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Sunken treasure: endless success on offshore humps.

AS DARKNESS ENVELOPS A NORTHERN WALLEYE LAKE, TWO ANGLERS ARE WRAPPING UP AN EVENING OF FISHING. A LIMIT OF EATERS AND A COUPLE BIG-FISH RELEASES HAVE MADE FOR A GOOD AFTERNOON. ONLY PROBLEM IS, THE PAIR CAUGHT JUST TWO FISH IN THEIR FIRST THREE HOURS ON THE ICE, BEFORE A FLURRY OF TWILIGHT ACTION RAISED THE TRIP FROM A HO-HUM TO A NOTEWORTHY FISHING EXPERIENCE.

Where did they go wrong, at first?

After finding the top of structurally sound, 20-foot hump rising out of the main-lake depths, they fished only the summit without moving around to check the sides Lind surrounding deep water. Big mistake. Walleyes, you see, move more than most folks think, although they're generally related to structure to some degree. Eight levels, water clarity, and a plethora of other variables lead the fish to different depths at various times of the day.

By, being versatile and taking advantage of some of the electronic toys available, you can capitalize on everything humps have to offer all day long--and put more walleyes on ice in the process.

MINKE TRACKS

Humps--commonly referred to as bars or sunken islands--exist to varying degrees in most walleye waters. When conditions are right they offer fine winter fishing. And, while weekend warriors often strafe such structure, punching holes and plucking a fish here and there, few anglers take the time to thoughtfully pick humps apart, let alone form specific plans for exploring and fishing each formation.

My friend Dusty Minke, of Forest Lake, Minnesota, spent a few summers guiding on Lake of the Woods and now has parlayed his knowledge into success at the tournament level in the FLW Wal-Mart Walleye League. He makes the pilgrimage up to visit each winter and hits taught me a few tricks when it comes to catching walleyes on the big lake's humps.

One of my favorites is his system for mapping its structure. "Although walleyes may not be right on the edge of a hump," Minke says, "they're usually close to it, so the first thing I like to do when I pull up to a hump is make a track around the outside edge with a snow machine or ATV, using the lakemap on nay handheld GPS. This gives me a rough outline of where holes need to be drilled to cover all depths. While one angler augers, a buddy can follow, scoop out the slush, check depths with a flasher, and write the depth in the snow beside the hole with the scoop handle."

The resulting lakemap on ice makes it easy to visualize what's under your boots and form a plan for covering key areas. It's important to map out the breakline as well as the lop of the hump. Keep in mind that the sharpest breaks--where the bottom drops 5 to 15 feet or more in a horizontal span to 20 feet--serve as corridors for walleyes to move up from deep water. A steep incline surrounded by gradual tapers can be an expressway for fish commuting back and forth between depths and shallows, making the edge of the flat adjacent to this highway a must-fish area.

Like the top of a steep break, the base--where the drop-off levels out and a major basin shelf begins--is also a key zone of walleye activity. Known as a deep pivot point among In-Fisherman and Walleye In-Sider editors, it's often a high-percentage spot for active daytime .jigging, while tip-ups and livebait mind the store at the top of the hump. In deep lakes where the breakline bottoms out below a fishable depth, say 60 feet (yes, walleyes do hold deeper but are difficult to fish that far down), look for a shelf partway down the drop.

Walleye In-Sider contributor Cory Schmidt of Nisswa, Minnesota, has iced more than a few walleyes in his day and has his own game plan for attacking humps. "I almost always cheek the crown or shallowest portion of the hump first, regardless of time of day," he says. "I've been surprised in recent years by how frequently I've found hungry walleyes on top of structure, even at midday."

There's more to attacking a hump than that, of course, and Schmidt has an ice-busting plan for it. "I usually fish with a buddy," he says. "The two of us drill a network of holes, from the top of the sunken island all the way trot to the basin. One of us starts ill the shallow holes, fishing each one no more than two minutes unless fish appear, and gradually moves deeper. The other hits deeper water first--off the edge of the structure--looking for suspended fish, and moves progressively shallower.

