by Mike Bleech
Anglers who do not mind contending with often-bitter weather have taken the first step in becoming serious walleye anglers. Walleye fishing does not get much better than it is in late winter/early spring, in that cold, miserable period just before the spawn.
Various factors combine to make this a time that walleye anglers should not miss. Walleyes are on the move, staging toward the spawning areas. In rivers, they generally move upstream. In lakes, they head toward traditional spawning shoals or tributaries. Walleyes are hungry now, getting their last nutrition before the rigors of the spawn. But natural food supplies are at an annual low, and walleyes cannot afford to be as finicky as they might be during summer, when there is much more natural food.
Most interesting to some anglers is that this is one of the best times to catch huge walleyes. In addition to being vulnerable, the females are at their heaviest, laden with eggs and a maximum store of fat.
Weather and water conditions can make walleye fishing at this time of year a challenge. Cold temperatures limit anglers’ endurance and can take the edge off their enthusiasm. In rivers, flows are often high. This puts severe limits on fishing methods. Water is often muddy. In lakes, fishing usually means drilling through the ice until fishing is interrupted by ice-out.
Even though walleyes are willing biters, tactics and tackle that work at other times might not do the job now. Here are a few tricks that can help you unlock this window of opportunity.
Underwater, things move slowly during February. Walleyes take a lot of time to study a bait. Anything wrong will put them off. The real secret to February ice-fishing is not having a secret bait or lure, or a secret fishing method. You probably can’t do better than a tip-up baited with a lively minnow. It is not even having a secret fishing spot. You can tell where the best fishing is at any popular walleye lake by looking for clusters of ice-anglers.
The real secret is having a smooth, clean operation.
“Smooth” means walleyes cannot feel anything unnatural when they take the bait. The best weight is the minimum amount of lead (or its equivalent) required to get the bait close to the bottom. Typically a single split shot can work. Most tip-up spools spin freely without much tension. Check each spool. Grease them if necessary, or remove the spool and use steel wool to smooth the axle. Any tip-up that cannot be made to run smoothly goes in the trash.
“Clean” means minimal terminal rigging and low-visibility line. Fluorocarbon line can be an advantage. With monofilament, use nothing heavier than 8-pound-test. Tie the hook at the end of the line, not near the sinker. Walleyes should not be able to feel the main line rubbing against their sides.
Toward the end of the ice-fishing season, into March in many areas, walleyes may begin gravitating toward their spawning areas. They will move more and be more aggressive. Tip-ups will still work, but many expert walleye anglers prefer jigs tipped with minnows. This allows them to be more mobile. Pulling and setting tip-ups, and then drilling new holes for tip-ups, is time-consuming. You can often catch more walleyes through one jigging hole at a time, allowing for moves, than you can with a string of tip-ups.
Two distinct behavior patterns will be seen from late winter through early spring. During late winter, walleyes usually will hold where they do not have to fight a lot of current, but they will take advantage of good feeding opportunities. In most cases the walleyes you find in stiff currents will be the smaller males.
Sometime in early spring, walleyes begin moving toward their spawning areas, generally in an upstream direction. This movement triggers better fishing because it makes it more likely for the walleyes to find your baits and lures, and because it forces the fish to feed more (owing to their having to expend energy).
While walleyes are still holding in calmer areas, slowly drifting with a live minnow rig is a hard method to beat. If you are confident that you have located walleyes, still-fishing is very effective. Walleyes tend to react more quickly in rivers than in lakes, though, so artificial lures can also be effective.
One of the most important things to do now is identify what walleyes are eating. This does not necessarily mean you should identify the exact species of baitfish walleyes are eating. All you need to know is some basic information. If walleyes are feeding on darters, sculpins or other bottom-dwelling fish, use a jig-and-minnow rig to keep the bait within inches of the bottom.
If walleyes are feeding on shiners or other fish that tend to suspend above the bottom, rig with live minnows on floaters to keep them above the bottom. Fishing minnows under slip-bobbers, or fishing them vertically on measured line, might be the best method if the forage is more than three or four feet above bottom.
You should be able to determine if walleyes are feeding above the bottom by observing the small marks on your sonar rig or Fish Finder. If you see no baitfish marks, assume that walleyes are looking toward the bottom for their food.
Another feeding situation you should be aware of is when walleyes are feeding on insect larvae such as mayfly nymphs. This is not well known, but it is very common. The easiest way to determine this is by examining the stomach contents of a freshly caught walleye. Insect larvae will appear as dark goo. Use a magnifying glass to get a better look. (Digestion takes much longer during winter, so identifying stomach contents is easier.)
A good clue that walleyes are feeding on insect larvae is when you find
them over soft bottom, or in an area where there are a lot of dead leaves on the bottom.
Minnows will catch walleyes in this situation, but you might get better results using small black marabou jigs. This requires great patience, because it takes a while for tiny jigs, no more than 1/16 ounce, to sink to the bottom in even a mild river current. Fish these jigs very slowly to keep them close to the bottom because insect larvae also move very slowly.
Walleyes get into much stiffer currents once they begin staging in anticipation of the spawn. They become considerably more aggressive. Minnow rigs are effective if you find a concentration of walleyes, but the real trick is finding them. This calls for fishing methods that cover water faster than live bait rigs. One of the best is trolling with stick baits.
