Winter Walleye, Mobility is the Key

In the investment world there are two schools of thought. One group takes the conservative approach, preferring to stick with the established norm and rarely breaking the rules. The other group lives life a little more on the edge and is willing to take some chances in exchange for a shot at higher rewards. Both approaches work, but it’s the most dramatic success stories are most often told by those who take the biggest risks.

In the world of ice fishing, anglers who target walleye also take different routes in pursuit of success. The majority of these anglers take the conservative approach. Mostly they spend their time at well established spots fishing techniques that fall neatly within the mainstream.

A much smaller group of ice fishermen view winter walleye angling as a game that’s mostly about location. This group of anglers feels strongly that investing lots of time into locating fish is the key to icing more walleye.

The question becomes, when does it make more sense to “run and gun” while fishing aggressively and when should an angler take the conservative “sit tight and see” approach? In the winter when fish travel and feed less often, rarely does playing it safe produce more fish! Camping out on a spot and hoping the fish will show up or start biting simply can’t compete with a more aggressive approach that focuses on moving again and again until fish are located. Location is always an important element of fishing success, but during the winter location plays a role that can’t be overstated.

The problem is moving constantly in search of winter walleye is a lot of work. Unlike the open water season when covering water is relatively easy, the ice fishermen is burdened with the reality of lugging all his gear over the ice, drilling new holes, tearing down and setting up the shelter and then repeating the whole process over again and again until fish are located. To say the least, this approach is labor intensive.

Selecting specific gear can help take some of the work out of run and gun ice fishing for walleye, but in the end it’s having a positive attitude and a willingness to work that drives success. Moving once or twice then settling down to a wait and see approach doesn’t cut it. The run and gun strategy works best when caution is thrown to the winter winds.

MOBILITY IS CRITICAL

Walleye are rarely found in lakes small enough that walking is a practical means of covering water. Instead walleye prefer large sprawling waters and that means that motorized mobility on the ice ranks as a critical aspect of success. If the gear required for winter walleye can’t be moved from one spot to another easily, the mobility edge is lost.

Quads, side by sides, snow machines and Argo Amphibious vehicles are not merely a luxury, but rather a necessity for serious run and gun walleye fishing adventures. Walking isn’t an option when the next spot could be several miles away.

Argo used to navigate the frozen lake
Argo used to navigate the frozen lake

The mobility these machines provide is invaluable, but it’s important to keep in mind owning them comes with responsibility. Constantly monitoring ice thickness and the ice condition is the only way to insure the safety of everyone involved.

Safety and recovery equipment that needs to be on every ice fishing adventure includes a spud for checking the ice, 50’ length of heavy rope with a throw buoy on the end, floatation jacket or vest and a set of ice spikes to help pull yourself out of the ice should you end up in the water.

I keep all this safety equipment in my Argo ATV at all times so it’s ready in an instant. I also carry a two foot length of steel rod with an eye welded in the middle. Should my Argo go through the ice it will float. I can then cut a hole in safe ice. Next I attach the steel rod to the winch cable on my Argo and slide the rod down into the ice hole. When turned sideways the rod will jam against the bottom of the ice, giving me a solid surface to winch the Argo back up onto safe ice.

Compared to quads and snow machines that sink in seconds, the Argo is the ultimate ATV for ice fishing situations.

A WORD ON SHELTERS

Large and heavy ice shelters are cozy and comfortable protection from the elements, but they aren’t practical for those who plan to cover lots of water. The key features to consider when selecting a portable shelter are weight, ease of movement, size and versatility of function.

One and two man shelters are the most practical size for run and gun fishing adventures. Larger shelters simply encourage their users to take along more people and gear. All of which reduces the likelihood of moving when necessary.

OTHER ESSENTIALS

Unless the ice is only a few inches thick, a power auger should be considered an essential piece of equipment for the run and gun approach. Drilling holes is a lot of work and without the help of a power auger, chances are this essential work won’t get done. For serious walleye fishing a model that features an eight  inch auger is recommended.

Since walleye are found living in sprawling waters, a portable GPS unit is also an essential piece of gear. Not only can the GPS be used to save the location of productive fishing spots, mapping units can be used to navigate to potential fish holding structures, including those you may not have previously fished.

Also, a GPS unit is an invaluable tool for creating safe navigation routes to and from the fishing grounds. A hand-held unit is adequate, but a growing number of anglers are using the larger models designed to be permanently mounted on a fishing boat. By simply mounting these units on the handlebars of their Argo, quad or snow machine with a RAM mount or other after market bracket, anglers have instant access to fishing information gleaned during the open water season. This amounts to a treasure chest of run and gun fishing savvy.

FISHING GEAR

The actual rods, reels and terminal tackle used to catch winter walleye constitutes the short list in this outlay of essentials. On the rod and reel end, medium action graphite rods in the 24-28 inch size are ideal for fishing in small shelters. Match these rods with a small spinning reel loaded with eight or 10 pound test monofilament line. Keep two or three rods handy for each angler with each equipped to fish a different lure. It’s easier to switch rods than to re-rig various lures on the ice.