"We continue this way until we find a pattern and focus on the key depths, or meet in the middle, having found no fish, and continue drilling on another portion of the hump. Or, we move to another spot altogether."

HOT ZONES

Since steep breaks may also funnel baitfish movements, walleyes sometimes hold on the side of the drop-of to ambush passing prey. But the break is a low-percentage bet in my book. I spend most of my time fishing Canadian Shield lakes; during winter, the largest numbers of walleyes are found on key flats on humps. Very seldom are the actual drop-offs into the basin the best spots to fish--instead, flats just above the edge are best. When I lower my sonar transducer into a hole and mark a broken bottom, or lower my jig to bottom and lose it on my flasher display (meaning, my jig falls two or three feet beyond "bottom" on the sonar), I reel up and move on. Such holes may produce a fish or two but are not likely to yield major action.

Both Minke and Schmidt agree that flats are typically the places to be. Minke spends most of his time fishing Minnesota's Mille Lacs Lake and has found that cloudy days produce the most action in such areas. "On sunny days fish relate to edges a lot more," he says. "When it's overcast I do a lot of hole-jumping on flats, and those are the days I catch the most fish. I've found fish on sunny days beyond the edge of the humps, in deeper water on basin flats, but it's a hit-or-miss deal."

Schmidt agrees. "Flats gather pods of feeding fish," he says. "Not to say you don't want a good drop-off. You do. Just that the edges seem to collect more fish if they're associated with a fairly broad shelf of uniform depth--say a 10- to 15-foot flat the size of a tennis court, bordered by a sharp drop into 20, 25, then 30-plus feet of water. Some evenings walleyes travel the edge only, but most nights they end up on the flat; so you may get a quick "edge bite" for 30 minutes or so before the fish scatter out to feed on the flat, where they can be further exploited."

Putting it all together then, a solid day-long plan for milking the most fish off any hump should include focusing on deep and shallow pivot points, along with the top of the flat, particularly during prime walleye feeding periods around dawn and dusk (longer on cloudy days or when deep snow limits light penetration).

These areas may produce fish at midday, but added attention should be devoted to searching for walleyes on the deep basin or suspended above it. I find that a 5-foot zone parallel to the top of the hump is usually the key depth for suspended fish. For example, if the sunken island you're fishing tops off at 20 feet, when you pull off the structure to look for suspended walleyes, chances are good most of the fish you find will be from about 18 to 23 feet beneath ice.

BITERS, NOT SNIFFERS

Walleyes on humps are almost always aggressive and catchable, and typically show more activity than fish found on large flats in the basin. I like moving from hole to hole with reaction baits like a Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon tipped with a minnowhead or a Rapala Jigging Rapstyle swimming lure.

I jig these baits aggressively to draw walleyes to my presentation. Once a fish appears on sonar, I usually stop jigging and just "hang" my bait above it. If I don't get a strike, I slowly move the show higher off bottom; if you can get walleyes to chase your bait up, they usually commit.

I like to use a 28-inch medium-action ice rod such as Northland's Trick-Stick Pro Angler TSP-28M, teamed with a Shimano Stradic 1500 spinning reel. The combo balances well. As for line, I almost always use some form of 8-pound braid mainline, a swivel, and a 15-inch leader of 10-pound fluorocarbon.

Minke likes to bounce from hole to hole, and confesses, "I pretend I'm in my tiller boat as I move from one to the next, looking for active fish. I almost always use a 1/4-ounce Northland Forage Minnow spoon, fished on 10/4 FireLine Crystal with a 3-foot, 6-pound fluorocarbon leader. The more holes you fish, the more water you cover and the more walleyes you ultimately catch."

Underwater cameras can reveal "key" spots on humps because they answer questions, such as why one flat or one side of a hump produces more than other areas. Schmidt doesn't necessarily use a camera on spots he knows well or when he's into a "whackfest," but he does look through the lens when exploring new territory. 'I almost always use a camera on spots I haven't fished before," he says. "I'm not really looking to see fish with it, but rather to gain a solid mental picture of the landscape--presence, size, and density of rocks; types and density of vegetation; forage; sharpness of the drop-off; and so on.

