Rig For Smart Walleyes
Float fishing through the ice is for anyone who has baked in the winter-thaw sun of an Ontario February or March. The technique really shines when the holes aren't freezing, and hanging bait in your favorite spots is a winner for walleyes schooling up on or around structure.
The slip bobber's two biggest advantages are sport and control. Tip-ups and other set-line rigs all catch fish, but nothing beats reeling down and sweeping the hook home with a little spinning outfit. It isn't even the same sport as hand over hand. To try a new hole, simply reel up and dump your rig into the next one. Changing depths is easy and precise, too. Even smaller walleyes are a thrill a minute on matched gear, and slip bobbers allow you poke around on key spots with livebait much quicker than you can with a tip-up.
On smaller, northern lakes where fish max out at a couple of pounds, four to six pound main line is more than enough, and you can step up to heavier line where the fish run bigger or where big pike are common (they love bait under a bobber at this time also). In the boat or through the ice, I really like no-stretch line for this technique. It drives in small hooks easily, and you're in direct contact with everything underwater at all times. I have six pound Power Pro and four pound Fireline on my slip bobber rods right now, with mono leaders spliced in with tiny barrel swivels. The leaders are normally about a foot long and range from light, hard mono to fluorocarbon from four to ten pound test. Fluorocarbon's hard skin and low visibility has saved me a few times this season when pike pulled the float down, it's really tough stuff. Berkley's XT mono is great as well, and much less expensive.
Weight your line so that the float is near neutral buoyancy. Clumping split shot about a foot from the bait, butted up against the swivel to your leader, keeps larger or livelier minnows under control. I've found this to be valuable more often than not. A struggling minnow on a short leash is hard for walleyes to pass up at any time of the year. Weight close to your bait also helps a lot for depth control is areas where natural current can sweep a set line out laterally, sweeping you out of the strike zone without ever realizing it. Leadhead jigs are the ultimate bait anchor, and you can experiment a lot with colour. Knick minnows through the base of the tail or through the mouth and watch that float dance. It really gets the bait struggling, and holds it in place. A split shot-jighead mix also works if you want to fish a lighter, smaller jig. Add weight until the tip of the float barely breaks the surface. By the time a walleye feels the float, it's usually too late. They're on their way up to the hole.
Foam floats support much more weight than wood or cork floats do, and plastic floats fall somewhere in the middle. Blackbird, Thill and Drennan all have good walleye models in their lineup. Center-slider styles cast better and work well where icing up isn't an issue. But through the ice, floats that pass line from below the water seem to work a little bit better. Orange or bright red is a lot easier to see over a white background than chartreuse is. Keep this in mind when you're picking up floats for icefishing. Thinner, elongated styles are preferable, but any shape will work as long as you weight it well.
Coloured or glow in the dark hooks and jigs are a small wrinkle that can make an amazing difference some days. Walleyes have great eyesight, and they love colour. Glow paint is even available in different colours now. Orange, hot pink, chartreuse and white all work, as do plain old bronze, red or black nickel hooks. I normally have on rod rigged with a jighead, one with a plain hook and one with a coloured bead threaded on ahead of a hook. Multiple rods makes experimenting that much quicker and easier. It sure beats retying every time.
Day in and day out, live minnows work best under a float, and you have to adjust your hook size carefully. Rigging smaller, live baits is a delicate tightrope between hooking power and inhibiting your minnow's natural vibration and activity. A range of minnow types from two to five inches is a must. Some days, it might be small shiners that the walleyes are eating. Other days, it might be a four inch shiner or chub. It's worth paying a few extra dollars at the bait shop to get a good variety! On pressured sections of Lake Nipissing, Georgian Bay or Lake Simcoe, walleyes see a lot of the same minnow types in the same general size range weekend after weekend. Throwing a change-up down your hole can be all it takes. Species like golden shiners or red belly dace are tougher to find, but I've seen first hand what they can do in the right place at the right time.
