By: John Rasmussen
Targeting walleyes through the ice on any big water takes vision, fortitude, and a thorough plan of action considering 95% of the lake volume is inherently void of fish.
The good news? There are always key locations walleyes tend to make home below a frozen ice sheet and if we can learn where and why those locations hold fish, it will suddenly narrow our searching areas to just 5% of the lake.
Most of us have found a few walleyes in commonly conceived places such as small rock piles, steep break lines, and river mouth areas but I’ve learned there is a whole lot more behind where these creatures habitate than just picking out the nicest looking break line on a topo map and drilling a half a dozen holes at its base. I talked with professional guide Brad Hawthorne about where and how he focuses his efforts to catch walleyes on 130,000-acre Lake Mille Lacs. His insights didn’t disappoint. “I’ve used these same techniques on big water all across Minnesota to find nice fish,” said Hawthorne. “On big natural lakes, minnows and perch flock to structure and the walleyes are always close by.”
Where To Start
Early in the ice season many anglers focus on the first break lines dropping into 17 to 23 feet of water and they do catch some fish there but Hawthorne says as soon as the ice is safe enough to get out to main lake structure, he’s on his side by side scouting and punching holes from the top to bottom of rock reefs. “The bigger walleyes are out in deeper water where they’ve been all summer and fall,” said Hawthorne. “Walleyes prefer deeper water in that 24 to 34-foot range.” He says his favorite spots to target are either boulder to mud transitions or gravel to mud transitions because those places make the best habitat for insect life to flourish and that’s what the perch are feeding on. You guessed it; the walleyes are right there too lurking just outside of these haunts as they wait to come in on these perch during low light conditions.
Hawthorne says it’s crucial to have your holes pre-drilled a half-hour before first light at these locations to keep yourself as stealthy as possible. He also says to open up plenty of holes on both the top and bottom edges and a dozen in between to make sure all your bases are covered when first light hits. “The walleyes will feed heavily in these areas at dawn and dusk and for an hour on either side,” said Hawthorne. “You can scratch off a few fish during mid-day by targeting the deeper mud just outside of these areas with lightweight, stamped spoons, but capitalizing on these biting windows can make the difference between a few fish and fifty.”
Boulder and gravel to mud transitions can be found from the top to tailing edges of many mid-lake structures. By using topographic maps in conjunction with your electronics you will easily find hard bottom areas made of boulder and/or gravel. Look for significant breaks in-depth, ridges, spines, points, and sharp humps to find these rock-laden areas then use your electronics to identify the sweet spot. If you run a Vexilar FL-28 you can get a bottom hardness reading in your digital display by holding down the gain button as you power, it on. You will need to move your gain all the way up when doing this but once the reading appears you can readjust your gain back to normal. Once this feature is activated it will continue to take readings in every new hole until the unit is powered off. Look for a reading of at least 7 to indicate rock. The readings are set up on a scale of one through ten. Once the rock is identified, simply drill toward deeper water to find the rock to mud transition. If you use a Marcum LX-7 or 9 like Hawthorne does, you will want to look for double echoes which will show up as two bottoms on your screen indicating a very hard bottom made of rock or gravel. Change in bottom color will indicate bottom hardness as well. Again, just drill deeper from there to find mud and you will have your area outlined. Drill these areas out so you can hole hop with ease. Of course, it doesn’t hurt to find these areas with an old-fashioned walleye rig during the open water season either, where you can feel every rock with your sinker then mark the area into a GPS mapping device and return to that location on the ice.
What To Use
“I like perch pattern spoons,” said Hawthorne. “Particularly the UV Tumbler Spoons from VMC. They have the right action and weight to create what I call the poof effect.” After jigging a spoon for two to three minutes, Hawthorne described how he often drives the spoon into the mud from several feet above to create a plume of sediment on the lake bottom. He then lets it sit on the bottom for two to three seconds before raising it slowly above the plume. He aggressively jigs for another two to three minutes before repeating this action again. He says the plume will dissipate after about two minutes so it’s time to start thinking about doing it again.
When a fish shows up on his sonar, he jiggles the spoon in a side to side motion “just enough to get that treble hook dancing.” He occasionally raises the bait as he does this – depending on the fish’s mood. Sometimes fish will even scoop his lure up right off the bottom after slamming it into the mud and letting it lay. Always feel for the weight of a fish while slowly raising the lure off the bottom. Hawthorne says the 36-inch Precision Power from Tuned Up Custom Rods creates the perfect cadence for making spoons dance and wiggle and really keeps fish “locked in a chokehold” when hooked. “Reading each individual fish or the general mood of the school is an art in itself, so you’ve got to do some experimenting,” said Hawthorne. He likes to tip the spoon with the pinched head of a fathead minnow or even the whole minnow when he’s frequently laying them in the mud. “A whole minnow is more easily drawn up by a walleye when it strikes a laying spoon” he explained.
Hawthorne changes up his jigging techniques and lures based on what is working at the time and uses group fishing to narrow down the best lure for the day. He is a believer in changing up colors throughout the day as well. He uses #4 and #5 Rippin’ Raps when fish are aggressive and suggests when fishing with a group, to always have somebody jigging one to determine the level of aggression those particular fish are displaying at that particular time. “If they want the louder vibrations of the Rippin’ Rap then that’s what we’ll go to,” he said. “The hookup percentages of these lures is outstanding with the two super sharp treble hooks they carry.” I heard the excitement in his voice when Hawthorne proclaimed, “It’s always a game of reading the individual moods of fish but nothing will help you do this more than your electronics.”
So, if you’re going to venture out on big water this ice season in search of golden eyes bring this wealth of information with you and chances are, you’ll have great success. Drill out that structure, stay stealthy, and stay safe. The walleyes are growing fatter every day! Those interested in fishing with Brad Hawthorne can call him at (651) 271-8600 to schedule a guided trip on Lake Mille Lacs any time of year for some of the absolute best walleye fishing in the country.