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Winter Walleye Tour 2011 - Severn Sound

The next destination on our Winter Walleye Tour was Severn Sound, or to be more specific, the waters from Midland Bay to Waubaushene. The Sound is a big place and you could probably find fish all the way out to Giants Tomb in Georgian Bay but that might require a lifetime of searching and since we are focusing on day trips or overnighters, we concentrated on the funnel to the spawn. Port Severn is the primary spawning waters for this area of Georgian Bay and starting in late fall, fish return from their summer haunts and begin a slow staging process in the waters between Midland Bay and Port Severn.
This area is no hidden gem and does receive a fare amount of pressure in the winter. There are fish huts dotting several areas in small concentrations along the east shore of Midland Bay with a large concentration between Hogs Bay and Sturgeon Bay in the Waubaushene Channel. One of the great aspects of the area is points of access. There are several public parks from the city of Midland to Paradise Point and access points from Victoria Harbour and Port McNicoll.

Walleye Rehabilitation   
Port Severn is another success story in the Georgian Bay Walleye rehabilitation program initiated by the MNR in partnership with local organizations like the Eastern Georgian Bay Stewardship Council. Like most areas on Georgian Bay, Severn Sound suffers from all of the typical stressors including lower water levels, invasive species, and spawning habitat deterioration. The Sound is once again a good fishery but populations are still below MNR target levels. Unfortunately, unlike Pointe au Baril which is once again an exceptional walleye fishery, the sound still has the major stressors of commercial fishing and First Nations harvest during the spring spawning. It is certainly an uphill battle trying to rehabilitate a fishery with all the new stressors without having to deal with commercial harvesting. In spite of the current pressures, the fishery is improving on a year to year basis. The current regulations for zone 14 which covers all of Georgian Bay is for a maximum of 2 fish (sports licence) with not more than one over 22 inches (56 cm), or 2 fish under 16.25 inches (41 cm). This slot size imposed in 2002 is part of the reason for the recovery, although it can be frustrating if you intend on keeping a fish for dinner and all the fish you catch are in the slot.

Where to Fish?
Where do you find fish under the ice on this large body of water? After an exceptional November where we fished the Sound on several occasions from October to December, we thought finding them through the ice would be easy, simply go to the same areas that produced during the late fall. Our last trip in the boat was the first week in December and at that point it seemed the number of fish in our target area was increasing and the average size was larger the closer we came to ice over, a typical winter staging transition. We thought this would give us a pretty good idea where to start, but for someone who has never fished the area with no firsthand knowledge of the fishery, the task can be daunting.  

The fastest way to find where fish could be is to head out in the general direction of one of the many ice hut communities. This certainly will not guarantee fish; in fact it may slow the process, but huts are there for a reason. A quick look at a chart can help you find similar locations.  Some local anglers that have been fishing these waters for years put their huts out as early as possible in prime locations, and some rarely move them. They wait for fish to come to them in areas that have produced for them through the years and they certainly catch their fair share, but not all of them are fishing for walleye. Hut communities are magnets to ice anglers even though there are probably better spots. Just remember to practice good ice fishing etiquette and stay a good distance away from huts and other anglers.

 

First Day – Skunked!
Our first trip on the ice was disappointing compared to Pointe au Baril where we iced 90 fish in two days. At the Baril, the fish were so plentiful and sometimes so aggressive it seemed you could drill anywhere and find fish and they would bite anything. We were spoiled and now had to work and use every technique we knew,drill a lot of holes, and we still got skunked the first day. We understand fishing can be like real estate, location, location, location, but with so much water we needed a hint.  One of the spots we fished in the fall had several ice huts right on our GPS mark. John Whyte with Severn Sound Walleye

Day 2
With a new plan in place and a review of the charts we decided to pay particular attention to main channel drop offs and structure on deep flats. We started close to where we had success in the fall on 25 to 28 foot flats close to drop offs and drilled holes 20 feet apart, gradually getting deeper to a maximum of 40 FOW. With so much water to cover this seemed the most efficient way to find the depth they were in. I used two rods, one loaded with a small tungsten spoon and the other with a jig head and pearl grub with another rod rigged and ready as a drop shot for minnows. If the bite was slow we could add minnows to any of the lures we had loaded. There are times in the winter when live bait is a big advantage and if you only have one day out you probably don’t want to spend the day experimenting with every trick and tool you own.


