Mark Melnyk looked like a troubled man with the weight of the world on his shoulders. The popular host of the World Fishing Network’s Reel Road Trip was standing at the entrance to his Kenora, Ontario, hotel when I drove up to meet him. Why the gloomy expression? I wondered.
“Gord, we’ve been on the road for weeks now,” Melnyk told me after jumping into my truck, “and we’ve yet to film with anyone who’s catching fish through the ice.”
“Smile,” I said. “Your luck’s about to change.”
And change it did. By the end of the day on Lake of the Woods, Melnyk, my buddy Ryan Haines and I had caught and released so many whitefish we lost count. We also hauled up a score of plump walleye and pudgy perch while the sun was setting—all with the camera rolling. And never mind the giant laker that broke Melnyk’s line, or the other two that raced across our sonar screens chasing our baits.
Suffice to say, the TV host left town the next morning with a giant smile across his face, a great show in the can and a newfound respect for running-and-gunning. As Melnyk discovered, there’s no better way to beat the winter doldrums than to hit the ice running. If you’ve also been having a hard time on the hardwater, just follow this comprehensive guide and you, too, can enjoy great results this season-complete with a giant smile across your face.
As the name implies, a good part of the running-and-gunning game in winter is covering plenty of water or, more precisely, ice. It also entails fishing at the right place at the right time. I usually fish for whitefish, lake trout, pike and crappie at first light, while reserving my best walleye and pike locations for last light in the afternoon. Throughout the rest of the day, I concentrate on crappie, lake trout, whitefish and yellow perch. By the time I head home, it’s not uncommon for me to have fished a dozen or more locations. And at each spot, I regularly drill 15, 20 or even 25 or more holes.
Where exactly you drill the holes at each new location is just as important. Specifically, you want to cover all the variables and depth options. For example, if you’re fishing a large, extended underwater point, you’ll want to drill some holes over the shallow top of the point, out near the very tip, and along the two sloping sides.
The worst thing you could do is to simply drill a dozen or more holes over the same part of the structure or the same depth of water. By covering a variety of options instead, you have a far better chance of discovering where the fish are. For example, if you find the fish in 27 feet of water off the tip of a point, that’s where you should start to concentrate your efforts and drill more holes.
Along with checking out a variety of depths and structures, you also need to adopt a power approach to your fishing, rather than a finesse presentation. Now, I’ll be the first to acknowledge I may end the day fishing more slowly and methodically than when I first began it, but I never start out that way. Take last winter, for instance, when three friends and I spent three days filming an ice-fishing television show on Manitoba’s Lake Winnipeg.
True to our run-and-gun style, we hit a dozen or more spots every day-often driving our four-wheel-drive trucks beyond the sight of shore-and drilled scores of holes at each location. We were targeting the lake’s fabled giant greenback walleye, and we usually left an area looking like a block of Swiss cheese. Not once did we start out using a light jig tipped with a minnow, the way many walleye anglers would attack a spot.
Instead, we would begin by jigging flash spoons—such as the Williams Ice Jig, Lindy Viking Spoon, Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon and Blue Fox Tingler Jigging Spoon—tipped with minnow heads. Or, we’d start with large Rapala Jigging Raps and Jigging Shad Raps or Northland Puppet Minnow Jigs. If we failed to immediately catch fish, or at least spot them on our sonar units, that’s when we’d resort to a finesse presentation and slowly jig and deadstick jig heads tipped with minnows. We scored well with this latter approach, but just as often we whacked the daylights out of the walleye using our initial power presentations.
When we did get action right off the bat while on Lake Winnipeg, we’d get even more forceful. Specifically, local walleye guru Roger Stearns showed me an aggressive power presentation I’d never seen before-at least not to the degree of wizardry that he has perfected it.
Stearns starts by drilling two holes about six feet apart. Then he lowers a jig tipped with a salted minnow down one hole using a light-tipped deadstick rod. When the jig is hanging a foot or so off the bottom, he lays the rod across a pail so the lithe tip is hanging over the hole, ready to signal a strike.
In the second hole, meanwhile, Stearns drops down a lipless crankbait-the same kind of lure you’d use in open water for bass, pike and lake trout-and lets it fall to within a foot of the bottom. He then aggressively rips the crank vertically, lifting it up two to three feet before pausing and letting it fall back down. Then he rips it again.
And when I say Stearns rips the lure, trust me, he tears the living bejabbers out of it. He works it so aggressively you can hear it shaking, rattling and rolling down near the bottom through four feet of ice and snow. Talk about waking up the neighbourhood.
And wake up the neighbourhood he did: I was amazed at the number of walleye that chased the bait. One minute the sonar screen would be blank, and the next you could see fish roaring after the lure. About 20 per cent of the time, the walleye clobbered the aggressive presentation; the rest of the time, they chased the noisy crankbait until they spotted the nearby stationary jig-and-shiner combination and inhaled it instead. It was a deadly one-two knockout power punch.
When Mark Melnyk and I were filming his Reel Road Trip segment on Lake of the Woods last winter, we adopted a similar power presentation to ripping cranks. Instead of dropping down tiny baits on ultralight line, assuming the whitefish would be lying tight to the bottom with their mouths closed, we got forceful. We ripped heavy three- and four-inch Williams Ice Jigs, Lindy Viking Spoons and Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoons faster than you’d jig for aggressive lake trout.
The key to this tactic is to pause at the top of the jigging motion, as well as after you let the lure fall back down. We also kept our baits well above the whitefish, forcing them to come flying up 20 feet or more off the bottom if they wanted to eat our lures.
Were we successful? Let me simply say that Melnyk landed six gorgeous whitefish before the cameraman had even warmed up the equipment. Eight hours, a half-dozen spots and 100-plus ice holes later, Melnyk, Ryan Haines and I had caught and released more fish than we could remember. Then, as the sun was setting, we decided to make one last snow machine run to a favourite walleye and yellow perch spot.
We timed it perfectly. Haines was the first to connect with a beautiful six-pound walleye, while I was consumed with landing a steady stream of jumbo perch. Melnyk, meanwhile, was grinning from ear to ear as he started catching and releasing nice, eating-sized walleye. Eventually, though, he had to get back to work. In the dying daylight, with his cameraman in stride, he walked over to where I was kneeling to wrap up the day’s action.
No sooner had Melnyk asked me the closing question for the segment than I spotted a walleye racing across my sonar screen to chase down my lure. I felt the thump, watched my rod tip double over, set the hook hard and reeled up a plump, golden walleye—a fitting finish to a perfect day of running-and-gunning.