I’ve made a lot of mistakes when ice fishing walleye. Lakes that have coughed up plenty of fish in open water have left me gnashing my teeth on the ice of an apparent walleye desert. It’s tempting to simply chalk it up to the fish not biting but long ago I resolved never to blame the walleye. The sad truth is, if we’re on a lake full of walleye and we aren’t catching any, we’re doing something wrong.
“I guess they just aren’t biting” is the stock answer sputtered through numb lips at the end of the day. The reality is they probably are biting; just not where we are fishing, or they’re hitting on something we’re not offering, or a lethal combination of both. Blame the walleye and we’re doomed to repeat our angling errors. Accept that we do make mistakes and resolve to learn from them, and we’re well on the road to a good place called Walleyeville. What follows are six common ice angling errors and how to overcome them.
Waiting instead of Fishing
For a lot of anglers, a walleye excursion unfolds late afternoon, sinking holes at the usual area and setting lines with live bait and hoping walleye come to call. Known hot spots tend to be over shallow evening feeding areas and waiting for the sun to sink to the horizon is often a successful strategy. This is enough for many anglers, but we can experience more action and learn more by being mobile.
Trying to coax afternoon feeders by moving to deeper water adjacent to the evening shallows is a simple and effective midday walleye strategy. We might be surprised what comes up in the middle of a sunny afternoon. As the day wears on we can move progressively shallower using the depth of our active holes as our guide.
By being mobile we learn something of the walleye’s movements—we pick up a few fish in the daytime and spend our time fishing rather than waiting. Sometimes it’s a strip of decayed weed or a transition between mud and gravel that can mean moving even a few feet can make a big difference.
Fishing for Memories
“We were here a few months ago and the action was crazy.” Such statements are regularly uttered by skunked anglers who return to the same spot again and again in an attempt to relive a memory. A memory progressively blurred by frosty fish-less days.
Occasionally we stumble on a great walleye bite. Could be at a river mouth in March or a mid-lake hump in December. It may not be clear why walleye are in the area and feeding voraciously but, when it happens, we can only speculate on the reasons and enjoy the bite. However, when we return for more of the same we are often left speculating on why they are not biting. Patience is a virtue but stubbornly fishing for memories has left many anglers scratching frost bitten chins.
When the hot action we envisioned does not materialize, it may be time to move on. Memories make thin filets.
Not Embracing Technology
A traditional approach to ice fishing is great provided we’re catching fish. If we’re not getting bit then we quickly begin to wonder whether we’re on the right spot or if there are indeed fish in the area. Technology can help answer the gnawing questions that dog walleye anglers.
Go straight to the right location with a hand held GPS unit. Things like humps, deviations along break lines, and weed beds can all be marked as GPS waypoints and found quickly.
Once on the spot we can fine-tune our location with the help of a flasher like the Vexilar FL-20. Not only do they show the depth and help find breaks and transitions, they also show if there are fish in the vicinity and how they react to our lure. If there are fish but no biters it’s time to try something different to entice them. If there’s a consistently vacant screen, it could be time to move. Using the technological tools at our disposal puts us well ahead of anglers fishing blind.
One Trick Ponies
“This thing never fails,” is a phrase I’ve heard declared by ice anglers pulling a special lure from a padded compartment of their tackle bag, but by the end of the day the assertion has been revised to “this thing hardly ever fails.” Anglers stubbornly sticking to one proven presentation may catch fish a good deal of the time but the bottom line is no single presentation will always catch walleye on every lake. Preferences change from lake to lake, spot to spot, hour to hour. Live bait, jigging spoons, soft plastics, and jigging body baits, alone or in combination, all catch walleye. With such a profusion of baits and lures available it’s foolish to put your faith in just one.
Evening Bite is the Only Bite
A large segment of walleye anglers never set foot on the ice unless the sun is quartering toward the horizon. The evening rush is a classic scenario but there are other times during the day that can be just as productive. Maybe the ingrained belief that walleye only bite in the evening is just a convenient way of allowing us to sleep in. But when we realize just how good the morning bite can be we start setting the alarm clock. Getting on the ice before sunrise is not as easy as getting out late afternoon but the rising sun of a crisp morning often accompanies a flurry of action comparable to, or surpassing, the evening bite. Ignore the morning bite at our angling peril.
Failing to Move with the Times
Reporting to the same spot from first ice to last ice will mean poor fishing at least part of the time. In waters where the bottom structure changes very little throughout, walleye may remain in essentially the same area throughout the winter but on most lakes we have to adjust to the ways of the winter nomad.
At first ice walleye will be close to their autumn haunts like mid-lake humps or points associated with shoreline. By last ice they may be gravitating towards breaks and flats within easy reach of shallow spawning areas. We must adjust our movements with those of our quarry or suffer the fate of anglers content to fish over dead water.
Too many of us lean on the ice angler’s crutch, pointing a frosty finger at finicky fish and doomed to repeat our mistakes over and over. However, when we put the blame squarely on our shoulders and accept the burden of learning from our mistakes, we’re well on our way to better winter walleye fishing.