You ever wonder what a “Red River Catfish/Walleye Guide” does when the water turns stiff? Well, very often so do we, it is not the most favored time of year for a catfish guide in the Great White North. Alas, I have a cure for them hard river blues … ice fishing.
Once the ice becomes safe enough to venture out on I look for some walleye on the tributary arms associated with my home river, the Red River of the North. This early season bite can be good if you find the right tributary arm with some “hangin’ on” walleye, but it is often a short-lived bite.
Once that has petered out I head for the main Red and start my search for wintering areas that hold significant fish populations. This plan of attack is pretty simple really. Look for major migration obstructions, such as dams, and fade back from them. Eliminate deeper wintering holes one at a time selecting the best and deepest. In low flow years, such as we have this season, currents are light and water clarity is generally good. Under this situation the fish may wonder more then in high flow seasons making one wintering hole good today, then dead the next. Even so, experience has shown me the first few miles from the major fall migration barrier will still be the most productive region to concentrate on, if the forage is available. No forage, keep looking until you find some.
One last note. Walleye are not the only worthy fish wondering the local rivers under the ice. There are many other species one may target either for table fare, or just for the fun of catch and release. The catfish is one that is not often associated with ice fishing, yet they are very catch-able once located. With some 50 plus species of fish to target in the Red River of the North you have many options to explore. I have a great time targeting non-game species through the ice just for fun. I guess winter is not so bad after all? We all just need to get out and explore and make the best of it.
Forage is key, look for suspended fish in or around wintering areas. If the food is plentiful the walleye and other predatory fish will be near by someplace; you can count on that. Oxygen levels are seldom a factor on rivers so the fish can be very shallow or glued to the deep pan of the deepest hole. I always start looking shallow and work deep to target active fish, day or night.
River current should always be viewed as a key structural element. Much the same as you would view the topography of a lake basin. Faster currents will concentrate predators on the edges where they may conserve energy yet use the currents to their best advantage. This may be a snag pile structure, main currents in the channel, or backwaters where they may idle free of stress. Work the edges of the current much as you would a drop off on a lake. If you combine a solid land element, plus a current element, these areas are often the spot on the spot for walleye to hold on in rivers. A shear drop-off of a cut bank in a major wintering pool that offers a current break located at the head of the wintering hole would be a fine example of this. If you add a snag pile at the head of the hole to this scenario this would further offer protection from the flow, as well as cover for forage. Layering structural elements will up your odds significantly.
Presentations often key around current friendly jigs. Starting from less aggressive, to more aggressive jigging presentations, here are my basic choices to carry on river ice. An assortment of plain ball jigs, pill head style jigs, and Northland Whistler jigs in 3/8 to ½, for simple lift and drop deep pool jigging.
Heavy flash lures such as the KastMasters, Northland Rattle Spoon, or the “Angel Eye” spoon, all offer good flash and wobble in light to moderate currents. These work best when tipped with a whole or partial minnow as a scent option.
For more aggressive jigging a selection of blade baits such as the “Zip” Lure are very handy in most river conditions and prove to be very flasher friendly by remaining vertical more readily in currents. A scent option here is also recommended.
The larger 3D profile baits such as the Salmo “Chubby Darter”, Nil’s Master “Jigging Shad”, or “RattleTrap” style lures work well in slightly stained water or in low light conditions. The Rattletrap style lure is not often thought of as an ice lure option.
Although I have found it very productive when tipped with a scent option much the same as other vertical jigging option. The combination of flash and sound proves to call in fish from a long distance, very handy on murky rivers. They can be ripped aggressively or pounded to produce great attraction. The primary draw here is size, most hits are far more aggressive so bait tipping may or may not be a deciding factor in a strike. I feel the larger profile baits draw more spontaneous aggressive strikes and may often require no added bait. This is a reaction presentation suited for more aggressive fish.
You will notice I have not included any set-line options. This is because I feel mobility is key and eliminating unproductive water is done more often then not by vertical jigging presentations. You may opt to set up a tip-up or two with a rocker jig and a livebait once you have targeted a good area. Until you do, keep on the move, it will up your odds significantly.
Electronics on the ice has become a staple for the modern ice angler. On a river it may be even more critical then ever? Fish of all species may be almost anywhere in the water column on a river. I have found walleye suspended 10 feet down in 20 feet of water in the dead of winter. Without the aid of my electronics, a Vexilar FM1880, I would surely have missed that pattern.
Often due to the currents keeping your lure in the cone of the transducer is often a challenge. Flasher friendly lures on a lake may not be so friendly on a river. I have found that a gimble arm or an eyebolt mount to be better suited when using electronics on rivers. Float style transducer systems that hang in the hole tend to wonder about with the current, making lure acquisition difficult if not impossible. This complication lent me to choose the lures I recommended previously, as they tend to be more “flasher friendly” on rivers. You need to keep your presentation in the view of your flasher as much as possible to fish effectively. The dangle arm style transducer mount will help out dramatically with this acquisition and retention problem.