January 11, 2024
Dawn and dusk have always been productive feeding windows for walleyes during the hard-water season. Dropping a minnow-tipped jig on prime real estate at these times is as close to a guarantee for walleyes as you'll get. Alternatively, midday walleye angling is often tough. Bright sunshine reflecting off snow and ice deters these light-sensitive fish, as does the commotion of people moving around. However, if you can't fish early or late, you can still catch midday walleyes with a few simple strategies.
FIND THE FISH
While walleyes are known for being elusive and picky, especially midday and during the middle of the hard-water season, fishing guide Jarrid Houston says they're always biting somewhere. His Houston's Guide Service (houstonsguideservice.com) runs ice-fishing trips on Lake Superior, warmwater tributaries to Superior and lakes around Duluth, Minn., and Superior, Wis.
Depending on the bodies of water he's ice fishing, Houston focuses on a few different areas. In the St. Louis River, he looks for mudflats in low or moderate current; he avoids high-current areas, as safe ice rarely forms there. He says that much of this system has similar depths. So, later in the day, when fishing gets tough, he moves across these mudflats searching for small changes in depth, sometimes as little as a foot or two. In an otherwise uniform waterbody, he says, that's a significant deviation that fish notice. On very bright, bluebird days, he moves even deeper out to the channel edges.
"We fish a lot of sand and mud versus the rock you can find in high current," Houston says, "but you still get plenty of chances to encounter walleyes in those transition areas."
When he fishes Minnesota and Wisconsin lakes, his winter daytime hot spots are pretty similar to his summertime haunts. "We are fishing rocks and whatever vegetation is left," Houston says. "On the big reservoirs near Duluth and even on the shallower, more fertile lakes around Superior, we're hitting those locations you'd probably spend time on during the summer. We'll start shallow early and move deeper by midday before moving shallow again later."
In highly productive systems with abundant perch, shiners or shad, walleyes often hang shallow, trying to keep their bellies full and their metabolisms churning, even in winter. In less productive systems, walleyes will likely be found deeper. In general, fish will also push deeper throughout winter and during the middle of each day. Finding midday walleyes means spending some time scouting the best locations offshore. Sunken islands, humps and reefs are great picks, as are muddy flats and deep ledges.
STAY OR GO
If you can't start the day on a good bite and only discover where fish are later in the day, use your time wisely with a few different strategies. One is to camp out over an area where many walleyes will pass through. Gently sloping flats connecting deep and shallow water are great places to catch walleyes chasing baitfish as they move toward deeper water. The deep edge of a reef, a sharp drop-off or a point near deep water are all productive spots, as is a shallow saddle's opposite deep sides or another structural feature situated in or near deep water.
Walleyes, like most fish, don't like noise and commotion. On forward-facing sonar or underwater cameras, you can often see walleye schools react negatively to passing vehicle traffic and the sound of ice augers cutting holes, especially on highly pressured waterbodies. For midday walleyes, move away from crowds.
Whereas open-water anglers move around, fan-casting shorelines and structures, ice anglers cut lots of holes to get as many drops on fresh fish as possible. These "ice trollers" can cover dozens of spots in a day and up their odds of encountering fish. Forward-facing sonar further shortens search time, allowing anglers to drill fewer holes, find fish quicker and tempt them with search baits.
PLAY THE ODDS
Houston's go-to bait, whether he's on walleyes or looking for them, is a Northland Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon. This bait's solid rattle and flashy design have tempted walleyes for years. Houston's one-two combination is fishing aggressively with Buck-Shot spoons or Rapala Jigging Raps, then getting interested chasers to commit to his nearby minnow under a float. Even when he's moving around often, he'll always have a minnow setup nearby.
"In Minnesota, we can fish two lines in the winter, and in Wisconsin we can fish three," he says. "You can be sure I'm playing the odds when it comes to daytime walleyes by keeping some baits down at all times."
Picking spots for daytime walleyes is sometimes as simple as being more discerning in choosing the lake you fish or when you fish. Houston recommends overcast or snowy days, as lower light levels can keep walleyes active and prowling longer. For North Dakota walleye guide and fishing legend Jason Mitchell, this selectivity applies to waterbodies, too.
"There are certain places where you can catch walleyes during the day and, if anything, you can get better bite windows during the day," Mitchell says. "Devils Lake and Lake of the Woods are two of the better examples of lakes that actually fish better during the daylight hours."
Mitchell also recommends anglers understand how water conditions affect timing of the bite. On lakes with stained or turbid water, he says bite windows can extend beyond the usual sunrise and sunset times. He adds that paying attention to major and minor fishing times, which coincide with lunar and solar positions, can be helpful.
"We can get to moonset and moonrise and get these incredible bites that materialize late morning or even in the afternoon," Mitchell says.
DOWNSIZE TO UP ODDS
Mitchell offers sage advice for a lethargic or tapering-off walleye bite. He'll begin a day marking and catching fish in a productive spot. Eventually, those fish slow down and become less aggressive. When this happens, Mitchell swaps bigger jigging spoons and hard baits for a small jig and minnow head, or a smaller spoon, and gets more subtle in his movements.
"You can sit in that spot with a flow of fish and just run traffic, stopping fish that will investigate and triggering strikes from fish that were earlier reluctant," Mitchell says.
When even those fish start to slow and aren't appearing on electronics, he says it's time to get up, cut some holes and move around.
"You don't need to make a big move, just work the edges and margins and see if you can add a few more fish," he says. "Sometimes they are just a stone's throw away, or they are working away from you and you need to get back in contact with them."
PLAN FOR PRIME TIME
Mitchell also believes you can learn a lot about a location during the day, even if fish aren't cooperating. When he fishes new waters or unpressured locations, he'll use the daytime hours to search for fish. If he can catch a few fish at the wrong time of day (midday instead of dawn and dusk), the spot is probably good and will likely only get better during peak bite windows. He feels the same is often true if you're marking many fish at a spot, but they aren't active or aggressive. Confident in his location, Mitchell can either continue picking away at catching fish or return during a better bite window, like a minor solunar phase.
Midday doesn't have to be a bust. Spending time on the right locations, shading deeper as daylight increases and picking the right lakes will help you find more walleyes in daylight periods.