by John Peterson with Noel Vick
Take the walleye. As ice anglers, we’ve come to recognize the moods, customs, and characteristics of winter’s premium fare. We understand, for example, that these predacious creatures are highly carnivorous. We also know that walleyes are sharply aggressive and bottom-hugging, not to mention opportunistic, favoring twilight feeding forays. And most of all, we know that they’ll buttonhole a jigging spoon in a New York minute.
That’s the province of the known…or what we thought we knew. Upon recollection of recent seasons and exchanges with a certain ice fishing sage, though, it seems that the last part might be only partially true.
Bro, a Northland Tackle Pro, is that guru. And in a recent conversation, he elucidated on the subject of finicky winter walleyes and subsequent modification of lure selection.
“Everyone thinks of walleyes as these wild snaggletooth critters,” said Bro, a man who paints colorful canvases of the watery world. “But they don’t always act like that. Sometimes, it’s more useful to imagine the baleen on whale siphoning plankton out of the water. Think small. Think peaceful.”
Well, let’s first explain that the “baleen” is the straining mouthpart of a whale. It filters little foodstuffs into a big mouth. So we can surmise that Bro, on fresh and frozen water, is ratchets down lure size as well as mellows out the stroke.
But why? The reasons are manifold…
“There are lots of factors that cause walleyes to shun big lures,” said Bro, while seated at the kitchen table prerigging baits. “First of which is weather. High skies or ‘clear out’ days mark cold fronts, and nothing tightens a walleye’s jaw faster. Put away the heavy arms when the barometer soars.”
Bro continued, “Midwinter alone shuts ’em down. By the beginning of January, maybe middle of the month, I’ve all but switched my walleye arsenal over to smaller lures, except for the occasional attractor, like a flashing spoon or swirling Air-plane Jig.”
And then there’s the ‘racket factor’ – those trucks and snowmobiles winging around. Now there’s cause for fasting.”
Bro’s painting an ugly picture, and continues to clutch the brush. “The wrong time of day can also turn biters into nappers. Sure, everything peaks around dawn and dusk, but what about the off-peak hours? They’re not crushing metal at high noon.
When fish go shallow at sunup and sundown it’s to chow. There’s no other sane reason for them to slink around in such vulnerable areas. They’ll hit most anything with meat on it. But the opposite is true in deep water. They’re usually loitering. Those fish need a little convincing, maybe some teasing to strike.”
Clarity and cold can be added to the list of negative catalysts too. Ice’s calming effect fosters clarity, and this lucidity begets scrutiny. Walleyes can and do inspect lures more closely, which bodes better for small and subtle than large and brazen.
Cold translates to lethargy. Walleyes, despite their typecast as cold water fishes, are impeded by iciness, preferring temps in the 50’s and 60’s. Bitter cold slows them down physically, slackening metabolism, as well as spiritually, or so says Bro.
So to offset the negativism, Bro summons the baby baits. Some outright miniatures and other apparatuses constructed of both big and small lures.
“My first response to sniffing walleyes is a full downsize,” said Bro. “Say a walleye comes smoking in a Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon but doesn’t hit, instead pauses and stares at it, and then scoots away. I’m going right back down the same hole with another prerigged outfit, but this time with a smaller spoon, like 1/16th ounce Forage Minnow Spoon.”
Bro isn’t merely speculating about the fish’s reaction to his presentations either. He first saw the walleye approach on a Vexilar flasher and then stole a bird’s-eye peek with an Aqua-Vu underwater camera.
And most times, Bro doesn’t change lure pattern or style during the conversion, but only size, and maybe the garnishment. “It’s not unusual for me to open with a whole live minnow. That sort of sets the tone. I’ll know right away if there are hostile fish about.
I next go to minnow parts, maybe even on the same spoon. I’ll try a head, and then a tail. Tail sections are under utilized. They give a presentation a whole new look and action.”
Bro’s next line of offense wiggles. “Sounds weird, but I’ve been catching a lot of neutral to negative walleyes on maggots and wax worms. They must like the smell or something. I’ve actually watched walleyes swim up, nose the bait, and then casually take a little nip.
There’s probably some correlation with naturally occurring invertebrates too, a grub to grub thing.”
The first downsize isn’t necessarily a panacea either. Sometimes, Bro must page deeper into the mental archive, and in such events he usually lands on an entry titled, “Droppers.”
Bro says, “The idea is to separate the bait from the attractor but at the same time not lose the weight needed to deliver the message.”
Bro anchors his tough-times-walleye-dropper with a Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, which has had its hook removed. To the free split-ring he ties in 4 to 6 inches of 4 pound test Berkley Micro Ice and finishes it off with a #8 or #10 Northland Jiggle Bug. The Jiggle Bug, a nemesis to panfish everywhere, doubles as walleye candy when nibblers outnumber maulers.
His stroke is tender too. “I jiggle it like I’m fishing for perch or crappies, imparting firm motions, but not high or exaggerated. I even drop it slowly, especially the final 5 or 6 feet before hitting the bottom. Lackluster walleyes like that maneuver.”
Adaptations of the dropper are as varied as your imagination, or Bro’s. He’s constantly experimenting with assorted spoons, weights, and small jigs. And one package he’s become particularly fond of involves the new Northland Hot-Spot Split Shot.
“Colored shot opens the door to whole new sphere of presentations. Now the weight doubles as an attractor, a subtle attractor too. For light biting walleyes, I build a Hot-Spot dropper rig.”
He first threads on a bobber-stop and secures it 4 to 6 inches up the main line; its purpose is to prevent the shot from slipping. Next, Bro ties in a plain, #8 or #10 wide-gap minnow hook. He then pinches 2 or 3 shot – usually size 2 – on the line, just above the knot. The device is capped off with a thinly hooked crappie minnow or a small shiner, a modest amount of meat.
“Hot-Shots offer enough mass to send the bait wherever it needs to go and the pizzazz to invite walleyes in. And in regards to weight and color, that’s a matter of trial and error. Try florescent and then glow. See what the fish want. And keep adding or subtracting shot until your rig has enough oomph to reach the bottom and load the rod properly, but not burden it.”
Well, by now, your slant of the walleye has likely been altered. Gone are the paper-shredder ivories, menacing glances, and quicksilver assaults. Instead, those notions have been supplanted by an image of a paltry and defenseless fish that sips its food through a straw.
Truth is, winter walleyes are both…
Editor Note: During a tough midday bite, Northland Tackle President John Peterson dropped down to the smallest Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and fooled this nibbling walleye in the picture.