Regardless of the time of year, catching walleyes is a challenge. Even during the summer, when the mobility of a boat and the ease of locating structure with sonar simplify the process, locating and enticing this elusive species can be difficult. Throughout the winter months, it can become just plain frustrating. Ice conditions, deep snow, and rapidly changing weather conditions can limit your options, and thus lower your odds of pulling walleyes through the ice. However, there are ways to work around these obstacles.
Through the course of more than four decades, I have heard and read enough tips regarding winter walleyes to fill a rather large suggestion box. Surprisingly, I’ve also stumbled onto a few ideas of my own. What I have discovered during this time period is there are three main categories that a majority of tips fall into.
I have concluded that being familiar with a body of water, remaining as versatile as is safely possible, and being both willing and able to adapt to a walleye’s finicky disposition are the keys of increasing your catch. The following is a closer look at all three, and some basic ideas that may enhance each of the trio.
Whether you are using the latest in fish locating technology, or angling without sonar, this information could be helpful during your next venture in search of winter walleyes.
Having an understanding of the primary structure and contour, being aware of ice conditions, and checking on recent angling reports should all be done before traveling onto a lake. Whether you’re visiting for the first time, or returning to an old favorite, it is essential to have an idea of where you want to begin and how you plan to catch fish.
A lake map is the best tool for locating the areas that are likely to hold walleyes. Maps of individual lakes are sold online, by local bait shops, and at many discount chains. They can also be obtained, often free of charge, by contacting your local Department of Natural Resources. Something as simple as a hand-drawn map, marking the location of summer hotspots and specific structure can also be helpful.
As mentioned, an awareness of current ice conditions and a truthful report of walleye activity is also a necessity. The best source for this information can usually be found behind the counter at the nearest bait shop. The owners and employees of these establishments rely on the success and safety of their customers, and so they are not likely to lead you astray. Talking with fellow anglers can also be educational. However, we all know that fishermen tend to be tight-lipped, so specific secrets will not usually be divulged by local walleye enthusiasts.
Upon arriving at your destination, another way to become familiar with a lake is by taking a look across the ice from the shoreline. Observe how the permanent shanties are distributed across the surface. Walleye fishermen are less likely to be bunched in a circle, as is often the case when there is a panfish bite occurring. It may be possible to determine the location of a shoreline break, weedline or other extended structure by examining the alignment of the houses upon a walleye fishery.
Be sure to look for signs of movement, whether anglers seem to be relocating to deeper water, closer to a point, or completely pulling up stakes and traveling to a different portion of the lake.
Of the three categories being discussed, this is the one that winter weather can hinder the most. It is just not possible to move several times, across vast distances of a frozen lake, in a limited amount of time. Simply reeling in a line, pulling up an anchor, and firing up a motor would be a dream come true.
In the winter there are portables to take down and set up, snow banks and ice heaves to avoid, holes to drill, along with frigid cold to deal with. This makes it necessary to be able to find walleyes within a limited area, as quickly and quietly as can be accomplished.
First and foremost, arrive at your destination an hour before you plan to get your first strike. This will give you plenty of time to choose a location and get your holes drilled, without missing out on the prime time for a bite.
Walleyes can be easily spooked, especially in shallow water or under clear ice. Therefore, even if it means having to walk around and skim the ice on occasion, I recommend drilling all of the holes you plan to use upon arrival. In addition to cutting down on the noise created while you search for fish, this will enable you to move along a weedline or gradually change depths smoothly.
Begin by drilling a series of holes extending in a line toward deeper water. Although there are differing opinions, I usually then start shallow and work my way off of a flat or away from a point. My thinking is that during daylight hours, walleyes may use the shade created by weeds and shoreline snow pack as cover, slowly moving into deeper and clearer water as the day darkens to night.
Depending upon your patience and the walleye action encountered, give each hole about 30 minutes to produce before moving on to the next. A second series of holes, drilled a short distance to the side, will produce additional versatility.
Walleyes are notorious for being finicky about what and when they eat. Add to this their slower metabolism during the winter months and a dilemma is created. Fish that are already stubborn can also become slow and lethargic. An angler must be able to change presentations and techniques in order to fit the mood of a walleye.
For the most part, walleyes are the most aggressive during calm weather, following the passing of a warm front and during the approach of low pressure. Storm systems and sharp cold fronts can slow this activity to a crawl. On one day walleyes may go bananas for large shiners dangling from a tip-up, and the next be looking for the nose of a minnow attached to a slowly jigged spoon. These changes can occur over a period of a few days, or as quickly as within a few hours. When jigging for walleyes, the best advice is to vary the speed and action of your presentation until you find the motion that works.
Having the ability to adjust the size and type of bait being offered is always a good idea. Be sure to have at least two options. A supply of shiners that vary in size and a bucket of fathead minnows is a good start. Some anglers will tip their jigging spoon with a leech, although those can be hard to find in some areas during the winter.
When jigging with a minnow head, sometimes by simply changing how much of the body remains intact and attached to the hook will trigger a strike. Being able to change the style, color, or size of your jigs and spoons is also a benefit.