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Brad Dokken / Forum News Service, Published February 24 2013

Run-and-gun approach puts walleyes on the Lake Winnipeg ice

On Lake Winnipeg, Man. - Jason Hamilton had just spent the day drilling through about 200 feet of ice and admitted he was ready to pop an Advil or three.

Fair trade, Hamilton said, because the 50-plus holes he bored through nearly 4 feet of very hard Lake Winnipeg water likely had meant the difference between catching walleyes and not catching walleyes on this February day.

Given the choice, Hamilton will take catching over not catching every time, even if it means a stiff back and sore arms. No wonder he’s making a name for himself in ice fishing circles on both sides of the border.

“The key out here is to just be willing to work,” Hamilton, 32, of Winnipeg, said. “If you don’t catch any fish or mark any fish, move on in five or 10 minutes. If you don’t mark any fish in an area when you’ve drilled 15 or 20 holes in a fair-sized area, move a couple of miles.”

A biologist for the federal Department of Fisheries and Oceans, Hamilton spends his summers studying whales and walruses in the Canadian Arctic. He calls the job “immensely interesting,” but says he still gets more excited about fishing.

Come winter, that’s what he does, plying the frozen surface of Lake Winnipeg as a part-time fishing guide when he’s not in the office. Hamilton also is a member of the “Ice Team,” a cadre of some of North America’s top ice fishermen working to promote ice fishing on behalf of the Clam Corp., the Minnesota-based maker of the Clam and Fish Trap series of portable shelters.

Lake Winnipeg, Hamilton says, is gaining a well-deserved reputation as one of the hottest ice fishing destinations in North America. The big lake’s walleyes – called “greenbacks” for their iridescent bluish-green backs and pale flanks – frequently tip the scales at 10 pounds and more.

The challenge, Hamilton says, is knowing where to begin because there’s so much water to cover and very little structure to hold fish. Lake Winnipeg, at nearly 9,500 square miles, is the 10th-largest lake in the world.

“Expect to be intimidated at first,” said Hamilton, who moved to Winnipeg from his hometown of Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., about five years ago. “You come off land and look and you can’t see anything else other than a few shacks all concentrated in one area.

“The tendency is to get overwhelmed.”

That was obvious on a recent Monday morning as Hamilton set out by snowmobile from Chalet Beach on the southwest shore. Lake Winnipeg extended in an endless sea of white on the northern horizon, but Hamilton wasn’t going far.

His destination a few miles to the east had consistently produced walleyes the past couple of weeks. Deep snow had limited truck traffic, and no one was fishing within two miles, other than a couple of Hamilton’s buddies.

Hamilton also was targeting an area with less than 7 feet of water under the ice, about half the depth most other anglers were fishing.

The hunt begins

A massive winter storm that had clobbered parts of the Dakotas and Minnesota the previous day had fizzled at the Canadian border, but the sky was mostly cloudy Monday as Hamilton drilled the first holes of the morning.

Almost immediately, he marked fish on the screen of his Vexilar FL-20, a fancy piece of electronics that betrays what’s happening below the ice in shades of green, orange and red. The stronger the signal, the darker the color, and a red-colored blip just off the bottom indicated the presence of a walleye.

Problem was, the walleye wouldn’t bite.

Given the wind that blew with just enough force to make venturing outside uncomfortable, Hamilton could have been excused for staying inside the heated shelter even though he wasn’t marking many fish.

He knew, though, that the walleyes he’d caught with regularity just two days earlier hadn’t ventured far.

The only way to find them was to drill holes – and lots of ‘em.

“I don’t think these fish know which way is up right now,” Hamilton said. “We’ve had cold weather, we’ve had warm weather; we’ve had south and east and west and north winds, coming within the same day and between days in a week.

“Right now, I think it’s really tough for these fish to get into a stable pattern.”

As predicted, the wind subsided late in the morning and the clouds gave way to sun. Hamilton kept drilling holes – often to the end of the extension on his auger. Every hole would be good for a walleye or two; then it was time to move a few yards and drill more holes.

Big potential

Typical of the walleyes that swim in Lake Winnipeg, the football-shaped fish had been living well. Lake Winnipeg has a rich forage base, and the walleyes tend to be chunkier than their counterparts in most other bodies of water.

The previous week, Hamilton said, he weighed a 26½-inch walleye that tipped the scales at 9 pounds, 14 ounces, a fish that might be 6 or 7 pounds anywhere else. His personal best from the big lake measured slightly more than 33 inches.

Most of the walleyes this day were “eater” size or slightly larger, but that didn’t dampen the excitement every time we marked a fish or felt a strike.

“Every time you drop your line down could be the fish of a lifetime and not just the fish of a lifetime for you – the fish of a lifetime as far as walleye are concerned in North America” Hamilton said. “There’s the potential of a world record swimming around here right now.”

Hamilton’s “drill a hole, catch a fish; drill a hole, catch two fish” technique was still working when we packed up and headed for shore late in the afternoon. He admitted to being worried about the lockjaw the walleyes shown early in the day, but the action had gotten better as the day progressed.

Getting outside and moving around definitely had been more productive than hunkering down in the portables.

“We fished the aggressive fish today,” he said. “We’re shallower than most people are normally fishing out here, and if the fish are up here that means there’s a segment of the population that is feeding at that given time,

“We’ve seen that by being able to follow schools around this big, shallow flat and get onto those fish.”

Hamilton earned every walleye Monday. He also earned those Advil.

Brad Dokken is the outdoors writer

for the Grand Forks Herald