Winter walleye anglers get conditioned. Most realize that walleyes spend much of the winter shadowing deep structure — humps and reefs — and their movements are relatively limited.
Targeting the same locations throughout the winter capitalizes on the brief feeding flurries winter walleyes exhibit, usually at dusk and dawn, before reverting to a prolonged period of relative inactivity.
But at some point in late winter there’s a stirring, a beckoning, a calling that walleyes heed. There’s a certain population of walleyes still occupying offshore structure nearly year around, but as spring approaches increasing numbers of walleyes heed the siren’s song to head shallow.
“The closer you get to spring the more walleyes are going to relate to moving water,” said veteran ice-angler Walt Matan of Custom Jigs & Spins Inc. “Once you see the ice start pulling away from shore you know the walleyes are going to be heading to the shallows. It doesn’t matter if it’s a major river or stream or backwater … walleyes are attracted to moving water in the spring and are going to begin seeking out gravel, rock, any green weeds they can find well before the ice is gone.”
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The migration starts in midwinter. It’s typically not a mad push into the shallows, but a more gradual staging. “Gravel shorelines, humps, bars and surviving weeds are going to be road signs for walleyes staging in the first deep hole or dropoff near river mouths,” said Matan.
Walleyes make nightly exploratory sorties from these staging areas into the shallows long before the ice begins to melt. Once the ice begins to pull away from the shoreline, pH levels in the water increase, days begin to lengthen, and runoff begins to trickle down to the lake from far upstream.
To walleyes and savvy walleye anglers, it’s a sign — it’s time to move to shallower water.
The elevated metabolism and activity levels mean walleyes will spend increasing amounts of time in the shallows as last ice approaches. During the bright midday hours, expect walleyes to retreat to the security of deep water, but even then, schools of marauding walleyes will begin patrolling adjacent structure and breaklines on a more regular basis before ending up in the shallows from dusk to dawn.
Thinning ice, shallow water and sunshine are a combination walleyes don’t like. It’s like a magnifying glass or being under a spotlight to their sensitive eyes.
Don’t expect walleyes to move shallow until well after dark most days. The exception is on dark, overcast or stormy days, but in general don’t plan on them to show up until their receptive eyes can adjust and become a weapon to help ambush their prey.
Shallow can mean anywhere from 2 to 10 or 12 feet. Any way, many of the standard winter walleye lures don’t work so well in the shallows.
The reason is they fall too fast. With only a fraction of the water column to work with, lures that fall slowly and flutter toward the bottom or swim on their own excel.
“There are several lures that I rely on in the shallows,” shared Matan. “A lot of times I’ll just use a minnow or a minnow head on a 7mm Chekai jig and just jiggle and quiver it just off the bottom. A 5/16- or 1/4-ounce Slender Spoon can be a great attractor in the shallows. The way it slowly flutters down keeps the lure in the strike zone for an extended period of time and triggers strikes. Some of the most productive colors are gold, clown and perch. Another alternative is a jiggin’ lure like a Rotating Power Minnow (RPM). When jigged, an RPM will move as far as 3 feet off to the side, drawing walleyes from a distance. Orange perch and white/green are killers. Custom Jigs & Spins’ new Rattlin’ Rotating Power Minnow has even more calling power.”
Think outside box
Walleye guru Dave Militello is the kind of angler who thinks outside the box and it usually pays big dividends.
“I tend to go where no one else thinks of going,” joked Militello. “That’s definitely the case when it comes to walleyes in the shallows.”
He said he’s typically one of the first to target 2 to 6 feet of water that everyone else is going right past on their way to their usual hotspots.
“The shallow water phenomenon is a night bite,” shared Militello. “It’s typically not an immediate occurrence. Sometime it’s well after dark before the walleyes move in, but if you’re patient it usually happens.” He sometimes hits this shallow bite while wading. He doesn’t use electronics in shallow water.
Militello said the walleyes head shallow to corral baitfish and they use the ice and shoreline to pin their prey.
