by Daniel Kiazyk

This past winter, I had what I feel was one of my most unique experiences ice fishing… period. I had the chance to watch fish through an 8 or 10 inch hole as though I was watching television. In the process I saw components of fish behaviour that at once surprised and at once supported what I knew or had read about different fish species.

Initially, it should be said that Clear Lake (the lake I was fishing) in the Riding mountains is unlike most prairie lakes. It is ultra clear, at once very deep, and relatively infertile. The lake because of its depth is very cool throughout the whole year. Reports of lake trout inhabiting its depths are often made. Whether or not the population is in good shape, no one really knows. The lake however has a healthy population of pike and whitefish. The three prior species are native.

Walleye on the other hand are a non-native species to the lake. They were introduced to the lake because of their popularity amongst cottage goers and visiting fisherman. In their "hay day" walleye grew to sizeable proportions and many trophy sized fish were caught. A change in park policy, in particular the "back to nature policy" in Canada's National parks meant they were no longer not really welcome in the lake. The Fish however did spawn to a certain extent. However, it was felt by many that after the blocking of South lake (an adjacent body of water which flows into the lake on higher water years), walleye would have no place to go and spawn – hence their eventual demise.

Unknown to many was the fact that some walleye still spawned and the population held on. To help it even further the blocked south lake was once again opened which meant the walleye would have a place to spawn and spawn they evidently did!

My own experience on this lake has been limited, but as I mentioned earlier I became a student of the walleye of this lake this past year when I put in a little more time on the lake. In particular I spent a good 8 weeks (at least three times a week) watching Clear lake walleyes and their antics beneath the ice. What did I see?

Firstly I saw much of the behaviour you would read about in articles about walleye. There was however behaviour you'd have to see to believe. In general, I'd say that much of what I've read is true, but with a few kinks. The kinks are probably as a result this particular lake and its own particular character.

A) Walleye do approach a bait in a number of different "moods" I use the word "moods" to describe walleye behaviour in relation to my bait. The most common mood was to move in at a steady rate quickly inhale the bait and move away. If a fish missed the bait, it would return most often for another "try" at the bait . Many of the walleye that would move in on my bait and miss would lurk around for a number of cracks at my bait. It should be mentioned that the jigs that I was using were made of bismuth or steel as the Park has a no-lead policy. Moreover the park does not allow for any minnows or fish parts to be used as bait worms or leeches are permitted but both were not used as a bait. Rather my most effective bait was to use a plain white rubber tail.

B) Two other moods prevailed; One was super aggressive and the other very tentative. The aggressive fish would come in on a bait gills flaired or they would attempt to pin the jig against the bottom. It was interesting to see these fish take the lure not so much with an inhaling motion, but with an open and closed mouth in motion. Seeing pike in the same lake attack a lure on many occasions I had often though I'd seen a pike attack my offering. Walleye do attempt to pin jigs against the bottom and thus on occasion they would be hooked under their chin…I guess that explains why on some occasions I had seen walleyes caught in this manner. The less aggressive biters would come in on a book in a slow and deliberate fashion. Many of these fish would swim by the hook to have a look at it, (almost putting their eye to the lure) these fish were also famous for swimming below or beside the bait. If a bite was in the offing, these fish would literally suck the water in front of the lure or they would clamp the lure in their tip of their mouth and would just sit there (quite thrilling but at the same time really frustrating) This scenario would often end with the fish dropping the bait like a dog dropping a bone.

C) The majority of the fish who were interested in my lures were prowling the bottom two feet of water. However, when I would raise a lure up just below the ice, the odd walleye would come in and bite the lure. Regular and consistent motion in the bottom two feet of the water column seemed to be key to drawing these first in the have a look at the hook. When some fish would come in, at first, I would stop the bait. This however would have the fish make a sudden halt and then move off to the side. If you left the jig still the fish would not usually come back to bite, but if you put action back into it they would return. Changing rhythm seemed to be more effective than not moving the jig, but regular movement (lift, fall) would draw the majority of the action. Some extreme action followed by stopping the jig in an intermittent cycle was also an effective technique used to draw fish in. However, the largest majority of bites would occur when the jig was moving (on the down stroke in most of those cases!) and it appeared that many fish timed their bite to hit the jig on the down stroke.

There was nothing really new in the behaviour describe above. In fact some of the behaviour I saw was effected by elements such as cold, fronts, amount of light, duration of a warm front, onset of a change in weather etc, etc. However, I did see some other interesting behaviour…

i) First there was that fish which just couldn't get the bite right. The same fish hit my hook at least five times before getting fed up and leaving the area. Some fish just can't get it right! Sounds familiar eh!

ii) Secondly, there were those fish who were so aggressive they would plow into the bottom, fill their mouths with mud/muck and then back up, clean up, and try again. At one point, I decided to see how long this would continue by moving the bait away from the fish before it would strike. Well these fish would take at last three more swipes at my hook before they would finally pin my jig against the bottom. Try, try again, sooner or later these walleye would succeed. Perhaps as one friend put it they're not the deadly predators they're made out to be..more like they're very determined predators.

iii) Thirdly there was a fish so aggressive that it had to have my jig at all costs (a very aggressive fish). I would drop the jig to the bottom as the fish would come in on attack. Finally the fish would slow down before coming right in on the lure and it was evident the fish had its eye on the bait; the fish went so far as to swim at a slight angle 20 degrees on its side to see the jig lying on the lake bottom! Finally as I went to pick up a sandwich the fish nailed my jig – seeing its reaction prior to the bite was worth every minute of the fight that ensued. What can I say I saw something unique.

iv) Finally the most bizarre fish incident was a fish which came in very slowly near the end of the season (I would have expected more aggression but the fish stopped in front of my offering and started moving its mouth drawing water in and expelling it. The fish did this for about twenty seconds and proceeded to move past the bait all the while continuing to inhale and expel water. Maybe the fish was "tasting" the water around the bait, ultimately refusing to eat the bait. I'm not so sure but maybe the fish had a recent encounter with a similar bait or maybe the fish was exhausted or not really interested in eating the bait: Who knows?

Am I going back to observe again next winter… yes I wouldn't miss it for a minute. Have a learned something about walleye behaviour, without a doubt Yes. Can I learn more you bet and I'll probably continue to learn so long as "eye " can see clearly.