Keeping baits and lures very close to the bottom is important in spring. This can be done by either of two methods: using deep-diving stick baits or using shallow-running stick baits behind heavy weights. The latter is a more precise method. Deep-diving stick baits can only dive so deep without weight being added to them. Then, if weight is added, the deep divers are so far below the weight that precise control is difficult. With shallow-running lures rigged a couple of feet above the weight and with the weight bouncing on the bottom, you know the lure is working just above the bottom.
Spring walleye anglers use various types of bottom-bouncers. The most effective is a piece of lead cast onto a straight metal rod. One advantage of this type of trolling sinker is that the metal rod transmits vibrations very efficiently to the rod, so you know exactly when you are bouncing bottom. Another is that, with a little experimentation, you can get the lure running about the same depth as the bottom of the metal rod. This takes about 5 feet of leader behind the sinker.
In heavy currents, such as you might encounter in large rivers, weights of 1 pound or more keep the rigs running close to the boat in depths of more than 20 feet. Anglers who do a lot of this kind of fishing often use hand-held lines or very stiff, short rods. While this takes some of the sport out of catching walleyes, it is very effective.
It is not the current working on the terminal rig that necessitates heavy rigs; it is the current working on the line. As anyone who has ever tried to swim in a river can tell you, the current is considerably milder close to the bottom than it is a couple of feet above the bottom. Walleyes do not generally fight heavy current. This is probably the most significant reason walleyes are usually found close to the bottom in rivers, as opposed to lakes, where they often suspend far above the bottom.
These places may be covered with ice during the winter. Fight the temptation to ice-fish, because river ice is treacherous. Currents can quickly erode ice. You might drill a hole through a foot of ice, take two more steps and be standing on an inch of ice. If you go through the ice into even a very mild current, you can be washed under the ice.
Any rise in river flow that breaks up the ice can create springtime hotspots. This is a common occurrence during late winter. Because walleyes are reluctant to fight the current, they will stay in the calmer places as long as river flows are high.
As late winter progresses into early spring, rises in river flows are the norm in most areas. Even though walleyes are on the move at this time, they still seek relief in calmer places, if only for a brief rest before continuing their travels. This is a good situation for still-fishing with live minnows during late winter or early spring. Expect to find most walleyes off the edge of the current. Cast baits here or into the current, and then allow the current to wash the bait to the edge of the calmer water.
High river flows are usually muddy. While walleyes can find bait in muddy water, give them a little help by adding some color to your rig. Fluorescent red or orange will be visible for a few feet, or even just a few critical inches, farther than bait alone. Use any type of colored float, but do not try to float the bait too far off the bottom. Thirty inches between the sinker and the bait is about right. The current acting on the float will keep the bait close to the bottom, just far enough to make the bait more visible.
Walleyes generally move upstream during the early spring period before the spawn, so anything that blocks upstream movement will cause walleyes to congregate. Rapids, which slow the upstream movement of walleyes, and dams, which completely stop the run, are hotspots in virtually all walleye rivers. Some of the best fishing in either situation can be done from the bank because the calmer sections are often close to shore. At dams where boat access is restricted, shore fishing is the only way to go.
If you can access retaining walls below dams, fish heavy jigs tipped with live minnows vertically along the edges of the walls, where the current is slowed or broken.
Many of the best walleye anglers in the country fish below the rapids during early spring. These places tend to attract fewer anglers than the dam pools, possibly because getting to them usually requires more effort and fishing them is somewhat more challenging.
Fishing the base of rapids from shore can be frustrating because of snags. River bottoms in these places are typically a jumble of rocks and debris that quickly snag anything that drifts along the bottom.
But by early spring, walleyes will often be more aggressive than they were during late winter and they will chase artificial lures. Try stick baits that run as close to the bottom as possible without hitting the bottom. This requires some experimentation. You must determine which stick bait is best at each riffle. A lure than runs a foot deeper might be the difference between success and failure.
Sinking stick baits will work if they have adequate action at slow retrieve speeds. If you are not satisfied with the action of sinking stick baits, add split shot about six inches in front of the lure.
Experiment also with colors. Fire tiger and other patterns that contain orange are usually best in muddy water. Natural color patterns and blue-black are good for clear water.
pically quite shallow. The movement of walleye schools toward spawning sites may take weeks, and walleyes may stage nearby for several days.
Long underwater points are good places to intercept walleyes as they move. (This is also a good pattern after the spawn.) Casting stick baits over the points is very effective. Retrieve slowly. This can be done either from boats or while wading.
Probably the most reliable fishing pattern for pre-spawn walleyes in lakes is in situations in which walleyes spawn in tributaries. This is simply a matter of the walleyes being concentrated in a relatively small area. Often, all of the walleyes in a lake will spawn in one tributary, or a few tributaries in larger lakes. In the Great Lakes, for example, walleyes from a very broad area congregate in a few larger tributaries.
Hotspots will continue to move upstream as the spawn approaches, starting near the tributary mouth. Later, dropoffs, deep pools and calm areas on the insides of bends get hot. The first good spawning habitat will stop most upstream movement.
In states where walleye fishing season is closed to protect spawning fish, you can sometimes work all of these patterns in reverse following the spawn (as the season allows).
Fish behavior is rarely as simple as you might have read. Each body of water has peculiar characteristics that affect walleyes in different ways. Even in a single body of water, different walleyes, or age-classes of walleyes, will often behave in various ways.
At least one of the tactics described here should get you into the game at most places, but keep your eyes and ears alert for whatever local anglers are doing.
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