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Not Just Another Fish Story

Open Water Ice Fishing

Francis Case ’eyes’

Cruising Walleye



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Open Water Ice Fishing

By - Gary Howey
The Outdoorsmen Magazine
As I with my cameraman made my way down the winding gravel road towards the North Wheeler boat dock, Lake Francis Case appeared off to our right. From our vantage point, it looked as though 90% of the lake was covered with a few areas of open water. Our guide was our good friend and a member of our Team Outdoorsmen Adventures: Joel Vasek, of South Dakota Outfitters Unlimited. Joel had arrived earlier to see if there was open water to the area we were going to fish and if it wasn’t open, Joel would use his boat to break a trail through the ice.

As we pulled up to the boat launch to meet Joel, he informed us that he’d opened up a path with his boat so we should be able to get to the area we wanted to fish without much trouble. The weather forecast for the day looked good, with a front coming through that evening, with the wind scheduled to pick up later that afternoon.

It didn’t take us long to load our gear, work our way out of the bay down along the shoreline, to where Joel had opened the path earlier. Unfortunately, the slight wind that was blowing had moved the ice and blocked our way out into the open water. Like he had done earlier that morning, Joel would have to use his boat to break the ice in order to get out to the open water where he hoped the fish would be. In the area where he’d broken ice that morning, there had been about 3" of ice. Well, that ice had been moved against the shoreline, into water much too shallow for his 21 foot boat to get through, so we’d have to push, bust, and break through a lot thicker ice. As Joel eased the boat against the ice, it was obvious that we were up against a lot thicker ice. His 225 Yamaha pushed the big Lund up onto the ice where the weight of the boat would finally break the ice, dropping us back into the water. Joel skillfully worked the boat over and through about 100 yards of the 6’ to 8’ of ice into the open water where we’d begin our search for the walleyes. We worked the area out to the 30-38 foot depth along the edge of the ice, and that’s where we started marking good fish.

It didn’t take us long to rip up, using medium light and ultra light rods we tied, or & 3/8 jigs to 4 # XL and 4 # pound diameter Crystal Fireline, tipping them with the biggest fat head minnows or Berkley Gulp minnows we had in the bait well. With Joel carefully watching his locator, letting me know when an active fish was under the boat. The active fish were up just off the bottom, while those less aggressive or dormant fish had their belly tight against the bottom.

Shortly after Joel spotted the first fish, he had a pickup and set the hook, I grabbed the net as he guided a chunky 16’ Lake Francis Case towards the boat. Joel had the touch and caught the majority of the fish that day. He spends over 200 days on the water, and knows how to fish, especially on the waters of Lake Francis Case. He’d been on the water the week before, guiding near Chamberlain. This was where we’d originally planned to fish, but because the majority of those fish there were smaller, Joel had decided to run down to North Wheller to see if there was enough open water to launch his boat in the bay.

This was my first trip of the year on open water, or should I say somewhat open water, and it was obvious as I lost the first four fish I had on. I could move them up about three feet, and then loose them. It was obvious that I needed to go to a lighter, quicker tipped rod, as the Fireline I was using had no stretch. Between my hard hook set and stiffer rod, I was literally tearing my jig right out of the fish’s mouth. Once I switched to a rod with a lighter and quicker trip section, I hooked a fat 19’ walleye, closing out the day with a beautiful 4 pound walleye, obviously a female, so we’d released her after a few quick pictures. I’d say it was a successful trip! We spent over a half hour breaking our way out into the area we wanted to fish and a couple of hours of fishing. In that short period of time, we’d boated thirteen walleyes, all over 15’ except for one.

The majority of the fish came right along the edge of the ice in 35 feet of water. Like all fishing does this time of the year, you don’t need to move your boat much, if at all, as baits dragged along the bottom can be very effective. We’d jig them slightly from time to time, trying to check to make sure our baits were still there, to check for debris on the hook, and to tempt those non-active fish on the bottom into moving up to take a look at our bait. Like all the fishing on Lake Francis Case, early fishing can be fantastic, but I wouldn’t recommend busting ice like we did unless you’re an experienced guide like Joel, as even the slightest wind can move the ice, trapping you and your boat a long ways from the boat dock.