Guide Jason Durham with a beautiful walleye caught on Minnesota's Leech Lake while filming a television show.
Forcing the play for walleye, perch
There is something to be said for swimming down stream, pushing the ball down hill, the path of least resistance. With fishing, we often have much more success by following these same basic principles like fishing when the fish are biting, fishing lakes that have good populations of fish and using lures and tactics that are high percentage choices. You want to put yourself on a good lake at a good time with a lure or presentation that should work most of the time. From this point, making the little adjustments to be successful comes relatively easy. When we are trying to film television shows, we don’t go to poor lakes or knowingly hit a difficult window if we can help it.
With that being said, I have spent much of my life fishing at every opportunity where I knowingly went fishing during tough conditions because I just love getting out. I also fished difficult lakes because that was what was in front of me. At the end of the day, a bad day of fishing is better than a good day of work. Realistically, people don’t always have the choice of fishing a premier fishery at the best times.
The attitude of a fish can be difficult for many reasons; inconsistent weather, abundant forage, low population densities of desirable fish and time of day can all create difficult fishing situations. For the sake of this article, lets focus on walleyes and perch, but some of these strategies can also apply to other species.
Imagine if you could, some of the worst possible scenarios for catching walleye through the ice. Imagine inconsistent weather where you are on the backside of a wicked front that has shut the fish down. Now imagine a lake full of forage so the fish are in great condition and feeding windows are short. Also just to make the situation even more difficult, imagine not that many walleyes to be found in the system to begin with. Throw in clear water and bright sunshine in the middle of the day just for good measure. This scenario described above would create a very difficult day of fishing.
If possible, subtract some of the variables that are working against you. If dealing with weather systems, a strategy that works for me is to fish deeper water (deeper than twenty feet) or find bottle neck or current areas that seem to reduce the effects of weather (assuming there is safe ice where current exists). If dealing with abundant forage or low population densities of walleyes, attempt to be on the ice during the prime windows. These prime windows can vary but here is a general tip. If you are dealing with a clear lake that has some feeding activity occurring through the night, a prime window often happens near sunset as these fish have often ate little through the course of the day. On stained water where there is little after dark activity, focus on the morning as many of these fish have an empty stomach as the sun begins to rise. When fish get into tough patterns where they only move and eat perhaps once a day with any intensity, these windows often create some opportunity even if it is short and sweet.
When dealing with both perch and walleyes that come in and just won’t commit, there are several things an angler can do regarding the presentation in an attempt to convert these fish into biters. Unfortunately during tough conditions, a person might not get many chances to experiment. You might only get a handful of fish to come in and when things get the most difficult, each fish responds very differently so no set pattern gets established. When faced with these types of situations, what has worked really well for me in the past is simply forcing the fish up or possibly down by how you position your presentation. If walleyes or perch are coming in within a few feet of the bottom, attempt to fish two to four feet above the fish for example.
Fishing above the fish even before they approach seems to force a few things to happen which tilt the odds. First, fish can seem to see your presentation from much further away so you make contact with more fish that are in the mood to chase and eat. You get more of the easy fish that want to get caught. What also happens is when fish do chase a presentation that is off the bottom, they seem to commit much more and they seem to make up their mind to eat it. Once you get a fish to dart up after the presentation, you are batting with a much better batting average. This strategy works assuming that you have good enough water clarity where the fish can see it from at least five to six feet or more. Good lures for calling fish up off the bottom include; the Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoon, the Salmo Chubby Darter and the Northland Puppet Minnow.
The Buckshot Rattle Spoon has a loud rattle that seems to really wind up walleyes and perch at times and often works really well in stained water or low light conditions. There are also situations where the horizontal profile of a swim lure like the Chubby Darter or Puppet Minnow seems to work better especially in clear water or mid day situations. A trend we are seeing across the board regarding ice tackle is much more realistic finishes that seems to help in clear water or mid day situations with better light. When dealing with exceptional visibility, realistic holographic patterns like some of the new color patterns on the Chubby Darters or Northland Tackle’s Real Image technology found on many spoons seems to help.
I believe these new finishes give you more options in how you move the lure. When you aggressively jig a lure, the lure is moving fast and hard enough where the fish can’t distinguish the detail. There are times when the fish come in hot and hit the lure moving aggressively and detail on the lure probably isn’t much of a factor. There are other times however when an angler has to slow down the lure and shake or bob the lure with a more subtle stroke and in this case, the fish seem to get a much better look at the lure and during these situations, added realism seems to help the angler.
Usually, fishing above the fish and forcing fish to commit is a proven strategy but there are situations where doing the exact opposite can work well. fishing below the fish and forcing the fish to scoop the bait off the bottom. Basically the same strategy with a few different variables, you loose the visibility as fish can’t see the presentation from a distance but the sound that is created from hitting rocks on the bottom often brings fish in. When fishing over mud, the sediment stirred up can also interest fish. Just like when forcing a fish to shoot up off the bottom, the same situation is created when a fish back peddles and readies itself to suck something off the bottom.
When location is dialed in and you are on top of fish, the information that you can get from an underwater camera can be invaluable in that you can precisely move the lure and instantly watch how the fish responds with much more detail and intimacy. Underwater cameras have been valuable fishing tools but their reliability has often been a down fall. Recently, Vexilar introduced an underwater camera called the “Scout” which is built using higher quality components for hard, every day use and this new piece of equipment will give ice anglers a much more reliable and durable tool that can make you a better ice angler during tough conditions.
Editors Note: That author, Jason Mitchell is a legendary guide with Devils Lake’s Perch Patrol Guide Service and is credited with pioneering many of the advanced ice fishing techniques and strategies that have revolutionized ice angling over the last twenty years.
Jason Mitchell holds a beautiful jumbo perch that was coaxed during tough conditions with some of the strategies discussed in the article.