Winter is almost around the corner, and with the lakes starting to harden up, one can't help but think about ice fishing. I love my open water fishing (mostly muskies), but I do enjoy ice fishing, specifically jigging for walleyes. There are a few different locations I like to target during the early ice, and also when the dead of Winter sets in. I will discuss these locations, introduce a few different lure selections, and talk a little about equipment that I like to use.
FIRST ICE 'EYES
I define first ice as 2-3 inches of GOOD solid ice. Just enough to walk on. First ice will generally find the walleyes shallow. Target shallower weed edges and combination sand/gravel bars that top off around 7 to 12 feet. If the weed line is your target of choice, start out from the weeds just a little bit, but punch some additional holes closer to the weedline. This gives a few different zones to cover until sundown. Target the late afternoon hours, and hit it hard right 'til dark. The walleyes will be outside the weeds and move closer to the edge as night falls. Staying on top of them (walleyes) is the whole key. The same theory applies for the gravel bars. On a saucer shaped bar, for example, drill holes around the perimeter and throw a couple on top too. Work the outer edge before sundown, and then move on the bar as the sun dips behind the trees. The approach is simple, and this works on any lake that has this type of structure. Big Arbor Vitae and Lake Minocqua are two of my favorite.
Usually during late January and the entire month of February, a really good deep water jig bite is happening on any of the cisco-based lakes in the area where I live. It may be hard to get some buddies fired up to fish when it is 10 below outside, but this can be some of the best walleye fishing of the year. What do I mean by deep? Well, I have caught walleyes from rock bars that top off at 15 feet all the way down to 37 feet. A word of caution, reeling up walleyes from the deeper waters will cause them to blow their bladders; either plan on keeping every fish (not recommended) or play them slowly.
Not all deep rock bars are created equal. Bars that have the larger basketball size rocks on them tend to outproduce all others. These structures seem to hold more baitfish, hence attracting more walleyes. The best way to determine the "hot" rock structures is with an underwater camera such as the Aqua View. Search out a few bars and take a look at them, if they have the bigger stones, then these are the structures you want to target. Oftentimes when the weather is at its coldest, these deeper bars really seem to pay off.
In preparation for mid-winter, I GPS these bars during the Summer months and transfer the coordinates to my handheld GPS for Winter travel. Taking a few minutes during open water and pinpointing the tops of these deep bars saves a lot of unnecessary drilling. North Twin, Trout, and Clear are all lakes worth trying.
PRESENTATIONS AND EQUIPMENT
In Wisconsin three lines per angler are allowed. To maximize your odds, use all three lines whether fishing shallow or deep. Use a two tip-up set, and move around and jig with your third line. I prefer to use the Frabill Pro-Thermal Tip-ups with Golden shiners or walleye suckers as bait. For jigging, use an extremely sensitive rod such as Frabill's Ultra-Ice Jig stick, These are offered in a wide range of actions for deeper or shallower jigging. Jigging deep is tailor-made for superlines like Berkley Fireline. I want to get the most out of my hookset, and I have found over the years that Fireline allows more hook-ups than mono.
When choosing a jigging lure, I use three different approaches. Zip Lures and Jigging Rapalas are very effective when the fish are active, but a plain jighead tipped with a fathead is a good choice when fish are negative, like after a large cold front. Drop your Zip or Rap down to the bottom and raise it 1 to 1 1/2 feet off the bottom. Watching your bait on a Vexilar will help you get into the exact range. A jig and pause method works best. Give either lure a rip and let it flutter back down. Pause about 3 to 5 seconds and repeat. The majority of the hits occur on the fall with the Zip, and with the Rapala most of the hits occur after the lure remains motionless for a second or two.
These tips are a great starting point when Winter jigging for walleyes. Remember, good ice is just around the corner!
Editor's Note: Rob Manthei is a professional angler and guide from the St. Germian area of Wisconsin. You can visit Rob's web site at http://www.robmanthei.com.