When it comes to fishing gear, there's no shortage of stuff to help you catch walleye through the ice. Proven spoons and a well-balanced ice rod are the bread and butter for most anglers. Yet, these items are just the tip of the proverbial iceberg for hard-core ice warriors. There are baits, electronics, shelters, quality clothing, plus lots more. Here's a rundown of equipment to consider when taking to the ice for 'eyes.
Like open-water sticks, ice fishing rods are becoming increasingly technique- or species-specific, and many are advertised as walleye models. A medium powered, fast action rod around 28-inches is a great all-around walleye jigging pole. Frabill, Northland, Clam Corp., Rapala and St. Croix all make ice fishing sticks.
Many ice rods are sold in combos that include a reel, but keep in mind you get what you pay for as far as quality's concerned. Buying a reel separately is another option. Bragging-sized fish often unleash sturdy head shakes and line-peeling runs right at the ice hole. A quality drag's a must to subdue these brutes, so outfit the rod with a quality reel, like a Shimano Sedona FD, Sahara FD, or Saros F in 500 or 1000 sizes.
Setlines and Accessories
When fishing a proven area, such as a mid-lake bar at dusk, setlines help signal the start of twilight bite and will help you catch more walleye. Deadsticking with rods or using tip-ups are the two main methods.
A round head jig works well to present minnows; however, when fish are fussy, a minnow on a bare hook held in place with a split shot is often a better finesse approach. Good hook options include Bass Pro Shops XPS Octopus, Owner Mosquito, and Mustad Double Wide Fine Wire Live Bait.
Bear in mind that setline fishing relies on bait to trick walleye -- the fresher the minnow the better. Lively bait's just as important when tipping jigging spoons and other artificial lures. To keep baitfish in top shape use insulated and aerated containers, like the Frabill Min-02-Life Personal Bait Station or Aerated Bait Bucket products. Also carry a dip-net to keep hands dry while retrieving minnows.
Drawing the Line
Whenever possible, opt for line designed for the rigors and extreme conditions of ice fishing. Spooling up with monofilament, copolymer or fluorocarbon line in the 6- to 10-pound test range is one option. The properties of these lines deliver a bit of stretch, helping buffer the shock of an aggressive strike or head shakes.
Superlines between 8- to 14-pound test are also effective. Their no-stretch properties provide excellent sensitivity with straight-down presentations. Good options are Berkley FireLine, PowerPro or Sufix.
Using back to back unit knots to attach a fluorocarbon leader to superline has advantages in clear-water systems, with 6- to 10-pound test being a good range. Using a swivel to join the main line and leader is another option that eliminates line twist, common when jigging tumbling lures, like spoons. When chasing walleye in northern pike territory, upsizing to a 20-pound-test fluorocarbon leader lessens the chance of incidental bite offs.
When using tip-ups, fill spools with line specifically for this application, such as products produced by Berkley, Cortland or Frabill, then add a three to four foot mono or fluoro leader. Coming in either nylon or dacron, tip-up line is gentle on bare hands. Dark colors also make it easier to spot the string on snow, helping avoid tangles and making re-rigging easier after releasing the big one. A product like Bass Pro Shops Depth Finder Weight is also handy to position baits near bottom when setting lines without the aid of portable sonar.
A Fluttering Failsafe Bait
Spoons are extremely popular walleye lures. The bigger the bait's curve, the more dramatic its action. Some spoons also feature rattles to enhance their fish-attracting vibrations. A Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon's a reliable producer in this category. Other spoons include the Bass Pro Shops Strata Spoon, Blue Fox Rattle Flash Jig'n Spoon, Northland Forage Minnow and Luhr Jensen Crippled Herring.
Jigging minnows are another must-have item for serious walleye hunters. Northland Puppet Minnow and the Rapala Jigging Rap and Jigging Shad Rap are three dependable models. The horizontal profile of these lures will at times outproduce spoons. Jigging minnows have an incredible action. They shimmy seductively when lifted, then fall on a lazy downward arc on slack line to replicate an injured baitfish. At rest, subtle shakes are deadly for triggering onlooking fish.
Another horizontal jigging lure is the Lindy Darter. Its erratic action and loud rattles call in and trigger walleye to bite. Lipless crankbaits are another trend, specifically the Rapala Clackin' Rap, to rip-jig trophy 'eyes. Bladebaits also have their place when pursuing aggressive walleye. Bass Pro Shops' XPS Lazer Blade and the Northland Live-Forage Fish-Fry Minnow Trap are two examples of these metal lures.
A great tactic when walleye are neutral to inactive is using slow jigging moves with bait-tipped jigs. A generic round jig head is a good all-round option, but specialty models will help with more sophisticated rigging. Using wide-gap hooks like those found on Northland Fire-Ball Jigs improve hook penetration when fishing minnows. These same jigs also have an extra eyelet for attaching a stinger hook to stick light-striking fish.
