82-year-old Minnesota fishing guide and National Fishing Hall of Famer, Dick “Griz” Gryzwinski, has spent decades scouting the channels and backwaters of the Upper Mississippi River for fish, typically walleyes, pike, and panfish like crappies and bluegills.
Although you’ll find him fishing with 24- to 38-inch jigging rods outfitted with spinning reels, left to his druthers he’s generally fishing old school with nothing more a hook, some kind of live bait, a split shot sinker (or two), a small spool of monofilament line and a willow switch.
Willow Switch Tip-Ups
“What I really like to do is ice fish with my own willow system. Don’t need much. I grab a willow switch from the red thickets you see on the side of the river, cut off a branch and add a few, simple components,” advises Griz.
“I use a small plastic spool of 6-pound Sufix monofilament with a little sponge bobber on it, a plain hook and a fathead. I drill a hole and put the willow over the hole, set my depth and put that little sponge bobber on the very tip of the branch and drill another hole 3-4 inches into the ice about 6 feet away from the hole and put my spool in it and use it as a reel. It’s a really good way to fish walleyes,” adds Griz.
“There’s no pull back when they pick up the bait, like on a tip-up, where they have to flip up the mechanism. The branch takes care of that. They hit it and you watch them pull the branch down and the cork pulls off the end of it and if they need line it doesn’t take much to move the line off that spool in the ice. They just pull the line off. Very seldom does the fish spit the bait.”
“It’s a simple way to fish. I’ve been fishing this way since I was about 12 years old. Back in the 1940s my dad used to use great big willows and they’d tie a black or red rag into a loop onto the end of the branch and when a fish would bite that rag would go down. You didn’t have to stand by your hole, especially in shallow water when you want to walk around and fish other spots. Still doing it that way. Tip-ups are great for pike but walleyes are pretty fussy. If they feel any pull back they’ll drop your bait, so this system works pretty well.”
Griz says the key to the system is monitoring wind direction.
“Depending on which way the wind is blowing. If it’s from the north, you’ll want to put your willow on the east or west side of the hole. You want the wind to help pull that little bobber off the end of the willow when a fish takes it. Then I put a shallow hole about six feet away and then kind of tighten up the line on that willow with that bobber on the end of the stick and when a fish hits it you can see that willow bend until that bobber pops off and does down the hole. When they run line it pulls that spool nice and easy. They don’t even know there’s anything attached to it. It’s pretty easy.”
Locations – the Mississippi River, wingdams, and back channels
As far as where Griz likes to employ his willow tip-up system, he likes chasing pike in the Mississippi backwaters in as little as a foot or two of water, but advises to be careful of springs in these areas.
Griz adds: “Wingdam fishing can be good if the ice is thick enough that you don’t fall through – like on the south end of Lake Pepin. There are a couple wingdams I fish a lot where it comes out of deep water into about eight feet. Shoreline breaks, deep holes along the shore – 8- to 10 feet in some of those areas where the current has worn out the bank. The river gives you a lot of choices.”
Griz also likes back channels where there’s 5- to 6-feet of water, which he says is “plenty of depth in the river.”
He likes these back channels because there’s not a lot of moving water and the ice can get pretty thick. Whenever possible, Griz keys in on wooded areas in back channels.
“When the ice first gets on the backwaters or river bottoms. the action can be really good. The walleyes will move around wherever the bait is. Could be in the willows, holes back in the channels, stuff like that. Edges of current. Wherever the bait is. You’ve got a lot of space in the river,” advises Griz.
He likes the backwaters for panfish, too.
“A lot times I’m fishing bluegills in a foot to foot and a half of water and crappies in about four feet. Walleyes might be a bit deeper, but most fish are pretty shallow. When the fish are shallow I’m probably not using my old Vexilar but will when they’re deeper.”
Besides his willow-switch tip-up system and a puck of small jigs and spikes or waxies for panfish, the Griz says his go-to river ice fishing bait is a #3 Jiggin’ Rap because “it’ll catch about anything – crappies, white bass, walleyes.”
He fishes it on 6-pound hi-vi Sufix mono with a quick snap “because it leaves the eyelet free and gives the bait better action and I can change out baits when I need to.”