The top terminal tackle for winter walleye boil down to three tried and tested approaches. Leadhead jigs tipped with minnows are a standard for winter walleye. For the depths most commonly fished, a selection of 1/8, 1/4 and 3/8 ounce jigs will get the job done. Long shank jigs are the preferred jig style for winter jigging. The longer hook shank puts the business end of the hook deeper in the fish’s mouth. This in turn increases the hooking ratio and makes long shank jigs the obvious choice.

Jigging spoons are the second “must have” lure for run and gun walleyes. Spoons are fished aggressively and they tend to trigger strikes from active walleye. To achieve the built in wobble, a jigging spoon is popped with a sharp snap of the rod tip and then the lure is allowed to sink on a slack line. The most popular sizes with walleye anglers are 1/2, 3/4 and one ounce models.

The most popular jigging spoons include the Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and Do Jigger, the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and the VMC Rattle Spoon.

Jigs cover the subtle approach, spoons the aggressive angle and a third lure group covers those fishing situations when walleye are looking for something different. Jigging/swimming lures like the popular Salmo Chubby Darter have quickly become a favorite among serious walleye anglers.

The best way to describe this unique ice fishing lure is to imagine a lipless crankbait that’s designed to be fished vertically. The Chubby Darter features a body with a wider head that tapers to a more slender body. A treble hook is mounted both on the tail and below the line tie attachment.

When dropped in the water these baits sink slowly. When the rod tip is popped sharply, the Chubby Darter comes to life creating a tight vibrating wiggle and changing direction. When the bait is then allowed to sink on a slack line, it swims back to bottom enticingly.

Unlike other jigging/swimming lures that sink quickly, the Chubby Darter gives fish like walleye time to react. Also, because this bait is equipped with not one, but two treble hooks the fish that bite are almost always hooked solidly.

The size CD5 and CD6 are ideal for walleye fishing applications. Some anglers tip the back treble hook with a small minnow, but others strongly feel the natural darting action of the Chubby Darter is what makes these lures so deadly.

PEAK PERIODS

The run and gun approach to walleye fishing is a solid strategy that works because those who move and move often are more likely to encounter active fish. Applying the run and gun approach makes sense, but not at peak feeding periods.

Winter walleye feed most often and most aggressively at dawn and dusk. During these peak periods it’s a wise idea to be camped out on the best fishing spot you can find. Reserve the hour around sunrise and the hour around sunset for fishing. Avoid travel and keep your line in the water as much as possible during these brief, but critical fishing times. There will be plenty of time to run when the action slows.

Once the peak times of dawn and dusk have passed, apply the run and gun approach. Often relocating fish is as simple as moving towards deeper water adjacent to spots that have already or historically produced fish.

KEEPING A PERSPECTIVE

The run and gun approach works because moving is the most logical way to make contact with active fish. It’s important to understand however that outside of the peak feeding times, rarely will the action be as fast paced. Instead, what anglers should expect is to find and catch the occasional active fish when applying the run and gun approach. For example, if you move to a new location and quickly catch a fish or two, don’t camp out on this spot all afternoon waiting for more action. Chances are the fish that are going to bite will do so immediately. The safe money is to move again and again until another group of active fish are found. In short, moving often tends to target only the most active fish.

Jake Romanack lifting his walleye from ice hole
Jake Romanack lifting his walleye from ice hole

Every place that produces a fish should be saved as a waypoint on the GPS unit for future reference. It’s a good idea to take the time to name specific waypoints for later reference. It’s these spots that when fished at prime times often turn into real honey holes.

Over time developing a list of productive waypoints on a particular lake creates another invaluable advantage. When applying the run and gun approach, use these waypoints to set up a milk run. Targeting known fish producing spots increases confidence and also the likelihood of success.

SUMMING IT UP

The run and gun approach is an aggressive means of both covering water and contacting active fish. Using motorized transportation is a key element of this strategy, but so is keeping the gear list as functional and trim as possible. In short, the way to make moving frequently a practical ice fishing strategy is to take strides to make each move as little work as possible.

Set up milk runs that target spots that have produced before and always be willing to check out new spots. It never hurts to spend some time in uncharted waters. After all, that’s what the run and gun approach is all about. You never know when you’ll discover a new favorite fishing hole.

 

Mark Romanack Pro Staff

Mark Romanack aka the “Outdoors Guy” is a lifelong resident of Michigan. One of Michigan’s most celebrated outdoorsmen and outdoor communicators, Mark is a graduate of Northern
Michigan University and holds a BS degree in Conservation/Ecology. Mark’s outdoor writing
career got started as a parttime job back in 1985. It wasn’t long before Mark was writing full time for a host of outdoor periodicals. To date Mark has authored over 4,000 full length
magazine features, 13 different hard copy books on fishing and three fishing e-books for Kindle. Mark also pens a popular and free weekly fishing blog published at the www.fishing411.net web page and also on Facebook. In 2007 Mark took the plunge into the outdoor television industry hosting and producing Fishing 411 TV that broadcasts
nationally on the World Fishing Network. Fishing 411 is also available on-demand at CarbonTV.com.To date Mark has hosted and produced over 140 national television episodes
focusing on a host of freshwater fishing topics. Mark lives in Northern Michigan with his wife Mari and hunting dogs Mason, Drake and Stormy.

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