Small, thin and sharp are what makes a good slipbobber hook. Octopus, baitholder or Aberdeen styles are time-tested and easy to find in stores. Popular with summer fishermen who hang leeches under floats, Kahle hooks are also excellent. They have a wide gap and just seem to dig in with next to no effort. Eagle Claw's Style #84 is my favorite bait hook for walleyes through the ice, and I also really like Mustad's coloured Ultra Point Series Octopus-style, in glow, hot orange and chartreuse. Northland's Creep Worm is another of my favorites. It's part jig, part plain hook and comes in some hot colours. Number six to eight works well with minnows under about three inches. Stepping up to a number four will hook and hold fish that are eating larger bait. Where perch are legal to use, they're deadly, too. Perch make up the lion's share of a walleyes diet in most lakes.
Like their relatives the perch, walleyes can be found on or within a foot of the bottom a lot of the time. Slipbobbers give you the freedom of placing your minnow right in a walleye's wheelhouse. You set your depth with a small, fixed stopper that goes on your line ahead of the float itself. Once you've located the bottom, it's just a matter of sliding your stopper to set your bait at whatever level you want. Last year on Callander Bay, the fish at sundown were eating small dace six feet under the ice in fifteen feet of water. Depth adjustments and patterning fish are both very easy.
Dacron or thread stoppers work well. Rubber stoppers are also good, but braided line will wear them out, and they're not as easy to see. Once you cinch down a Dacron stopper, it stays put for the most part. Rubber stoppers have a bad habit of slipping when you reel them through rod guides while playing a fish. Instead of re-baiting and getting back down to the biters, you're stuck adjusting your depth. This is no fun when the daylight is failing and the fish are on the chew. (Been there, done that.) Walleyes in late winter will bunch up, and the guy with the hot float rod can light you up in a hurry. I actually carry a back-up rod or two, so that a deeply hooked fish can be unhooked later while a fresh rig gets sent right back down. This is a great trick an old rainbow fisherman taught me.
Setting the hook isn't something you have to wait around to do. Walleyes love livebait, and they'll swallow it down quickly most days. With smaller baits, let the float either disappear under the ice or stay submerged in the hole for a five count. With larger minnows, let her loop off a few wraps of line, lock down the reel, feel the weight and sweep the little hook home. The majority of the fish you land will be hooked in the solid part of the mouth, normally in the roof. Set the hook immediately on walleyes that take baited jigs.
Where you're allowed two lines each, cut your holes in clumps of three or four a few yards apart to cover water. Dunk a bobber in one and jig nearby with a spoon, leadhead or swimming bait like a Rapala or Chubby Darter. Move from hole to hole every fifteen to twenty minutes. Alternate between your two rods: let the jigging lure rest on bottom while you walk over and lift your live minnow a few feet, and vice versa. I'd be a rich man if I had a dollar for every time I messed around with a float only to have it abruptly disappear after settling back down after a bait change or depth change. Waking your minnow up periodically is absolutely crucial with livebait fishing of any kind. The nice thing about float fishing is a long as you can see your float, you can tell exactly how lazy or how active your minnow is. Loafers wind up on a jigging lure after being replaced with a fresh candidate. 'Waking up your minnow' will put lots of bonus walleyes on your line every winter. It's a great habit to get into.
Fish with an open bail to let the fish get a head start when it takes your bait. Whether straddling across a bucket or in a wire rod holder, make sure the fish can get line easily. I've seen more than one rod and reel lost when a big pike or walleye pulled the whole works down the hole. Clear away the snow around your holes for several feet in all directions so that your can watch the float dance while you're jigging close by. But remember to constantly walk over and lift that rod every few minutes, this will generate strikes from walleyes who are waiting for a little something extra. It really makes a difference.
nothing better than a warm, calm day out in the late winter sun, capped
off by a basket of fried walleye fillets and fish stories around the
table. Slipbobbers are a really interactive and visual way to fish, and
when they're bunched up late in the winter, walleyes love this simple
set-up. It's ideal for young kids, too. So many elements of livebait and
bobber fishing are attractive to kids! Keep a good eye on ice conditions
at this time of year, especially where you access the lake, or in areas
where there's natural current. Stay off spots where the ice looks brown or
grey, fish in groups or with a buddy, and make sure at least one of you
has a float rod rigged!