The plan was to spend no more than 20 minutes per spot and use the same technique for the first half of the day. I use a spoon to get attention, I don’t jig the spoon but simply let it fall, bang on the bottom a few times to kick up some  debris, real it up about 15 feet, and let it fall again, a method we call yo-yoing. Two actions that get the attention of fish and can trigger a strike is something falling to the bottom and something shooting off the bottom. I bounced the grub on the bottom 5 or 6 times with no more than a 3 or 4 inch rise, then dead stick it about 2 ft off the bottom for a minute or two. The combined techniques have worked consistently for almost every species of fish through the ice. The fish might not hit either bait but we would see them on the sonar and if they were there and not reacting to our bait we would have the option of using live bait to trigger a strike.

walleye chasing spoon
I expected the first fish to hit the grub, but while dead sticking the spoon 10 ft off the bottom in 30 FOW, a line on the sonar was shooting off the bottom and a fish smashed the suspending spoon.  A few minutes later I iced a nice 23 inch fish. When the fish was on the ice it spit up a small Goby. This was another clue that would help. While fishing the Sound in the fall I kept a fish for dinner. When I cleaned the fish I always look at the stomach content to see what they have been feeding on. The fish was full of Round Goby and much like the bass in most of the Great Lakes; Goby had become preferred forage, at least in the fall and apparently in the winter. Once feared as devastating to  bass populations, this invasive round gobyspecies and prolific nest raider has become an easy and plentiful source of food for prey fish like walleye. It takes much less energy to vacuum Goby off the bottom than to chase schooling bait fish. The long term effects of  increasing populations of Goby is unknown, but for now they seem to be a notch in the plus column and recovering populations of Walleye can use all the help they can get.

 
Once we found the depth it was simply a matter of moving along the ridge trying to maintain the same depth, spending 20 to 30 minutes in each spot.  In a six hour span I managed to ice four fish and lost four more at the hole. One of the fish that ended up being the entree’ in our Friday night fish and chips dinner  was attacked on the way up after hitting my spoon. When I iced the fish the belly had been torn out by some big toothy critter. This was just a reminder that, not only was the Sound a good Walleye fishery and a great bass fishery, but there are big Pike and world record size Musky in these waters.  I don’t think a six inch sucker would last long where we were. One of the locals in a hut told us there was a 54 inch Musky caught that week through the ice while fishing for Walleye.

 

bugeyed walleye Catch and Release note: When fishing deep water Walleye it is important to release the fish as soon as possible. Fish such as bass and walleye can suffer from Barotrauma caused by the sudden change in pressure when brought to the surface from deep water. A host of  symptoms ranging from hyper inflated swim bladders, eye bulging or bleeding can start minutes from the time the fish is landed, but if release quickly, they can return to the bottom with little to no permanent damage. Unlike fishing from a boat, a fish that floats on its side after release can be retrieved and fizzed, but fish with inflated swim bladders release under the ice have high mortality rates if they can’t swim to the bottom. When we caught fish and released them after a quick picture or measurement, we could see the fish returning to the bottom on the sonar. The bug-eyed walleye (above picture) caught in 40 ft. had extreme symptoms initially but its eyes retracted and the fish did swim to the bottom unharmed.


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The areas on the chart highlighted in yellow were the areas we concentrated on. We found fish in many of the areas with very similar structure. The trick for us was to get as close to the top of the ridge or at the base of the drop-off.

 

Timing Note: We know that Walleye are nocturnal feeders and the best action is normally at first and last light, particularly in shallow lakes. But after fishing the Sound through November and again through the ice, most of our fish were caught between the hours of 9:00 am and 1:00 pm. regardless of light conditions.

