Dave Genz on Big-Water Walleyes

by Mark Strand

He’s been everywhere, man…he’s been everywhere. Travel? He’s done his share, man, Dave’s been everywhere…Erie, Ontario, Michigan, Huron, Bay of Quinte, Bass Islands, Saginaw Bay, Bays de Noc, Green Bay…yeah, he’s been everywhere, man, he’s been everywhere…

-It’s not one of those things they keep statistics on, so we really don’t know whether anybody else has done it, or tried to, or would even want to. But assuming we get some fishable ice this winter on Lake Superior, Dave Genz will catch a walleye from its waters, and he will have caught at least one walleye through the ice on every one of the Great Lakes.

It didn’t start out as a quest. Dave’s travels just took him onto the frozen surface of Great Lake after Great Lake until he got to looking through his pictures one day and realized he had done it, with the exception of Superior, the closest one to his house.

The Great ones are not the only large systems he’s fished for walleyes, so we have also come to realize that he’s piled up a lot of experience fishing iced-over walleyes on a wide variety of big waters. No matter how much we know about fish movements and behavior under the ice, there’s still a lot that we don’t know, so Dave’s real-life experiences can help all of us. After all, a lot of you live close to big waters, and like to fish walleyes, so we asked Dave for some tips on finding and catching big-water walleyes.

Find them First

We’re not going to publish a list of GPS coordinates, or tell you to look in that big weed bed over by the bouldery bar behind the island on Lake Erie. There will always be micro location and macro location, and we will concentrate, as usual, on principles and let you find your own spots.

Walleyes in the winter on big lakes “seem to show up in spawning areas early,” says Genz.

“It’s not the whole lake you search. It’s the bays and the river mouths, the same places you’d fish in the spring. The fish tend to move out of the main lake and into areas where they’re going to be when the ice goes away.”

-Knowing that “eliminates acres, heck, square miles of water,” laughs Genz. “On Lake Ontario, for example, a lot of fish move into the Bay of Quinte in the winter. Everybody who lives there knows that, but there are similar things going on in other Great Lakes. On Lake Michigan, it’s Little and Big Bay de Noc. In Lake Huron it’s Saginaw Bay and the Saginaw River. And yes, in cold years, those big rivers around the Great Lakes do ice up and provide ice fishing, but you have to be very careful about the ice conditions.

“On Lake Superior, it’s Chequamegon Bay and the St. Louis River. In Lake Erie it’s the shallower parts of the western basin, like around the Bass Islands.”

Ice conditions on any Great Lake should be trusted about like you’d trust a pickpocket at the county fair. Ice conditions should be thought of as shifting and unsure, but the great fishing is a reward for those who travel carefully when conditions are good.

“Pressure ridges are a big deal, especially when they occur over featureless basins,” says Genz, who wrote the first articles ever on the magic of fishing around pressure ridges a few years back. “I grew up fishing pressure ridges on Mille Lacs. It’s the ridge that concentrates the food supply, and that pulls in walleyes.”

It’s never a good idea to try to drive over pressure ridges, but you can walk up and fish the near zone of influence around them.

On Presentation

One important thing Genz has learned while fishing the basins of the Great Lakes is that shifting sands on the bottom create fairly deep ‘dunes’ that can hide walleyes from your Vexilar display. These same fish will show up on an Aqua-Vu underwater viewing system, making ‘the camera’ a great tool for diagnosing these bites.

“In those sandy bays, the bottom definitely can set up in a series of wavy ridges,” says Genz. “The fish can be down in those little depressions, and they become almost impossible to pick up on your depthfinder. I’ve learned to fish closer to the bottom if I don’t see fish.

“You get those dead zones on a sonar display, and then we’re all guilty of raising up our hook so we can see it separated from the bottom signal. If you do that, you can be fishing up too high, above the level the fish are willing to come up and bite.”

Current is also a fact of life on many days on the Great Lakes. Your lure, which would normally show up easily on a Vexilar screen, gets pulled to the side, in a dead zone where you can’t see it. Genz has learned to move his transducer ‘downstream,’ by either drilling another hole for it or letting it read through the ice if conditions allow.

“When you get your transducer directly over the bait,” he says, “and you can see it near the bottom, and you see fish down there, you’re back in business. Once you know the fish are down there, you fish harder, and it seems like you’re able to catch more fish.”

-Great Lakes walleyes, like fish anywhere, can become tuned in to their predominant food source. It can be important to obtain that type of food and offer it to them. For example, the boys struggled a bit one time on Lake Erie until they got some emerald shiners and put one on all three hooks of a treble that was attached to a jigging spoon. It looked goofy but it worked, a presentation the locals had been using for some time.

That’s not to say that other things won’t produce.

“On that same trip,” remembers Dave, “there were some guys from Janesville, Wisconsin, who spotted our Fish Traps and came over to talk to us. They ended up sitting and fishing by us, and they caught as many fish as we did, on a much smaller presentation. Refinements in the presentation can be a big thing when the fish are not on, but when they turn on it’s probably not as important as just getting something down there where they are.”

When fishing daytime walleyes, which Dave typically does, it often takes precision presentation placement to produce. Walleyes often move through feeding areas like a pack of hungry wolves at peak periods like sunrise and sunset, but at midday they can be more sluggish and harder to trigger.

“They’re never far from their food source, though, even during the middle of the day,” says Dave. “They might not be chasing a meal around the clock, but they’ll bite if you get a bait down into their strike zone. That’s another reason to stay mobile and keep looking for fish that will bite. During the daytime hours, you have to get the bait right on top of them a lot of times.”

If you fish a given area enough to know where some prime spots are during the prime-time bite, mobility sometimes takes a back seat to being seated. It can be more important to have holes drilled a half-hour early and be sitting there jigging when the fish show up.

Whatever you do, make sure the holes you drill go all the way through to the water below. Great Lakes produce impressive amounts of ice, huge sheets that sometimes shift and pile on top of each other, creating thickness beyond the length of mortal ice augers.

“One time on Saginaw Bay,” says Dave, “we were fishing pressure ridges. I drilled this hole, cleaned it all out, set up the Fish Trap, and went to drop my lure down. It was weird; I couldn’t get the lure drop all the way down. My bail was open on the reel, but it would go so far and just lay there. I figured out what was going on. There was another layer of ice below the one I had drilled through.”

When Genz flops that first Lake Superior walleye onto the ice this winter, he will probably become the first person to ice one out of every Great Lake. But he doesn’t care whether he is not, or whether he remains the only one to ever accomplish the feat.

“I hope somebody comes up to me and says they’ve done it, too,” says Dave. “I’d like to talk to that person.”

Winter Fishing Systems, Inc 2019