"Taking the time to prefish with a camera, especially midday when the bite is slow, makes me a more effective walleye angler," he explains. "I always fish more confidently then, with an accurate picture of the terrain above which I work my lures. Sometimes, too," he adds, 'I actually spot walleyes; and more often than you'd think, they're swimming up to 6 feet off bottom. If you don't see this for yourself, it would be easy to fish below them and come up empty."

MAKE IT HAPPEN

When you hit the humps this winter, don't get into a rut by just drilling a few holes on the summits, camping out, and taking what you get. Put together a plan of attack for each sunken treasure, and ice more walleyes on every trip.

STRUCTURAL SAVVY

NOT ALL STRUCTURE IS CREATED EQUAL, and humps are no exception. Following are a few key points to consider, when scanning a hydrographic map and deciding which spots to fish first.

Size--Yes. it matters. The bigger the sunken island (or point), the more forage and walleyes it generally attracts.

Shape--Humps with large, relatively fiat crowns provide more feeding opportunities than sharply pointed structure. Also note that some of the best humps offer a fish-attracting shallow shelf near the upper tip of a drop-off. Also look at the break itself: Does it level off onto a basin of fishable depth of, say, 60 feet (or at least offer some type of secondary shelf partway down) to which walleyes can relate? Ideally, it should. If the base or secondary shelf is in close horizontal proximity to the upper lip, so much the better. In other words, look for sharp drops connecting these two prime zones of contact.

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Location--Does the hump rise from or extend into the deeper portion of the lake? If so, good. Walleyes like proximity to deep water in winter. While the deep basin adjacent to the hump doesn't have to be the deepest portion of the lake, it should be notably large and still comparatively deep.

Composition--This can be tough to tell by looking at a map, but sonar returns or a quick peek with an underwater camera can confirm what a sunken island is made of. Rocks, especially on an otherwise smooth substrate, ate always worth checking. Conversely, sterile sand with little in the way of invertebrates or baitfish typically attracts few walleyes. In an ideal world, the hump has a combination of bottom types such as rock, gravel, and sand, along with some weedgrowth.--Walleye In-Sider staff

COUNTERPOINT Making the Case for Points

HUMPS OR SUNKEN ISLANDS with the right features ("Structural Savvy") offer undeniable potential for holding winter walleyes, but rank only second in Walleye In-Sider's playbook to shoreline-connected structure--namely, points.

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"A key thing I've noticed in classic Shield lakes," says Gord Pyzer, In-Fisherman Field Editor and Walleye In-Sider confidante from Northwest Ontario, "is that island and mainland points reign supreme under the ice. Other times of year, these long, rocky fingers compete with reefs, bars, humps, and saddles. But in winter they lead the walleye hit parade.

"It's not that you can't find walleyes moving onto the other structures, because you can. But you can also fish a dozen bars, shoals, reefs, and humps that produce well in the open-water in winter. A good open-water point, on the other hand, is routinely better during winter," he says.

"I suspect it's a miniaturization of what we see on big lakes like Erie, Ontario, and Huron, where walleyes make late-fall treks toward their springtime spawning areas, following breaklines," says Pyzer. "On smaller inland walleye waters, the same albeit much more subtle movements occur. That's why, when you find a rock-rubble shoreline spawning shoal, you often find walleyes staging all winter long off the nearest points."

Fishing pressure is a wild card, of course. When an otherwise sweet shoreline point gets pounded by the masses, you're better off looking for secondary points--and yes, isolated sunken islands--Walleye In-Sider staff

BY JEFF GUSTAFSON *

* Jeff Gustafson (807/466-7102) is a guide, competitive angler, and outdoor writer from Kenora, Ontario.
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Author:Gustafson, Jeff
Publication:Walleye In-Sider
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Feb 1, 2009
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