A mistake I have made in the past when ice fishing structure deep is relying too much on the contour line on the map charts. What is more important than any contour is the transition between one type of bottom structure and another. This could be an edge where gravel meets mud, or where large boulders transition to smaller rock. By midwinter on many bodies of water, walleye location can often trend towards offshore structure and, in many cases, deep structure. With the advent of map chips, more anglers are discovering and fishing these locations. This edge is often where it is at for finding offshore walleye. Sometimes the transition lines up with a contour, but so often it does not. When it does not, you end up focusing your attention on the wrong contours and miss the mark.
For example, when ice fishing on reefs that have really large boulders on the top of the structure, I often watch anglers bop onto the top of the spot and drill a few holes because their map shows structure. So often with really large boulders, the fish don’t position directly above the boulders, but are often riding the sides or slots between boulders. If you just fish the very top of the structure, you miss those fish. Often where those big boulders transition to smaller rock is the sweet spot.
When open water fishing, it is easier to find the sweet spots, because your presentation will tell you. You hover across a spot and suddenly start hitting big rock with your jig and learn the location that much better. With ice fishing, especially with no prior experience on a location, determining the transitions can be much more difficult. So often, bottom composition can be fleeting where a band of rock or gravel is unpredictable. The change in composition might cut perpendicular or across the contour line instead of following it. So often on deep reefs with rock, big rocks are often near small rocks, but are the larger rocks on top of the structure or the sides? Knowing exactly what is below you beyond what the map chip tells you will make you a much better walleye angler.
One obvious way to learn more about the structure you are ice fishing is to fish the location from a boat and learn the location, even saving some way points. Another option is to drop down an underwater camera. I don’t use underwater cameras a lot when I am actually walleye fishing, as it is slower to hop around and so often the best bite is low light where you can’t see anything, but what a camera is really good for is getting a better understanding of what you are fishing when the sun is high. I can’t tell you how many times I had a mental picture in my head of a particular location, only to drop the camera down to find out I didn’t really know as much as I though I did.
Another trick I like to do when fishing from hole to hole is turn up the range on my Vexilar so that I am on the sixty or eight foot scale. Turn your scale up on Normal Mode so that you can watch the intensity of the second and third echoes change. Most bottoms will reveal a second echo and most bottoms, where the first echo is, will look red. When you get over rock and larger rock especially, the intensity of the red in the second and third echo will really light up. By watching the second and third echo, you can find where bottom compositions change and by drilling enough holes, you can land on the edges.
Why are the edges so important? Because walleyes are often not as random on this type of structure. What you will find is that a large majority of the fish will slide up on a location from a specific direction and they will often take the exact same routes as they move. I have watched one angler smack several fish on one side of a large boulder for example while an angler nearby on the other side of the same rock saw nothing. There might indeed be fish scattered across a particular piece of structure, but the fish will often be the most concentrated and show the highest traffic on specific parts of the structure that correlate with an edge. Tuning these locations can often mean the difference between seeing a few fish and running into several.
With large boulders for example, I am often the most successful focusing on the edges versus going right in them when I am ice fishing. Rocks also don’t have to be very large, as big rocks are relative. I love fishing around large boulders for big fish, but some other great locations could be where small rock or rubble transitions into mud. Could be a band of gravel that intersects sand. Walleyes are very similar to whitetail deer in how they often use edge habitat. Most of the time, how these transitions lay out trumps depth contour. In other words, fish will relate to an edge that is the result of a change in bottom composition over a change in depth.
When you really learn a location and get a lot of confidence in what you are fishing, what also happens is that you can maximize your time by spending the majority of your time in the sweet spots and wait out fish movements. You know that when a pod of fish cruises through a specific location, there is a very high probability that they will swim under you. With walleye fishing, this can be so important because most of the windows where we catch fish are when the fish make a move. When they are cruising and alert, they are easier to catch. When this activity revolves around sunrise and sunset, you might not have a lot of time to look through the entire spot and fish a lot of holes before the window of opportunity expires. That is why sitting over the exact right location can be so crucial.
When you are fishing this winter, look past the contour lines and get a more intimate understanding of the structure you are fishing along with how fish are moving across and relating to that structure and I am confident that you will catch more walleye from these types of locations this season. Imagine scouting out deer with just a contour map. Now imagine scouting out an area with an aerial photo and a contour map. By putting in the work to really fine tune bottom compositions and focusing on edges, you end up finding the right place at the right time much more.
By Jason Mitchell