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“It’s not real complicated,” said Militello. “I use a 1/8-ounce jig to tail-hook a lively minnow. The idea is to just slowly lift it up occasionally and then let it swim off to the side. The minnow provides the action. You don’t want to be banging bottom with a heavy spoon like you would normally. In fact, I avoid making contact with the bottom because it just stirs things up and makes it harder for the walleyes to see your bait. Walleyes really don’t like suspended stuff in the water column because it makes it harder to see.
“I don’t normally use braid when I’m ice-fishing, but I do in the shallows,” he said.
He notes that when you initially cut the hole, it has some sharp edges that can cut mono or fluorocarbon.
“When you hook a walleye in the shallows with 2 or 3 feet of line out, the first thing they do is go sideways. I like Power Pro 10/2. Once the hole has been cut for a while the edges will round off, but you lose some fish at first if you don’t use braid.”
Stealth and safety are extremely important in the shallows. Walleyes are on edge in the skinny water and any extraneous noise will spook them. It’s a good idea to drill holes ahead of time if you can. Electric augers, like the Ion Ice Auger (www.ioniceaugers.com), make it easy and quiet to cut holes on soft, last ice. Nothing shuts down the fishing quicker than a noisy crowd. “I usually get a week or so of good fishing before word gets out and the crowd shows up,” joked Militello.
Because you’re in such shallow water, falling through is not life threatening in itself, but getting back on the ice and hypothermia is. It’s a good idea to wear an inflatable life jacket like the ones made by Onyx Outdoors (www.onyxoutdoor.com). They’re lightweight and don’t interfere with your fishing. It’s a good idea to attach a whistle to it to call for help, and keep your cell phone in a sealed container. Keep a spare change of clothes handy in case you fall through. In general, this time of year you need to use extreme caution.
The hot fishing in the shallows doesn’t end when the ice leaves. The walleyes don’t either. “As soon as the ice leaves, I get the boat out,” shared Militello. “Just because the ice leaves doesn’t mean the walleyes do. The water is still cold and walleyes still make nightly raids into the shallows long after the ice is gone.”
Militello said the strategy is fairly simple.
“I just run in-line boards pulling Husky Jerks in anywhere from 6 to 8 feet of water. The water is still cold so you need to troll fairly slowly from 1.5 to 2.0 mph. A lot of times there will be icebergs floating around still and if you can run your boards right up next to those icebergs, the walleyes will hide underneath there. The best locations are where you have a gradual taper from deeper to shallow water. It’s even better if you have some rocks or gravel and moving water entering the lake nearby.”
A secondary peak in the fishing takes place as smelt move into the shallows once the water temperature reaches 42 degrees.
Militello says he typically doesn’t even remove the board when he gets a fish on because the lure is only a few feet behind the board. You can add glow sticks to keep track of the boards. An alternative is to use boards like Yeck Lure’s (fishyecklures.com) planer board.
The Yeck board is much lighter and smaller than other conventional planer boards and comes with a jettison release. Simply run a 4mm faceted up your line, tie on a barrel swivel and a 6-foot leader with a snap swivel on the other end.
Let out as much line as you like and attach the board using the jettison release. When a fish strikes, the board releases and slides down to the bead. You can reel the board and the fish in together.
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Smoking hot fishing continues for a couple of weeks after the ice is gone, but walleyes don’t leave the shallows entirely until water temperatures get uncomfortable.
Post-spawn fish will revisit the shallows because they know they provide a nighttime buffet. It’s a good feeling to be poised for a night of hot fishing while others are headed in with their tails between their legs.
Before You Go: Check the Regs
Walleye fishing seasons vary greatly from state to state. Be sure to check the regulations where you’re planning on fishing. Walleye season in some states closes at the end of February, others close in the middle of March and in some states the walleye season never closes. There are areas in states where the season is closed on specific waters, but remains open on others. Generally, waters on the Great Lakes and connecting water remain open year around, but wherever you are planning to fish, check the regulations before you go.