Staying Put at Prime Time can Ice You the Biggest Fish

Before the run-and-gun crowd starts sneering and guffawing, hit the kill button on your augers long enough so you can hear for a moment and open your mind to the possibilities.

Scrambling all over the lake and covering a lot of territory—particularly for perch—is indeed the best route, much of the time.

That being said, I also relish a little downtime come evening in order to put some oversized mature walleyes on the topside of the ice. If you desire some pugnacious and portly pike, much of what I am about to relay holds equally true.

The most important component to this system is having done your homework well ahead of time in order to put yourself on high-percentage spots. Proper location equals success and there is much more to fishing than the lures/baits used and how we present them.

As always, fish must actually be present in order to catch said fish. Therefore, selecting proper structure is key. Keep in mind that every body of water has different structure and cover characteristics, and each water fishes in its own unique way due to this and the variances in baitfish, etc. Study maps long before you even think about heading to a lake, and do a little “Intel” work by picking the brains of experienced local anglers. Don’t ask for their spots as once found, for this is a hush-hush deal and they are closely guarded. You will get little more than a dirty look and total silence at best. Just ask them what you should be looking for. Once you know the key elements, consult the map and begin the search for your own secret locales.

Please realize you are prospecting and that this is seldom a one-shot deal. And it may take several attempts to find your first good spot. Even a good spot may take several evenings to generate its first returns of “gold.”

Seasonal timing is also overlooked, as some spots prove significantly better depending on if it is an early-, mid-, or late-ice period. Believe me, it is well worth your best efforts, as once you have your own hard-earned handful of productive areas, they will typically produce consistent results year after year. Use common sense, take a few pictures and release the big females. When you experience fishing this good, do not become greedy and test karma, lest the fish gods quickly turn on you.

Where to look
Some of the general things that I look for are deeper water in close proximity to known, shallower feeding areas. Throw in some substrate transitions and or weeds and it gets even better. Keep in mind that deep water is relative. This might be as little as 10 to 20 feet in prairie lakes or it could be 50-plus feet as in the case of deeper bodies of water. I know there are varying opinions on this, but I have seen it enough times to be comfortable stating that in many instances, particularly in the case of walleyes, that the majority of fish tend to lounge around just off any available structure in deeper water while not actively feeding. Once they do decide to feed, it is a short trip onto the structure and available cover to quickly quaff down some calories and then slide back out to digest the bounty and begin lounging again. This becomes quickly apparent as fish start tripping pop-ups that span deep to shallow water each evening and then conversely once they slowly depart as the bite and activity levels fades.

Something interesting to note is that I also feel that most of these fish don’t necessarily slide “up and down” the break as a lot of folks think. I am of the opinion that the many of the largest fish simply move out horizontally and suspend at roughly the same depth that they show a preference for feeding at. So, if you have determined that the fish are feeding most actively, in say 15 to 25 feet of water and you have a 50-foot basin nearby, it would be logical to assume that most of the fish are suspended 15 to 25 feet down over 50 feet of water directly adjacent to the break during non-feeding times. Keep this in mind and seek these fish out before prime time sets in, as it often pays dividends in a few extra fish.

What to do
Now that we have our general location, it is time to get to work. In this scenario, there is no more valuable tool than a tip-up. Or in my case, a pop-up, as I have relied on the candle-style magnetic pop-ups manufactured by HT Enterprises that use a vertical shaft to indicate bites. The beauty of these is that they are silky-smooth and can be reliably set to use chubs a foot long all the way down to finessing crappies with tiny minnows. And due to their unique design, you will never have any issues with wind that will cause false flags or drifting snow to foul up things.

If we are allowed multiple lines, and know we are going to be working a general area for an extended period of time, I feel it is utterly foolish not to be putting them to good use. Here in South Dakota, we are allowed four lines per person. Placing three pop-ups in strategic locations serves to not only catch more fish, but also functions as indicators of exactly where the fish are up and eating. This all happens without effort while you are using your fourth line to actively jig other open holes, and is the wise man’s option.

If you start to see a trend where several bites are occurring in the same general area and or depth, by all means, move more lines there and concentrate your jigging efforts. We only have limited windows of activity on hard water and this system will take full advantage of these flurries of feeding.

In order to do this, bring along your 100-hole-a-day disbelieving buddies and turn them loose with an auger, as we want to have open holes up and down the structure and in every nook and cranny. This allows us to quickly and quietly move setlines and have ample jigging areas as well. A downright deadly tip is to have an extra hole about 6 feet from each and every pop-up. Walleyes are notorious for playing a cat and mouse game with the large chubs that are key to this system. It is not uncommon for them to set off your pop-up and take your chub a foot or two for a ride and then inexplicably drop it. Once reset, you often don’t make it more than a step away before they slip back in and do it again—and again.

A quick solution to fix these frustrating fish is to simply drop a time-tested fluttering lure-type lure such as a JB Lures’ Gem-n-Eye with a tail-hooked minnow down the adjacent hole. The fish is obviously still in the vicinity and you can watch it while you zoom-in on your Vexilar, seeing it slurp the tantalizing package down as it slowly and seductively descends with the minnow resisting all the way. This little trick proves too much to resist and is often inhaled on the first drop before it ever reaches bottom.

The reverse is often the case as well. It is a good idea when the action slows to aggressively sweep up several feet and then shake in place an aggressive, vibrating and flashy blade bait near your pop-ups to pull fish in. You will quickly catch the hot fish and the more mellow types will tend to investigate the commotion and fall victim to your chub.

Easy days
A typical scenario finds me starting the day perched on my Honda Rubicon with TraxLok and outfitted with J-Wheelz and studs to aid in traction and steering control while toting a wheeled house across the open basin in search of fish. Once found, I can quickly drop the house while still attached to the ATV and fish in ultimate comfort. But, I can assure you that once I can see my shadow growing long that I will be headed for structure, putting the house on the most prominent of it as a luxurious base station and deploying the tactics outlined above.

Give this system serious consideration this year. I have seen the tip-ups account for the vast majority of the fish on any given outing, and in my experience, for 95 percent of the truly big fish. Yes, there is an advantage in numbers of lines set, but we must also realize that frequently and particularly in the case of big fish, they are highly selective and simply prefer to lazily slurp down a large live bait rather than what they perceive as “chasing” an aggressively worked lure. Don’t make the mistake of scoffing at these oversimplified, outdated tactics—there is indeed something to be said about being retro-cool and old school.