Jon Thelen expected a tap at any moment. After pounding the bottom with his spoon, he had lifted the bait 6 inches or so off the bottom and had shaken it briskly to engage its rattles. A fish immediately charged onto the scene, showing up thick and red on Thelen’s flasher screen.
As the flasher lines that marked Thelen’s bait and the rising walleye merged he expected a solid tap, but instead, out of his peripheral vision, he saw the float in the next hole over dart out of sight. With well-practiced efficiency Thelen secured his jigging rod, snatched his other rod from it holder and set the hook into a walleye.
“The fish haven’t quite moved to here yet,” Thelen told me, “but they’re close enough now that we can call in a few. Soon we’ll start seeing more.”
True to Thelen’s prediction, a few other fish darted briefly into the range of our electronics while the afternoon sun was still above the tree line. One bit. A couple of others departed as quickly as they had shown up. All seemed to come in direct response to rattling or pounding. Then, just before dark, fish started to show up and to stick around. And soon it became evident that those fish had moved atop the structure with dinner in mind.
A lifelong ice-fisherman with a passion for hard-water fishing, Thelen is never random about the places he drills he holes or how he works those holes. He studies maps, considers specific structure and uses GPS coordinates during winter — for exactly the same reasons he would during the summer — and he is strategic in his approach.
Winter walleyes are spend almost all their time relating to structure and their movements through the ice season and through the course of a day are somewhat predictable. By learning walleye behavior and studying maps of the waters you plan to fish, you can vastly increase your chances of being in the right place at the right time any given day.
The coldest part of winter puts most walleyes in main basins of lakes and reservoirs, using deeper areas than they did during early winter or than they will toward the end of the ice season. Deep, of course, is a relative term, and mid-winter depths vary pretty dramatically from one lake to another.
The walleyes do move to the tops of structural features to feed at dusk and dawn, but they move back down the structure, often onto surrounding mud flats, during the day. And even the tops of the structures the walleyes move onto during prime feeding times generally top out deeper than the ones they utilize early and late in the winter.
By day, the walleyes typically hang out just off the structure. For a hard structure, such as a reef, they’re often close to the point where the hard bottom gives way to a softer bottom. On tapering points or humps they may just be down the slope. Either way, they’ll be deeper and relating more to the basin than the structure itself but still in the vicinity of the structure. Those fish can be coaxed into eating some days, but they generally won’t be very active.
Late in the afternoon, the fish will begin moving up the structure, gradually working toward key feeding areas on top of it. They follow edges of the structure that create natural paths.
The evening transition might take an hour or two, with the fish stopping beside boulders, breaks and other micro features as they work their way shallower. At this point, they are beginning to feed. By sundown many fish find their way to the tops of the structures, where they hang by the best cover available and feed until dark.
The same general process occurs in opposite order in the morning, with fish feeding well on those key spots right at daybreak, and then gradually working their way down the structure and feeding somewhat less actively as the sun begin to light up the day. Within a couple of hours after sunup, the fish find their way to those main-basin resting areas, where they typically spend the bulk of the day.
Because walleyes feeding activity tends to be so concentrated during early and late windows, how you structure a trip is very important. If you arrive a little after daylight and spend a while getting your holes drilled and other stuff in place, you could set up on the best part of the best walleye structure in the lake, but the fish could be gone by the time you start fishing.
If you’re going to target walleyes in the morning, you really need to grit your teeth and get out there and get set up while it is still dark. (Check local regulations about times you can be on the ice on any given lake.) Morning outings are also best suited for lakes that you know well or where you have a good idea about where you want to set up initially. The ideal is to have GPS numbers from past winter outings or summer scouting that allow you to set up atop good structure.
If you don’t know quite where to start, a more productive approach is to get out by early afternoon and use the first part of the afternoon to scout a bit, drilling holes just off the edges of a few different potentially productive structures, looking with your electronics and fishing those holes. The walleyes may not bite early, but yellow perch and other panfish may.
More importantly, if you mark several good fish that won’t bite along the edge of a particular structure, those are probably are walleyes, which tells you that this is the structure you’ll want to work as the sun starts sinking.
Of course, if you’re a die-hard and already don’t like the shortened days of winter, you can do all of the above, starting early on what you think is your best spot, scouting and fishing for panfish through the day and then using what you learn to select the best area for late afternoon and evening.
What you don’t want to do (and what far too many anglers end up doing) is to arrive a little too late, fish most of the day, conclude that the walleyes aren’t biting, and leave about the time the fishing is likely to get good again.
No matter what time you decide to fish, a good walleye plan actually begins at home, with lake maps — either paper, on the computer, or on your fish finder/chart plotter. If you know a lake well, including the parts of the main basin walleyes use through mid-winter and maybe even the locations of specific structures, you have a big head start.
If you’ve fished the lake, but only during summer, and have waypoints for deep rockpiles or reef tops that produce when it’s hot, don’t overlook the values of those numbers. Even if you don’t have a GPS in your ice electronics, you can input the numbers in a handheld GPS (which you probably have in your phone) to get to that spot.
Lacking that baseline knowledge, you might actually begin with a little online research or a visit to an area bait shop. You need not ask about specific spots. You can find those on a map. Just ask about general areas that walleyes use through mid-winter and basin depths within those area.
Study the map and identify a few of the best-looking features that are a reasonable distance from one another. Prioritize bigger and more complex structures that are in the main basin. Study each structure and seek to identify key ambush spots high on the structure, fringe areas around the structure, and natural paths between those areas.
If you have the capacity to do so, create waypoints for key spots on each structure. Otherwise, circle them on the map, and bring the map onto the ice so you can line up with shoreline points, islands and other landmarks and then look for appropriate depths.
Assuming you arrive while the sun is fairly high in the sky, begin by working the deep outer edges of a structure. Drill several holes around the edges before you ever drop a line and then some time working from hole to hole. Scouting for later is the most important task through the middle of the day, but you might as well fish while you look.
No matter what overall strategy you choose, be certain you are to the top of the structure and settled in the area that you expect to be the best enough before dark that you are set when the fish start coming in. The best bite of the day normally occurs just before dark, and you want to be in place at that time ready to catch walleyes