ice, and keep from turning into an ice cube, I tend to keep moving. I study lake-maps and decide on a spot that seems "fishy," looking for a spot that will provide fish-catching opportunities throughout the day without having to travel across the lake.
This week, the spot I decided to dissect allowed me to fish the same "fishy" area during times of maximum and minimum fish feeding activity.
Follow the darkness
Walleye, like most predatory game fish, are ambush feeders. On this particular lake, walleye often use the sharp breaks (depth changes) to ambush their prey and fill their bellies. Typically, as the daylight hours dwindle into darkness, predators like walleye move shallower under the cover of relative darkness to feed on fish unequipped with the ability to see well in the low light. In our situation, walleye were likely using this spot to feed on small perch.
Looking at the map shown with this column, I expected walleye to "slide up" from the green stars, to the blue, yellow, and finally the red during peak feeding times. By drilling multiple holes near each starred location, I was able to stay with the fish as they slowly transitioned shallower with the fading sunlight.
Multiple holes allow for quick and easy "hunting" if your electronics go blank after a few minutes. Don't be afraid to bounce from one hole to the other in search of roaming fish. Even just a few feet left or right, shallow or deeper, can be the difference between fish and futility.
Since anglers are allowed to fish with two lines during the winter months, implementing a tip-up can help alert you to the direction of fish movement. As I fished over holes drilled near the blue stars with a jigging spoon and minnow-head, we had a tip-up placed in shallower holes near the yellow stars. These flags alerted us that fish had begun their transition to a more active feeding mode and moved shallower as a result.
The window opens
With multiple holes drilled near each yellow star, the tip-up would then get transferred to the holes drilled near the red star. We could then resume jigging near the yellow stars.
Though the action near the yellow stars was relatively brief, the fish started displaying more aggressive feeding characteristics as they moved shallower and the sun neared its setting position.
By sunset, all the activity was focused around the holes drilled near the red star. The action here was intense. In a period of about 30 minutes, my partner and I landed eight walleye, a few perch, an eelpout and a northern pike. With the abundance of holes drilled above this structure, we were able to hop from hole to hole and stay on the fish as they fed. If my electronics didn't show any activity in the first minute or two, I moved to a new hole near the red star.
Be sure you have your equipment ready for this window of opportunity. Have your headlamp on, bait at the ready, a good set of pliers, and even a backup rod, just in case your primary jiggin' rod fails in one way or another. Also, keep the tip-ups lively by "jiggling" the baited line as you hop from hole to hole. This tactic ensures your minnow stays lively for its intended purpose of enticing a nice walleye to dine.
Understanding walleye movement and how it correlates to time of day are key to keeping your lines taught and freezer full. Study your spots, develop a plan, and be ready for action.