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Ice as structure: how heaves affect Great Lakes walleye location.

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ON THE LAKE WHILE FISHING, EVER IMAGINED THE SHEET OF ICE UNDER YOUR FEET AS A LIVING ENTITY? AFTER ALL, IT SPEAKS--MOANING AND GROANING AS PRESSURE CRACKS FORM IN THE SUBZERO COLD OR WHEN THE SUN PEEKS OUT. AND IT MOVES. LIKE GYRATIONS IN THE EARTH'S PLATE TECTONICS, ICE SHEETS HAVE SHIFTED SO VIOLENTLY THE RESULTING "ICE-QUAKES" HAVE KNOCKED ME TO MY KNEES.

Although the ice itself may not actually be alive, there's life just below these volatile sheets. Indeed, transitions in ice terrain--the ridges, jams, and heaves where sheets buckle and collide--can focus current, funnel baitfish, and betray key structural changes--all of which can be extremely helpful in the search for walleyes roaming intimidating expanses of water on, say, the Great Lakes.

Same goes for spots offering variations in consistency and transparency, such as where clear ice meets cloudy--ice as structure, if you will. Best part is, the signs are there if you know what to look for. Learning to recognize and react to these visual clues can put you on more 'eyes this winter.

HARD LESSONS

Much of my education on the subject comes from four of the walleye world's most talented tutors: Mark Brumbaugh, Mike Gofron, Ross Grothe, and Mark Martin. Organizers of the annual Ice Fishing Vacation/School (three days of intensive instruction: icefishingschool.com), the guys are masters at zeroing in on big-water walleyes. The last two schools stand out in particular. Held on the ever-changing tundra of Lake Huron's massive Saginaw Bay, they provide textbook examples of how ice can affect fish movement.

To be fair, Martin is quick to point out that the foundation of the team's quests are laid well before setting foot on the ice. "We start out by following the basics rule of fishing: Pinpoint cover and structure--breaklines, flats, holes, weeds, wood, and rock--on a hydrographic [underwater] map," he says. Coordinates of potential hotspots are plugged into GPS units for quick location.

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Electronic maps that blend underwater detail with GPS navigation are a plus, notes Brumbaugh, who favors Navionics cartography. "No matter the structure, we target that first, then focus on nearby ice formations."

Once over prime structure, the first formations of note are where colliding sheets thrust broken slabs of ice above the hardwater horizon, either in jumbled piles or extensive, plate-like protrusions jutting skyward 20 feet or more. Such areas of broken ice are often referred to as heaves, pressure ridges, pushes, and mounds. "They indicate similar ice formations below the surface, which create disturbances in the current; this in turn roils the bottom and plankton. These microorganisms attract forage, and thus walleyes" Martin says.

In general, heaves and mounds form near naturally occurring breaklines. This is because the shallower water on the high side freezes before the deeper water off the drop; differences in ice thickness are the birthplace of ice sheets, which eventually shift and break apart.

What side of the transition to start fishing on, and how close you get to it, are a matter of trial and error. Current usually pushes plankton and forage to one side or the other--and current changes from day to day. "I usually start on the side closest to the structure." says Brumbaugh, "and if that doesn't produce, I'll find a safe place to cross, then try the other side. One side of the heave usually outproduces the other."

As noted earlier, there's often more structural ice below the surface than above it. In addition to underwater ridges formed by large slabs, individual chunks of ice sliding away from the main formation can make it impossible to punch through the icepack even with an auger extension. For this reason, it's best to fish near a heave, not right on top of it. Ten to 30 feet is a good starting point.

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Interestingly, if the current is strong enough, heaves and mounds can create their own breaklines in softer substrates. "All it takes is a 2-inch cut in the bottom contour, and walleyes will follow it like a highway," says Grothe. These depressions don't necessarily form directly below the jagged ice--another reason to keep your distance. High-caliber sonar and an underwater camera are invaluable aids in finding such subtle depressions on bottom.