I keep my ice fishing lures and terminal tackle in small trays or large fly boxes, which I load into my outerwear pockets with all the gear needed. This way I have everything I need when hole hopping in search of fish. Clear trays make bait selection a fast process. Opt for low-profile boxes or line tray cells with foam to protect baits and reduce the amount they'll bang around, which can chip paint.
For modern ice anglers, electronics aren't nice-to-haves, they're must-haves. The trinity of this hardwater circuitry consists of a portable sonar, an underwater camera and a GPS unit. A portable sonar device has many advantages. It displays water depth and weeds. More importantly, fish and lures also show as signals, allowing an angler to play cat-and-mouse with fish and trigger them to bite. A few popular models include the Humminbird Ice 55, ShowDown Digital Fish Finder, Vexilar FL-22, and MarCum Technologies LX-5.
Underwater cameras, such as the high-end MarCum Technologies Underwater Viewing System, have many perks. Savvy anglers use cameras well before ice arrives to scout winter habitat areas. On ice the benefits continue. A camera lets users sight fish in a variety of situations. This increases catches, but it's also an education tool helping anglers learn about fish behavior and preferred habitat.
A GPS unit loaded with data is a godsend to locating fish-holding structure. Whether relying on a waypoint stored from an autumn scouting adventure, or a contour line provided from map software, like Navionics HotMaps, a GPS unit steers you to the action no matter how nasty the weather. Many ice anglers use handhelds, like a Lowrance Endura Safari GPS Unit. Another option is removing large screen GPS/Sonar fish finders that are used in boats during open-water and mounting them on snow machines or ATVs for the winter fishing season.
Give Me Shelter
A portable shelter is an ice angler's castle. It helps transport gear, blocks wind and provides insulation from nasty weather. A flip-over shelter's a go-to choice for many hardwater adventurers, but pop-up style devices are gaining popularity thanks to recent design and material advancements. Frabill, Clam Corp., HT Enterprises, Shappell, Eskimo, and Otter Outdoors all produce shelters.
Hand augers are good during early ice forays and when packing light's essential, such as back-lake trekking. But gas augers are awesome in thick ice conditions or when drilling lots of holes is part of your fishing strategy. Bass Pro Shops, Normark and StrikeMaster all make ice augers. Remember, too, that you can't fish if you can't drill a hole, so perform regular maintenance on augers and carry extra supplies (e.g., spare blades, spark plugs) along with a tool kit on the ice. Don't forget a skimmer for clearing slush from holes.
Keeping Hands Toasty
Being cold makes an angler less effective at catching fish. Frigid fingers are distracting and can lead to missed opportunities. To keep hands warm carry heavy duty gloves or mitts for extreme conditions and travel. When fishing in milder temperatures or inside a shelter, use models that offer more movement to perform various fishing-related tasks, such as Glacier Glove's angler-friendly Windproof Flip-Mitt, Fingerless Gloves or Slit Finger Gloves.
Protection from the Elements
Protecting your head and feet is also important. Hunting boots can pull double duty for most ice fishing forays. Otherwise heavy-duty insulated pac boots are recommended. Full rubber boots offering thermal properties are good in the slushy conditions of late ice.
Protecting your noggin is also essential. Windproof fleece hats are great. A mad bomber style hat will deliver supreme protection even in the nastiest weather, and a balaclava or neck warmer is an inexpensive but essential item for fishing in frigid temperatures.
Keep eye protection in mind, too. Although often forgotten, sunglasses are an important piece of gear. They block harmful UV rays, prevent watery eyes, and some models, like Oakley's Flak Jackets, offer protection from projectiles. Opt for frames made from sturdy plastic or composites and avoid metal, which will just get cold and uncomfortable in sub-zero conditions.
The core body must also be protected. There are plenty of outerwear options available. In mild conditions, layering underneath high-performance rain gear is one option, with Bass Pro Shops 100MPH GORE-TEX Rain Parka and Bibs or the Frabill FXE Stormsuit Jacket and Bibs being two examples of quality foul-weather gear. Insulated hunting gear also crosses over well to hardwater.
No gear guide would be complete without a section on safety. Flotation suits or PFDs are good to wear as a precautionary measure. Ice picks or claws are essential items that help anglers perform a self-rescue should they fall through the ice. Ice cleats to wear over boots are a must in slippery and glare ice conditions. It's also a good idea to assemble a duffle bag packed with spare clothes and tuck it in your vehicle or shelter (space permitting) to be prepared in case of an accidental dunking.
The above items represent a healthy assortment of gear and tackle you need to catch walleye though the ice. Not all are mandatory items. But as an angler's passion for hardwater adventures grows, so too does their reliance on sophisticated tools that are important components to their fish-catching strategies.
Tim Allard of Ottawa, Ontario is a hardwater expert and author-photographer of the newly released book, Ice Fishing: The Ultimate Guide. For information, visit www.helipress.com/product/ice-fishing-138.cfm
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