 

 

Georgian Bay Bassmasters Contact

Day 3
Rarely will we cancel a day due to weather but when the forecast calls for -25c with a brisk wind from the NE, we’ll pass. When you’re looking for new spots you’re constantly moving and drilling and never sitting in a heated hut, so when it’s that cold the holes and your line freezes in minutes. There simply aren’t enough hand and feet warmers to make it reasonably comfortable so we had to wait for a better day.

The deep freeze finally broke and it was time to resume the mission.  We picked up where we left off last trip out, and concentrated on ridges on the edge of flats near deep water. I drilled holes 20 feet apart starting from 24 ft. with the last being 40 ft. and fished each hole for 10 minutes. Once again the 30 ft. mark produced a nice fish, caught on a drop shot with a minnow. Once the depth was known I drilled two holes, one for a spoon to hang high off the bottom and the other for a soft bait or minnow. We would yo yo the spoon and then dead stick it 10 ft. off bottom. Although there is no force motion of the spoon, the simple slow twirl caused by current or line twist is all the movement it requires to attract fish. For the second time in two days a fish was caught on a dead stick spoon well of the bottom. If you do decide to hang a spoon off the bottom and you are using a sonar and see something rise off the bottom towards the spoon, don’t move it until the fish is almost touching it. Walleye are very curious and they are already on the way to see if the flashing thing is eatable. If the spoon suddenly has a change of action it will more than likely spook the fish. Once the fish is close to the spoon just real away from it slowly until you feel the weight of the fish, and then set the hook.   

As the day wore on the bite became extremely light as fish would bump the baits without eating them. Several fish were lost soon after setting the hook. Anglers often think of walleye being glued to the bottom in the winter but I have found this to be untrue, and like days in the summer or fall they can be very active. But there are times when they do want the bait right on the bottom and there is probably nothing better than a jig head with a minnow to make them bite.

Equipment note; Walleye have bony mouths so using a very sharp hook is always important but even more so when using a drop shot. Fish caught on a drop shot usually get hooked in the top of the mouth where there is very little soft tissue for the hook to penetrate.

By 3:00 p.m. the bite was dead and we didn’t mark any fish at any depth. There are times when they just seem to disappear and there is no better sign of the bite being off then the series of anglers pulling up beside you on a sled or an ATV asking “how’s it going”. The next question will be “we aren’t seeing any fish over there, are you”? One of the great things about ice fishing is the sense of community and the different people you meet on the ice. Ice anglers volunteer their opinions of the fishery, what works best, areas that have been hot, ice conditions, and a host of other information. Just so you don’t think you’re doing something wrong on a slow day, yesterday was always better. “We killed em yesterday” is the most over used story on the ice and on any fishing message board. Sarcasm aside, you can learn a lot about the fishery and techniques from other anglers that are bored or just want to say hello. We met some great locals that offered to share their huts to get warm, give us baits that have been working for them, share some history, and some great fish stories and that’s what time on the hard water is all about.

Destination Summary
The criteria we use to evaluate a destination includes the likelihood of the average ice anglers chance of catching fish on any given day, and with that in mind, we would have to say Severn Sound is once again a very good winter walleye fishery. Although the number of fish might be lower than the likes of Pointe au Baril, the average size was larger. We caught a total of 16 fish in three days with as many lost fish (not including the day we were skunked). The smallest fish was 18 inches and the largest 24 inches with six fish over the 22 inch slot size, and all but one released. We met anglers who had landed much larger fish than we caught. Fish caught on minnows account for more than half of the catch which is typical for winter walleye.

 

Severn Sound is less than 1 ½ hours from the GTA, north on Hwy 400 to Hwy 12. There are ample points of public access and reasonable lodging close by.  It is a fare walk out to most walleye waters but the amount of sled traffic leaves a pretty firm surface to walk on.

If it’s a day with the kids and you simply want a warm hut where you can catch pan fish, herring, some walleye and pike, call Backwater Hut Rentals.  

 

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