SHADES OF GRAY

It's no secret that bright light rarely triggers a hot walleye bite. Quite the opposite. During openwater periods, for example, fish tend to feast on the windiest, cloudiest days, when light levels and penetration of the water column are reduced. What's an ice angler to do when the sun's high in the sky? Look for overhead structure, of course.

Two winters ago, Ice School instructors located a rockpile with a passel of walleyes on it. But the ice over the structure was clear. The bite in the early morning twilight was hot but shortlived, coming to an abrupt stop as soon as the sun rose above the horizon. Nearby, however, lay a huge swath of ice that had broken up and blown out earlier in the season, then blown back in and refrozen. Like clouds in the sky, the broken ice limited light penetration. Guess where the walleyes were during the day.

"Baitfish and walleyes felt safe there, and hung out under the broken ice as long as the sun was up," says Gofron. In areas lacking such ice, he suggests looking for patches of snow. "Think of all the fish that hang around swimming rafts in summer. A pile of snow is the same kind of thing. The snow not only breaks up the light and adds cover, but muffles any sounds from overhead."

EYES ON THE ICE

No matter which big water you hit this winter, pay attention to the ice you're standing on for hints on where to drill first. Heaves, mounds, and areas of reduced light penetration--especially in conjunction with key bottom structure and cover--can yield golden opportunities.

NATURAL WONDERS Tricks for Targeting Small Lake Roamers

ICE CONDITIONS AND SNOW COVER ALSO affect walleye location in smaller natural lakes. Their influence is most noticeable where wandering eyes roam fairly structureless waters. 'At first-ice." says In-Fisherman Contributing Editor Jeff Simpson, or during years when lakes freeze clear and there's not much cover look for darker ice or patches of snow on Ion, These create a shaded edge in shallower water of about 20 feet or less--just like weeds submerged wood. or docks."

Shaded spots conceal your silhouette and your movements too. This is important, because walleyes can easily see through unstained water or clear ice. and they're leery of any motion. Some anglers haul large chunks of carpet onto the ice to hide their movements. Another trick is to load a Sled with snow. pull it onto the ice, and spread it over the spot where you plan to fish.

"Ice heaves offer temporary edges, too," he says, "Large heaves in shallower lakes can be particularly good, but even in deeper water, walleyes have been found suspending near them."

Other microstructure Simpson seeks out to find walleyes in featureless lakes includes long stretches of shoreline, which draw baitfish and 'eyes into the shallows. "During twilight and at night, walleyes can be found searching for baitfish in the shallows, using the snort distance between ice and lake bottom to corral and catch baitfish

"Over the years," he continues. "I've found them cruising in as little as a foot of water. Other times, when the fish keyed on the zone some 25 to 50 yards from snore, they were still relating to shoreline."

Stealth is critical in skinny water. "Once or twice in the 30-odd years I've been ice fishing," he says, "the walleyes have been on such a chew that not even a carnival would have spooked them. But in most instances, they scatter if you're not careful." Simpson recommends predrilling holes several hours before the peak bite and being quiet as a mouse when walleyes are underfoot.

Also notable in the search for roamers are small, fertile bays connected to the main lake; bottom-content edges, such as sand meeting mud: current areas near inlets and within narrows; and the deepest part of the main basin, wherever large concentrations of forage are found.--Walleye In-Sider staff

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* TRACKING ROAMERS

(A) Ice heaves are always worth checking in lakes lacking much structure, especially large ridges in water 15 feet deep or less. (B) The deepest part of the main basin is a safe bet at first-ice. Where forage is abundant, use sonar to pinpoint specific depths at which baitfish are staging, and position your lures at the same level. (C) Investigate shallow shorelines during twilight hours. (D) Potential current areas such as lake inlets, outlets, and narrow waterways between two bodies of water attract fish at early- and late-ice. (E) Bays connected to the main lake are worth a look, too.

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BY DAVID A. ROSE *

* David A. Rose is a writer, photographer (davidarose.com), and fishing guide (wildfishing.com) who lives near Traverse City, Michigan.
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Author:Rose, David A.
Publication:Walleye In-Sider
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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