Many trends and mindsets that originate over the open water season eventually transform on to the ice scene. There was a time when walleye anglers had a hard time putting anything on a jig besides a shiner. Today, soft plastic and water soluble soft baits have traction with the walleye crowd. The soft plastic replacing live bait trend has slowly gained a foothold on the ice walleye world. Just like open water, soft plastics will never replace live bait but they are a great compliment and with certain situations and applications, work much better.
For ice anglers, many of the productive soft plastic options for walleye are merely tipping agents. Anglers are using lures where they traditionally tip the lure with either a minnow or minnow head. Now nothing smells or tastes as good as the real thing. What many ice anglers have discovered however is that tipping the lure with soft plastics in some cases adds a little flash, a little movement as the hook swings. If the lure is moving and the strikes are aggressive, anglers have discovered that the presentation doesn’t have to taste or smell good. The fish don’t get a chance to analyze. This is the key to fishing with soft plastics. Sticking a soft plastic perch eye or minnow head imitation below a slip bobber and letting the hook sit is not going to catch much. If you are going to just sit and wait, use live bait. If however you work the lure however and can analyze the response of the fish with electronics, soft plastics can work better than live bait. Heres why: Soft plastics are much more durable and in some cases have as good or better action.
So often, I just use a pinched off minnow head below spoons or swim lures. Reason I like the pinched off head is because I feel like my batting average is higher on hook sets. The fish come in on the lure and hit the lure. With just a minnow head, the hook is in the mouth of a fish. There are times when a full minnow will flop more and trigger fish that are a bit tougher and there are also times when fish want the larger profile of a whole minnow so it pays to experiment.
Situations where the fish want the lure pounded hard and want the lure moving are perfect situations to replace traditional live bait with soft plastics. When fish are smoking high lift fall flutter spoon presentations, when the walleyes are punching horizontal swim lures and spoons that are getting pounded, that is the time to experiment away from bait. Last winter, I had days on Devils Lake where I caught over twenty walleyes on one Impulse Perch Eye tipped onto a Buckshot Rattle Spoon. A bag of Impulse lasts me a week.
The reality is that these trends have been happening a long time in isolated regions for both perch and walleye. Bead spoons for example have long had a following for aggressive, shallow water walleyes on Great Lakes fisheries. The bead is just a touch of color, a little flash and the concept is similar to tipping an Impulse Perch Eye on to a Buckshot Rattle Spoon. A mistake many anglers make is thinking that “their fish” on the lakes they fish are not aggressive enough for these baitless presentations.
I have heard all the reasons. “Our lakes are tougher.” “That is just a Saginaw Bay thing or the walleyes on Devils Lake are much more aggressive.” “Red Lake walleyes will eat anything but our fish are harder.” There are truths to certain fisheries and ecosystems having specific traits that make them more or less conductive for certain presentations no doubt. Here is the other reality however that many anglers don’t understand. We often think of ourselves as adapting to the fish but the truth is fish also adapt to us. If we fish with finesse and assume the bite is going to be tough and fish for nonaggressive fish, we will find the non aggressive tough biters. If you don’t fish aggressively or at least give the fish that option at times, you will not see aggressive fish. Very rarely do you ever see an aggressive response from fish with passive presentations.
There are so many times where the fish want the lure moving, they lose interest if you back off the tempo or cadence. Electronics have taught us that. A pretty solid game plan is to start out with an aggressive presentation especially during prime time windows like sunrise and sunset or when fishing new water. Assume that there will be some aggressive fish and cover water to find them. Soft plastic options shine for this. Not only do you cover more water by fishing multiple holes but you also cover more water below the hole by working the lure in a fashion where it can be seen, felt and heard from greater distances. Soft plastics stay on the hook during this process.
There are times when these lures can and will catch fish without tipping at all. I have often had more luck with walleyes with Chubby Darters without tipping the lure. Rattle baits also work well without tipping. Traditional horizontal swim lures like Puppet Minnows and Jigging Raps can be fished with no bait. Spoons, especially flutter spoons can be worked without being tipped. On some western reservoirs in Montana, Wyoming and Colorado, anglers are catching walleyes ripping large flutter spoons like the PK Flutter Fish.
Fishing lures for ice time walleyes with no bait is a leap for some ice anglers. The soft plastic tipping options available to ice anglers today kind of bridge the two worlds. I think it is safe to say that most winter walleye anglers learned to fish with the traditional minnow and bobber routine, eventually graduating to tipping a minnow onto a spoon. The next leap is using a lure and trusting in the action of that lure to trigger fish. Now don’t think that one mindset is better or more advanced because that is a mistake some anglers make. By getting confident however with these different fishing styles, you will have another arrow in your quiver. There will always be times when an angler has to break out live bait but what will surprise many anglers is how often you don’t need live bait. What also surprises some anglers is just how much fun these walleye bites can be.