By Ben Leal
Iowa is in the heart of the ice belt and anglers throughout the Midwest will venture North, South, East or West to test their ice fishing skills on our local waters. Some areas like West Lake Okoboji for instance are on many a hit list for large bull bluegill. Other areas in the Iowa Great Lakes region or IGL’s as they are known, are magnets for ice anglers who are looking for an opportunity to ice some walleyes. In January Iowa lakes have a nice ice cap on them and anglers as well as non-anglers look forward to icing walleyes for the table.
Let’s talk about the fish itself for a moment. Walleye are walleye, year round! They are no different in January with one exception; cold January water temps slow them down, and for that matter cold water will slow down just about anything you’re after through the ice.
The common name, “walleye”, comes from the fact that their eyes, like those of lions, reflect white light. This “eyeshine” is the result of a light-gathering layer in the eyes called the tapetum lucidum, which allows the fish to see well in low-light conditions. Just what you wanted right? A lesson in fish biology…ahh, it gets better. This “eyeshine” allows walleye to see its prey in rather adverse water conditions and most times can be caught when other fish are not as willing to bite. Walleye anglers also know that the ability to see in low light means fishing can extend well into the night.
The ability to see in low light conditions and at night makes these fish incredibly efficient predators. Whether we’re looking for walleye in shallow water, deep water, daytime, or nighttime, with a bit of investigating we can explore ways to use that “eyeshine” to our advantage. Because walleye prefer low to dim light, best times to ice fish for walleye are at dawn and dusk rather than midday. Days with a dark overcast sky can be productive regardless of the time.
Summer or winter, walleye are generally found within a couple feet of the bottom. Normally walleye hang close to some sort of lake structure like points, breaks, rock piles, weed beds and humps. Fish areas where you’ve had success during the open water season. If the structure you’ve been fishing contains good fish holding characteristics, i.e., a good food supply, deeper water close by and healthy weeds punch a hole in the ice there and look for active fish.
As winter progresses walleye move out toward mid-lake humps. It’s interesting how this move resembles midsummer fishing. One reason for this move is the water is just a bit warmer in deeper water which is more comfortable for them and keeps them more active.
As with any species of fish you chase after, consideration is always given to rod and reel and the line you use. Medium to medium light rods ranging from 32 inches to 36 inches are by far the most commonly used for icing walleye. The Thorne Bros Walleye Sweet Heart™ series of rods are among some of the best. CLAM Ice Team™ Professional Series rods are also listed at the top. We’d be remising by not mentioning St. Croix Legend® Ice Rods, and by many anglers, these rate at the top.
It goes without saying that the reel is just as important as the rod, and Thorne Bros and Clam offer great pairings for the rods we mentioned above. One reel worth an extra mention is the Dave Genz Legacy Reel. “I’ve been developing this reel for several years now”, noted “Mr. Ice Fishing” Dave Genz. “It has a larger diameter spool which helps a great deal in reducing line twist when fighting a larger fish that’s taking drag.”
I read through ice fishing threads from time to time and you can always find info on the hottest new lure on the market or who’s making a better rod, whether it’s custom made or one that is new this year. Line…one of the key components in the ice anglers’ arsenal, doesn’t get quite the attention but it can make the difference between a great day out on the ice and one that you’d rather forget. Berkley™ FireLine Micro Ice, Trilene 100%Fluorocaron Ice, Bionic Ice Fluorosilk, Power Pro Ice-Tec, Suffix 832 Ice Braid, and Vicious Fishing Panfish Ice are just a few of the fishing lines that are designed for ice fishing. Depending on where you’re fishing spooling with 8# line is a good compromise for Iowas lakes since perch can be on your hit list for the day. There are also larger predator fish that will test your skills should they decide that your bait is enticing enough to take.
A great habit to get in to and one that many anglers tend to ignore is changing the line on your reels on an annual basis. “You don’t have to pull off all 100 yards of line”, advises Genz. “Pull off the first 50 to 75 feet and replace that. It helps reduce line twist and memory and keeps replacement costs down.”
