The Eyes of March – Ice Out Walleyes

By Ben Leal

Ask any fresh water angler what is one of the most sought after fish for table fare and you’ll get a resounding response, “walleye”. Sure, crappie and bluegill will come up in that conversation as well, but walleye by far will always be at the top of that list. 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. 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.

Transition Time
The month of March is characterized by rapidly rising daily high temperatures, with daily highs increasing from 41°Fto 56°F over the course of the month, exceeding 72°F or dropping below 26°F only one day in ten. As temps rise throughout the area ice will begin to lose its grip on areas lakes. When it comes to transitions, walleye are among the first. As water warms and days grow longer walleye will begin moving from their wintering areas to shallow spawning beds.

Shortly after ice-out, walleyes stage near inlets, moving up into these feeder arms to spawn when water temperatures range from 42 degrees to 54 degrees F. Sometimes they’ll locate desirable spawning habitat on rocky rubble shoreline or similar bottom around islands for this imperative annual migration in the lake itself. Exactly where these fish decide to attempt procreation can vary. But you can bet that a substantial portion of the lake’s walleye population is near entry points and in less than 10 feet of water right now. And it doesn’t matter whether we’re talking a natural walleye lake or water where these fish have been stocked – walleyes are walleyes wherever they swim.

Warming water temps means one thing as we’ve already eluded to…shallow walleye. This is a great time of year when anglers can target these fish from shore. Storm Lake for example is one of the more popular destinations for chasing after walleye. Shore access is easy and anglers can wade out and pitch a jig/minnow combination with great success.

Another key component to this time of year is to look for turbid water. And by turbid I mean areas in the lake where early runoff is flowing in. These areas will attract small bait fish due to the increased oxygen levels as well as the food that comes in with the flow. Walleyes aren’t the only fish species drawn to warming water inlets with the urge to spawn. Baitfish have the same spawning needs and will migrate to these similar areas.

Tactics and Equipment
There are any number of combinations that we can talk about here, but there are a few that I know work, work well and can be used across the board. First is jig size and color. I keep a variety of colors in my jig box as well as sizes. Load up on an arsenal of jig heads; 1/8, 1/4, and 3/8 ounce jigs are usually what I carry in my tackle box. I keep a variety of colors but try to keep it basic. I also do the same with grubs; white, black, orange/brown, and chartreuse are colors that will work under most conditions.

Live bait will always be a great way to chase after these walleye and take home a limit of fish. As an alternative to live bait and something that I’ve used with great success is the Berkley Gulp ® Minnow. One of the best things about using this type of bait is that it is a great minnow imitator; however it will outlast a live minnow without exception. Really finicky fish may not be so willing to take the Gulp minnow, however when they are actively feeding on a school of bait fish, you just can’t go wrong. I’ve used both the 3 inch and 4 inch size, but typically have best success with the 3 inch version. You can also “refresh” the bait by dipping it back in to the container to recharge the scent.

Now that you’ve got your jig and you’ve either threaded a grub, minnow or some sort of bait on to it you have to cast out and start fishing. If you’re just starting out, I’d recommend just swimming the bait from the point you cast your line, retrieving it back to the boat or shoreline. A slow steady retrieve works best. My first experience with catching walleye was learning when to set the hook. Many times there was a nip or a tug and I’d rear back like I was trying to set the hook on a marlin and I’d miss the bite fifty percent of the time. Sure, there were times when the fish were aggressive and took the bait readily, but at other times the bite was subtle.

There is a distinctive “thump” when you’re fishing for walleye and when the fish aren’t crashing into your bait as you retrieve it. Experience taught me that the thump I felt was actually the fish flaring its gills, sucking water in to its mouth and thereby drawing the bait in. But, the fish’s mouth was still wide open. So if I felt the thump and immediately set the hook, I’d pull it right out of its mouth and miss it completely. So the key was to count to 1…I felt the walleye “thump” and would say to myself, “one thousand one” and then lift up and set the hook. By doing so I was giving the fish enough time to close its mouth down on the bait increasing the chances of a hook up!

Another great to way to employ the jig, especially if you can find turbid water that is moving or being moved by the wind, or you’re fishing a river, is to bounce the jig off the bottom. Fish instinctively will orient themselves to face upstream so that the water is flowing past them, allowing the moving water to bring bait to them. Cast your jig up in the same direction the fish are oriented and slowly retrieve and bounce the jig off the bottom. Again, you’ll feel that distinctive thump telling you that a fish just took your bait, wait a second and set the hook!

Crank Baits
There is no doubt that crank baits, especially at this time of year when walleye are making that spring transition, have a place in your fish catching arsenal. Great minnow imitators and great at getting a reaction bite out of a walleye as your bait swims by. Focus on key characteristics, in order of importance. First, get the depth right or everything else is moot. Next, in order, the bait must work at the right speed and retrieve (casting or trolling) cadence, offer the right action, and exhibit the proper profile and color-pattern combination. Lastly match your bait as closely as you can to what the walleye are feeding on, shad, bluegill, perch etc.

Final Thoughts…
As winter loses it cold grip on Iowa lakes, rivers and streams, not only will walleye begin to make the spring move, following not far behind will be crappie and bass. Spring in Iowa offers anglers of all age’s young and old alike, great opportunities to enjoy fast and furious action. Weather patterns will vary which will affect the bite. Barometric pressure is something that can easily monitored and will aid in deciding on when to go out. Falling pressures will make the fish more active and aggressive. Once the system has moved through, you’ll have some really nice sunny warm days, but this high pressure will shut the fish down, even if air temps are cooler.

Ice out walleyes can be incredibly productive and in some cases produce a personal best as those big females come in and feed aggressively. Remember, selective harvest helps maintain our fisheries. Release the big trophy fish so that gene pool continues to spread. Limit your catch, don’t catch our limit. As young anglers get hooked on the sport we enjoy here in Iowa lets pass along a resource that they can enjoy with their kids as well. Tight lines all!Late ice season bluegill patterns are not that much different than crappie, though these fish will tend to relate to structure or off the edges of drop-offs. Drill a number of holes in these spots. Your electronic gear, flasher and underwater camera will help you find active fish. Fish each whole until you find some really good sized fish. The larger bluegills tend to be just off the bottom, up to two feet. Smaller fish are often higher in the water column.

As with Crappie, a great place to look for active bluegill are areas where there has been an influx of fresh water, turbidity not only brings in the bluegill but also smaller minnows and other forage that bluegill will feed on. The periods right at first ice and right before ice out are some the best times to chase after keeper bluegill. As always, keep in mind that ice conditions will continue to change as the month wears on.

Walleye will begin to transition to shallower areas following the bait fish. An effective tactic for locating active walleye is to drill several holes in the ice, and by several we’re talking about 20 or so, along the edges of a point where you’ve located active bait fish. Walleye will move shallow to feed and then move back out to the edges of drop offs. Move from one hole to another until you find an active pod of feeding fish. Once they move off, move with them and find another hole where you’re marking fish. The key is being mobile.