Risking Ice-Out Walleye
Published: Thursday, March 8, 2018
By: Dan Armitage, Buckeye Sportsman Radio
When Great Lakes waters breach the 35 degree mark about this time each spring, walleye anglers gear-up for what is called “ice out” fishing that is about as radical as it comes. While conventional fishing boats can be used when conditions allow, the angling may require sliding lightweight aluminum boats across shore ice to reach open water, and dodging icebergs once the boat is afloat. As such, it demands use of extreme caution, the donning of survival suits, and common sense.
The payoff for this risky fishing business is some of the fastest action on some of the biggest walleye of the season, pre-spawn fish that are fat with eggs. This is primarily vertical fishing, using jigs or blade-baits like Vibe-Es, Heddon Sonars, or Reef Runner Cicadas. Most anglers use spinning rods measuring six- to six-and-a-half feet long with reels spooled with six-pound-test super braid. If the water is clear, you can use a nail knot to attach a monofilament leader of the same breaking strength to the braid, but typically pre-spawn waters have enough color to allow anglers to tie lures directly to the low-stretch super braid.
A lead-headed jig trimmed with hair or a twister tail, tipped with a minnow, leech, or nightcrawler, is a good bait to start with. Attempt to match the size of the offering to the length of the local baitfish; two to three inches is right in most Great Lakes waters. Note that ice-out walleyes will suspend, especially in dirtier water, so don’t forget to work various depths with your retrieves, as well as bouncing the bottom.
To locate active pre-spawn walleyes, a popular tactic is trolling a spinner trailing a worm or minnow behind a bottom bouncer. This is especially effective in locating pockets of feeding walleye in muddy water. A colored bead or two can be added to popular setups that include stealth rigs, with an adjustable sinker, or a spinner, like the Lindy Spinning Rig, or a float like a Lindy Floating Rig which makes the bait ride higher off the bottom. Once you find active fish by trolling, you can anchor up or drift over the school, vertically jigging to fool the walleye that can be real pushovers once they are located.
Note the size of the walleyes you catch and if they are only smaller males, it tells you the spawn has taken place in the waters you are targeting. That means the males have moved in to tackle their role in the spawning process and the females have moved off the shallows into deep adjacent water to begin their post-spawn feeding binge. Some anglers prefer catching the fast-action jacks and release any egg-laden females they may hook, both to assist with spawning success and because the smaller walleyes make better table fare.
That said, to hook-up with the big post-spawn females, move deeper to water 20’ to as deep as 35 feet, use the same rigs, and hold on! Just because those female have rid themselves of their eggs doesn’t mean they have lost their overall size or vitality. If you’ve been hooking and boating frisky ‘jacks’ all day, you may be surprised by the aggressiveness of the bite and the battle fought by a big, old female fresh off the spawning rocks.
This article first appeared in the Spring Issue (Mar/Apr) 2018 of Great Lakes Scuttlebutt magazine.