So we know where to look for these fish and we also know that we can use their ability to see in low light to our advantage. Walleye also make use of superb hearing, both from the ears in its head, and the lateral line. A walleye can hear a single minnow up to 20 feet away – and tell if it is ‘acting’ normally – or ‘crippled’. Walleye have a great sense of ‘smell’ and use this ‘sense’ to help it find/capture its food. All of these senses are things we can key on as anglers to bring fish to our baits and ultimately to ice.
Before you drop our first bait, a great strategy in preparing for your walleye ice fishing adventure is first to find a key location where you might find fish. This can be an area where you’ve historically caught fish, or you know what the lay of the land is below the ice. Maps and mapping technology available today are great tools in finding walleye hot spots. Once you’ve located an area you feel will give you a good chance of catching a morning or evening bite, start drilling holes. Not just one or two, but a dozen or more. If you’re fishing a point, drill holes from the top or shallowest depth on out to the edges where it drops off and continue to fan out. It’s crucial to give yourself a variety of depths and locations to start with.
“Almost every single time I’m walleye fishing I’m using a jigging spoon and a slip bobber with a minnow on it”, said owner and operator of Kevan Pauls Guide Service Kevan Paul. “In most cases it’s the Clam Rattlin Spoon, and I’ll also run Northland Buck-Shot. Both of these tend to be my go to bait for icing walleyes.” The Cubby Darter is a bait that Paul has been using and has learned to use affectively for icing fish. “The key is to keep the darter moving, small twitches that will entice the fish to strike. Don’t stop moving it!”
Tip ups or tip downs – these can help you find where the fish are feeding in a given area. A great way to use this technique is to fish with a partner. Iowa Department of Natural Resources fishing regulations limit you to the use of a combination of one tip-up and one additional line or two tip-ups and no additional lines. You can use a third line as long as you are in possession of a third line fishing permit. Even if you’re fishing alone, and you have a third line permit, you can cover a variety of depths to locate fish.
“I’ll take about 10 to 12 minnows and put them in a bait puck and keep them in my pocket”, said Paul. “It’s a great way to have minnows on hand when you’re running and gunning from one hole to another.” The real key here is that these minnows are not lively enough to use on a slip bobber, but they’re still fresh and they give off incredible scent. “I’ll either use the minnow head on the end of a jigging spoon or in some cases the whole minnow”, added Paul.
Where to go
There are quite a few bodies of water that will produce very well for you during the ice fishing season. Some of the tops spots for Northern Iowa would be the IGL’s. “East Okoboji is good for table fare and has been where I spend a great deal of time during ice fishing season”, said the guide. “Spirit Lake is pretty good. If you’re out to target some larger quality fish then this would be the lake I would concentrate on”. Continuous except on West Okoboji, East Okoboji and Spirit Lakes (Dickinson). Take note that on West Okoboji, East Okoboji and Spirit Lake the open season for walleye is from May 2, 2015 through Feb. 14, 2016.
Farther south in the State you’ll find Brushy Creek. The Iowa Department of Natural Resources conducted a brief gill net survey there in April of 2015 and there were some quality fish captured during that study. Central Iowa is home to Big Creek Lake, and according to Iowa Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Biologist Ben Dodd, this is a lake that is starting to come in to its own. “I would imagine by the time the ice fishing season really picks up this year, we’ll see quite a few fish meeting or exceeding that 15 inch limit”.
Southern Iowa is home to Rathbun Lake and it has a healthy walleye population and should be on your list of lakes to hit during the ice fishing season. One thing to consider and of great importance are the ice conditions in the Southern reaches of the State. Keep that all important safety gear close by and stay safe.
Icing walleyes for the table or for the chance at bringing a trophy up is worth the effort. Remember to be selective in your harvest, keep what you can eat and CPR (Catch Photo Release) those trophies’ so that gene pool continues to grow. Tight Lines!