Transition Time - Ice and Open Water

by: Mark Martin

In the fickle Midwest, it is possible, even probable, to have ice and open water at the same time. About now, on the cusp of spring, a frozen surface remains on lakes while floes dissipate from rivers. And it just so happens that the time is right to get in on serious pre-spawn walleye movements in either domain.

There is a surprising similarity between the two despite the seemingly at-odds environments. In lakes and rivers, walleyes are on the move, migrating before the spawn. Their locations are far different from months, even weeks, earlier. Knowing where walleyes will be and how to target them makes all the difference between poor fishing and some of the best of the year.

Frozen Fish Tricks
This is the time of year of late ice, when walleyes are approaching their spawning grounds. Come late February and into March, I seek out areas near creeks as well as spawning flats such as gravel and rock reefs, places where walleyes will spawn before long. The fish move through in waves, shallower than they have been for the previous months. While 30 to 50 feet of water was the deal earlier, now I¹m looking as shallow as eight feet, with my preferred depth range of about 15 to 30 feet.

Keys at these depths are changes in bottom composition. It helps to have transitions from soft to hard bottom, especially mud to rocks, gravel and hard clay. The reason that these spots have more underwater life is because they have more "stuff" growing on them that in turn attracts bait.

It is easy to see the correlation with an underwater camera. When you drill holes and put a camera down, you will find areas where minnows scoot across bottom from rock to rock. The walleyes are never far behind. I see both bait and predators with my Aqua View, which allows me to figure out why one hole might be more productive than others. There is always a reason, including food or cover in the form of rocks or bottom debris. The cameras are also handy because you can find out how the fish react to a given jigging motion. To offer a shortcut, I have found that aggressive jigging more often than not spooks walleyes. They like it slower and more gentle, with frequent pauses. Something more aggressive will draw them in but seldom get them to bite.

I also suggest drilling a lot of holes. It is not uncommon for me to punch dozens of them across an area. Even though I know many of the fishing holes well from open water and find them with GPS coordinates, there are often little nuances that you can only find with a camera or by fishing. After all, you are not exactly covering water when ice fishing. Save yourself some time and backache with a power auger such as the ones by Strike Master. The new three-blade model with serrated edges lets you drill a bunch of holes in a flash, decreasing the amount of noise you would otherwise be making later. Get your drilling done with and start fishing. Not only a camera but a liquid-crystal depth finder‹I go with the Lowrance X-85‹will indicate the presence of fish and their level in the water column.

Spoons and jigs are the best bets for locating fish and continuing to catch them. Northland¹s Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons call in walleyes from a distance with rattles that are particularly effective in water with a bit of stain. If it¹s clear, be sure to try holographic colors that trigger walleyes without spooking them. I usually bait the spoon¹s treble with a piece of minnow for scent and flavor. If I am on the Great Lakes, where the fish are huge and unabashed, I might hang a minnow off each hook of the treble. Don¹t overlook jigs, though. A Northland Fire-Ball or Buck-Shot Rattle Jig actively worked in your hand or set as a deadstick are tremendous options. If I am jigging a spoon with one rod, I always have a deadstick out with a minnow just inches above bottom. Often I will bring fish in with the spoon but they will take the jig.

Go With the Flow
Jigging is not lost on river rats who hit the open water as soon as it is safely possible to dodge icebergs. I am right there with them.

Similar to the patterns on lakes, river walleyes will be moving in from connecting waters such as the Great Lakes in anticipation of spawning. Baitfish will be on the move as well‹another cue for migrating walleyes. In clearer rivers, walleyes will be deeper, at the heads, sides and backs of holes. They will be along drop-offs and channel breaks. In darker rivers, walleyes will scoot into the shallows, water as thin as three feet, where they are concealed by the turbulence.

Regardless of the cover I am fishing, I always look for warmer water. Discharges from power and other kinds of industry are crucial. They may raise the temperature a couple of degrees, which is enough to concentrate a hot pod of walleyes. Creeks accomplish the same thing as they flow through farmlands and boost the temperature when they enter the river. The warmer water alone is enough to concentrate fish. If you have cover, it is even better. Fish the upstream side and behind rock piles or bumps and depressions on bottom. Be sure to watch on quality electronics for such nuances and get your bait down in any hiding holes where walleyes are hanging.

Indeed, electronics and tackle are important ingredients when river fishing. On my Lowrance X-16, with its color and incredible definition, it is possible to see the slightest bumps on bottom and fish behind and around them. I am always certain to anticipate a rise in bottom by watching the electronics, lifting a jig above it, then dropping it down the back side, where walleyes hold out of the current. All of this, though, is almost impossible without quality rods, reels and line. I like a sensitive wand, something like a six-foot Berkley Series One spinning rod. Your sense of feel will improve with high-quality graphite and allow you to lift your jig over and out of snags when you touch bottom. Take a spinning reel like the Mitchell 300X and spool it with six- or eight-pound Flame Berkley FireLine. The line is easy to see, helping you stay vertical, and it helps sense bottom and light bites.

One of my favorite offerings when vertical jigging for spring fish is the same Buck-Shot Rattle Jig I use when ice fishing. So many times I have noticed, especially when the water is turbid or the fishing pressure is heavy, that the rattles are that little something different that triggers strikes. To bulk up an offering for bigger fish and to present a softer mouthful, I will use on a three-inch Berkley Power Minnow. The chartreuse color is dynamite on all river systems I have fished. Most of the time I will add a minnow. However, plain plastic works great on rivers sometimes better than bait. Have one angler in the boat use plastic, another use bait, and let the fish tell you what they want.

When it comes time for March fishing, it can be a little difficult to figure out what you want to do. Ice or open water? Me, I will take some of each. The walleyes, you see, are moving in anticipation of spring, and I will go wherever necessary and do whatever it takes to catch them.

 

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