Most of us who fish walleyes today don’t remember Buck Perry’s Spoonplug or structure fishing instruction, myself included. Though it was before my time, I, like most anglers in my generation definitely came to appreciate the teachings and technology to follow. The idea that 80% of the fish live in 20% of the water gave way to detailed contour maps and eventually GPS/Sonar units that brought us there, along with a bevy of baits and techniques that helped us fish it more effectively. That said, especially for ice anglers there are many esteemed walleye factories that “Buck” that trend, with broad basin areas and walleyes scattered and stretched to the horizon. Famed fisheries like Upper Red Lake, Lake of the Woods, and Winnipeg simply don’t align with our structure specific view of finding ‘eyes, at least in the traditional sense. Here’s how to track down and catch those fish that roam more than they remain.
My first trip to Upper Red Lake was a confusing one. We were after crappies, but no matter where we drilled and how we fished, there were far more walleyes to be found. Thousands of anglers were all over the crappie boom that resulted from an empty biological niche the heavily overfished walleye population had left. However, by the time I had gotten there, the walleyes were doing quite well, and though they were to be immediately released for some years to come, those fish were coming on strong. Hole after hole, move after move, walleye, not crappies came to the jig. It got to the point where we became far more efficient at the walleye game, and began to take note of some of the finer points that were working well.
First, we’re talking about fish that are truly spread out over a vast area. Just as you’d cover ground in a boat and troll across the wide open expanse, so too we drove and drilled, covering areas in a quarter mile grid. Every few hundred yards we’d spread out and drill, catch what lived below those holes, and move on, drilling and fishing without rest unless multiple fish per hole started to come in shorter bursts. That’s part of the key to fishing basin areas in general, don’t camp out unless you’ve found schools of fish and the all-important bait they’re chasing.
Another key is paying attention to small details and differences from location to location. Remember that these areas are generally as flat as a pancake, and boring below water as a desert is above. Fish are spread across a relatively equal depth range for miles and miles in all directions, making tiny differences in substrate and bottom depth of great importance. On many occasions I’ve found broad areas or swaths that for whatever reason seem to be better than the surrounding area. Often, with enough underwater camera work or later in open water with the boat can we crack the code.
One such time was on Lake Mille Lacs, which is known for its varying structural components that range from rock and gravel, to sand and mud with all kinds of shapes and sizes to the many humps, saddles, and piles that line its lake bottom. Still, even here, we were on a basin perch and walleye bite over mud in an area that stretched literally a mile or more. All of it looked the same on the map, but a summer recon trip told the story that has this spot being great even today. In the middle of the basin, but in direct line with an underwater rock and gravel point, is an area with sand lenses. These small pockets and lines of sand are interspersed throughout the mud, and for some reason this patchwork of differing substrate seems to hold far more invertebrates than many parts of the lake. I couldn’t see it without looking at bottom hardness on my open-water sonar, but marked the area well and returned in the winter.
Simple mobility alone isn’t enough to keep the bite going however. I’m convinced that especially in a generally plain area where fish are used to roving about for food, you need to call fish in to your setup. Basin walleyes are very used to covering territory, as they’re not relying on structural elements and the biological activity that’s perpetually present there to constantly bring them food. They have to work for it, they have to find it themselves. That makes aggressive jigging patterns with search baits like Slab Raps, Rippin' Raps, or other noisy lures ultra-important. In basin situations when you’re both covering ice, and you expect the wandering walleyes to cover it too, there are few baits too loud and proud. Rattling spoons and baits in bright colors are great here, even when they fail to elicit a strike. While it’s difficult to stay mobile with live bait, sometimes you have to fish two holes at a time, calling them with the dinner bell bait, and catching them on a plain hook with a free-swimming minnow below a bobber. When the bite is like this, I’ve learned the hard way to never argue with the fish, you’ll never win.
Now that you’re an aggressive ice-pounder that fishes fast, when is enough, enough? How many holes must you punch, and how often must you move? I let the fish decide that as I drill my way across the ice-scape. If walleyes are only being caught when you mark one, drop on it, and catch it, you’ll find a direct correlation between the number of walleyes you catch to the numbers of holes you drill. On days like these, which is so often the case, fish need to be drilled on top of, and directly fished. Keep moving and moving until you’re either too tired, or have ceased to be angry with the walleyes. On days where you’re calling in fish from a distance, or there are active pods of fish chasing bait, you’re much better off making small moves directly adjacent to where you’re already being successful. The quarter mile hops aren’t required unless that area is dead. Rather, spread out radially away from the last point of activity and be ready to saddle up and re-drill should you or a friend find them again.
This kind of fishing is fun and rewarding, with your effort often being the primary obstacle to the number of fish you’ll catch that day. Pay attention to the details, but don’t be afraid to keep moving should the grass prove greener, or ice be whiter just a short drill away.