Feb 10, 2018

Tippin’ the Shallows

By: Adam Walton

As a kid, some of my best memories of ice fishing involved someone yelling “Flag” and racing off to a red cloth waving in the sky.  I didn’t know a lot about walleye and pike behavior back then, but I did know this whole ice fishing thing was awesome.  I had the opportunity to learn a lot over the following years from many different people…but none more important than my grandpa.  Although some things have changed since then, two things remain the same.  I still get jacked up every time a flag pops and I never overlook shallow water.  It’s absolutely amazing how many walleye and pike roam these areas throughout the ice season, but it’s even more amazing how eager they are to bite.  In order to have success though, it helps to understand a few things prior to setting up in these areas. 

Let’s first discuss gear.  As stated before, we target game fish, so we’re mainly talking walleye and pike.  Having the correct equipment is crucial when chasing these species of fish.  Just like fishing rods, quality and durability should be a high priority when purchasing items.  There are many tip-up brands on the market, but nothing compares to a good old Beaver Dam.  Beaver Dam tip-ups are made here in Wisconsin by ACME Tackle and their quality components are what set them above the rest.  The “freeze proof” spool and smoothness of its spinning motion are a must when looking to increase hook up percentage.  The less resistance a fish feels, the less likely they are to drop the bait.  Beaver Dam tip-ups have been around for a long time and have a reputation of putting fish on the ice for this very reason. That being said, it’s important to ensure your spools are operating properly and to apply appropriate tip-up grease, if needed.  For newer Beaver Dams, checking the grease is a simple procedure of removing a set screw located on the inside of the spool and slipping it off.  For older Beaver Dams, checking the spool grease can be a little more involved since they are held on by solder, which is located on the bottom.  Heat up the solder enough to remove the spool, lube up, and resolder when finished.  Be careful not to overheat when reapplying solder, as this could make the cold weather grease runny.

When it comes to the main tip-up line, we use Beaver Dam #25 lb. braided super wax ice line.  Of course hand-winding line onto the spool works just fine, but using a cordless drill with the chuck tightened onto the “T” of the tip-up’s main assembly is a more efficient way to line up your spool.   When using a cordless drill, be sure to maintain a slow, but consistent speed and keep the proper amount of tension on the line as it spools.  

For targeting shallow water pike specifically, we use two different styles of leaders.  The first is a 15” Beaver Dam #30 lb. Liquid Steel leader, which comes with a #6 treble hook pre-attached.  Hooking a blacktail chub or large shiner minnow upside down is a simple trick that helps keeps the bait lively.  Minnows do not like being upside down and will struggle in attempts to right themselves.  This motion and the smaller profile leader can be good when pike are finicky.  It’s not uncommon to catch some larger walleye with this setup as well.  The second style of leader we use for pike is Northland Tackle’s “Predator Rig.”  Made to hold large live bait, such as 6”-10” suckers, this steel “Y” type rig has dual leaders and treble hooks with added attractor blades to help lure fish. This is a good choice when pike are acting fairly aggressive. We typically set out a combination of single Liquid Steel rigs and Predator Rigs.  This way the fish can tell us what is preferred and we can adjust accordingly.  Steel leaders obviously have some weight associated with them, so we forego adding any more weights to the line.  The lack of a lead sinker will allow the bait to move more freely in the water and help keep it from tiring while swimming.  

For shallow water walleye, we change things up a bit.  Instead of a steel leader, tip-ups are rigged with 15” Beaver Dam #8 lb. fluorocarbon leaders.  The decreased profile and visibility are key in getting more walleye bites.  We bait the hooks with 3” to 4” minnows and use the smallest weight possible to keep them near the bottom.  Again, using the least amount of weight will help keep the minnows from tiring, but will still allow bait to remain down in a walleye’s strike zone.

Moving on to location, there are some important factors to look at when choosing an area to setup.  It’s no secret that fish like cover, so shallow areas, near or directly in weedbeds, are ideal during first ice.  For pike, cover seems most important, however, with walleye, bottom composition can also play a factor.  Ideally, we try to locate spots with both cover and the sand or gravel bottom walleye prefer.  Many times, the first ice is clear enough to see what‘s below.  In these cases, look for open pockets or channels running through the weeds.  These natural highways are perfect locations to place tip-up sets.  If you are unable to see through the ice, underwater cameras can play a huge roll in locating prime spots.  After drilling each hole, we use our Aqua-Vu micro cameras to pan the area.  Holes that look promising are marked with 2’ tall PVC pipe before moving on to drill more.  Given that excessive noise in shallow areas can increase the likelihood of spooking fish, we’ve found it best to drill extra holes right away so we can quickly and quietly move tip-ups out of unproductive locations and into new spots if needed.  

Lastly, shallows can be the first to freeze up and lure many of us out of our in-between season’s coma, however, as with any ice fishing scenario, safety is priority.  Springs can lead to deceiving ice thickness, so please use extra caution in these areas.  Even though the water may not be deep, getting wet can cause hypothermia, which can be just as fatal as drowning.  Always let someone know where you plan to fish and try to travel with a partner if possible.  Ice picks and a throw rope are low cost items that take up little space...buy them and carry them.

Later in the season, as the ice becomes thicker and snow covers the lake, weeds will begin to die off.  When this occurs, large quantities of dying weeds may disrupt the dissolved oxygen. If oxygen levels are significantly disrupted, fish can obviously be pushed out of these locations. If it appears fish have left a shallow area with heavy weed cover, all is not lost.  Although some may retreat to deeper water, other fish will stay shallow and find areas with nearby inlets or springs. Inlets and springs can help maintain sufficient oxygen levels throughout the ice season, which can attract all sizes of fish.  Inlets are easy to find, however a little trial and error, along with a lot of moving, may be required to find springs holding fish.  

For late season pike in particular, shallow bays that transition into marsh can be very productive.  Pike spawn soon after the ice leaves and prefer thick vegetation habitat like marsh grass.  Although oxygen levels in the thick vegetation may not be ideal during late ice, the adequately oxygenated bays close by will still hold fish while they “stage” for the spawn. 

Tip-up fishing shallow water can offer great fishing opportunities.  Although I’m much older and a lot heavier, a popped flag is still something I’ll run after.  That kid in me still lives, and the excitement of landing a possible trophy fish never gets old.  Good luck this season and please be safe.