Just because they’re harboring under layers of ice doesn’t necessarily mean that a fish has become inactive.
Walleye are a great example. Many people believe that they become lazy and inactive during the colder winter months.
That’s probably more of a product of lack of fishing success than actually based on the fish’s biology. A successful fishing season isn’t about luck. It’s about knowing exactly what the fish are doing, where, and why. And a good angler is constantly learning.
The winter walleye season can be broken into three sub-seasons: early-, mid-, and late-ice.
Ice Fishing For Walleye – Early-Ice Location
These fish are transitioning through the fall, when they’re set up in deep water close to major structural elements. There’s still a forage base present, and baitfish like whitefish and cisco haven’t quite finished their spawn yet. Walleye are located in areas with deep water access, close to these shallow waters.
When the first ice sets in, they’ve not yet had any reason to move from these areas, so you can still find them there. Focus your attempts on flats that have points and sharp drop-offs with rock and pea gravel, adjacent to the main lake deeper water.
Ice Fishing For Walleye – Mid-Ice Location
Walleye move out toward mid-lake humps as winter progresses. The deeper water is a little bit warmer, keeping them more active. Locate these humps by checking out the waterways contour lines to find those honey hole humps!
Ice Fishing For Walleye- Late-Ice Location
Depending on how far north you live, late ice can last all the way into April. An understanding of when Walleye start spawning will give you a clue as to where to find them during this time.
According to Scott Glorvigen, 2004 PWT Championship and 2000 FLW Championship winner, “The walleyes already have spawn in mind. They are already starting their seasonal movements to set up for spawning grounds.”
That makes this the key to locating walleyes in this phase.
You want to look for a connecting river, stream, or runoff; things that will be bringing in the warmest water. At this time of year, shoreline structure is your answer. Look for things like gravel shorelines, spawning sections where rivers and streams run in, or even better, pressure ridges, which create as much structure below the water as you see above the water. These areas can really hold baitfish at this time of year.
Locating Walleye When Ice Fishing
These are all generalizations, of course. Ice fishing for walleye will always be different on each body of water you go to. Depths, water clarity, and oxygen levels vary from lake to lake. Habitat and population sizes also influence your success.
No matter the season, you can usually find walleye within a couple of feet from the bottom along structures mentioned before like points, breaks, rock piles, and humps. Structure meets a few basic needs like shelter and food source. They like fast access to deep water, so the steep breaks around points and bars are good places to look.
You can ice fish walleye at any hour of the day or night, but changing light conditions in the morning or evening usually trigger more activity and feeding. The most active times tend to be the hour and a half surrounding sunup and sundown.
Technology can really be your friend here. You can locate your fish using combo units with GPS and Depth Finders. Using a tracking system like ANGLR can help you map out your angling locations ahead of time and track your outings, including water depth and conditions, time of year and day, barometric readings, and much more. That gives you the ability to see patterns within your season, and help you make better decisions in planning ahead for next season.
Ice Fishing For Walleye – Baits and Presentations
Both jigging and a stationary approach can be used. You’ll want to set your lures to be about six to twelve inches off the bottom. If your water clarity is excellent or you’re graphing fish higher in the water column, you can set higher obviously.
Keep a variety of styles, sizes, and colors of jigs close at hand to choose from so you can experiment with what is working best.
Four main types of lures work well when ice fishing for walleyes: jigs, spoons, jigging rapalas, and lipless crankbaits.
- Jigs: tip these with a minnow right behind the dorsal fin to keep them active and to draw the fish in.
- Spoons: tip these with a pinched minnow head. These work by jerking the rod up a foot or two and then letting it drop back down to catch the fish’s curiosity.
- Jigging Rapala: if the fish aren’t biting aggressively, you can tip it with a minnow head. By lifting and dropping the jigging rapala again, this jig will slowly circle its way back down to its resting position. This is a more aggressive approach.
- Lipless Crankbait: these come in many colors and species and will quickly flutter back to its horizontal orientation quickly. This is the most aggressive approach.
If you’re allowed to fish with two lines, you can set up one line for jigging and the other as a dead stick. Set your dead stick with a bobber and live minnow on a hook or medium sized jig. The idea is the jigging line will attract the fish. Some will hit that line, but if they’re in a neutral mood, they’ll probably go after the live minnow that has very little movement. However your walleye are feeling, you’ll have everything covered.