Winter walleyes that have been lethargic and semi-active during the dead of winter awaken as the days begin to lengthen and the fish sense that spring isn't that far away. The wakeup call is further enhanced by changes in water temperature and pH levels due to run-off. These subtle changes take place well in advance of actual break-up, but they spur walleyes to a heightened level of activity that knowledgeable anglers can take advantage off.
"Late ice can be really hot," shared ice fishing guru Brain Brosdahl (brosguideservice.com, 218-340-6051). "As winter wanes, walleyes become more active and more predictable. The closer spring gets, the more time they're going to spend in the shallows chasing baitfish, which also move shallow in anticipation of spring. The only stimulus greater than the need to eat is the need to procreate. Long before the actual spawn takes place walleyes start to gravitate towards barriers such as dams and rivers, inlets and gravel shoals where they will spawn in early spring. Savvy anglers position themselves along these travel corridors that transient walleyes are using to migrate to pre-spawn destinations. During the waning days of last ice, expect hot action in as little as a couple feet of water."
"The fall migration is tied to the spring spawn," shared Brosdahl. "Walleyes don't wait until last ice to migrate."
He explains that they migrate when they are in prime condition in the fall. Once they reach their winter destination, they become relatively dormant.
"Winter walleyes move less than people think," He said. "It's all linked to metabolism. There's little movement in the winter, especially if there's suspended forage for them to just rise up and feed on. The closer you get to spring the more movement you're going to see from deep to shallow and for longer durations. Changing light levels are a huge trigger. Gravel shorelines, humps, bars and surviving weeds are going to be highways for walleyes staging in the first deep hole or drop-off near river mouths."
Shallow is a relative term, but it might mean as little as a couple feet of water. Walleyes invade the shallows to harass and corral schools of baitfish to satisfy increased energy demands. Under low — light situations and under the cover of darkness, walleyes have the advantage. Their superior vision allows them to feast on unsuspecting schools of baitfish and hunt in marauding packs.
Walleyes are on edge in the skinny water. They realize they're out of their element and are ultra-spooky when in the shallows. Buzzing snowmobiles, the rhythmic thumping of a spud, the drone of an ice auger and a cluster of noisy anglers will send a pack of walleyes hightailing it back for deeper water. It's key to keep noise to a minimum and avoid crowds. Punch holes well in advance of prime time. One advantage of late-season ice is that holes will remain open when nighttime temperatures don't dip much below freezing.
The elevated metabolism and activity levels mean that 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 break lines on a more regular basis before ending up in the shallows from dusk to dawn.
"The same fish-holding humps, reefs, and structure that provided hot walleye action on first ice will be dynamite again when the ice starts to melt," advised Brosdahl. Expect the really skinny water to be hot from dawn to early morning and again in late afternoon until just after dusk.
It's estimated a walleye's caloric intake triples from mid-winter to last-ice. Walleyes feel the urge to feed, which is good news for anglers. Instead of a brief 20- or 30-minute period of elevated activity during the dead of winter, last ice produces feeding binges that last for 90 minutes or more at first and last light. Fishing after dark is a time many hard-water anglers don't explore, but it has tremendous last-ice potential.
Moving water is like a siren's song to late-winter walleyes. Look for late-ice walleyes to be drawn to wherever creeks or streams enter natural lakes. Even subtle flows like drainage ditches can attract pre-spawn walleyes and adjacent flats in the main lake can be hotspots. On manmade lakes, look for walleyes to head towards the reservoir's source. Where a chain of lakes exists, walleyes will eventually congregate below dams that block their migration, but they will be staging in the first deep hole off the river mouth.
Expansive bays and estuaries on very large lakes are home to prodigious numbers of walleyes that roam far and wide and in search of baitfish. Come last ice though, the walleyes zero in on rivers and streams that feed the bays. The migration is not a hell-bent-for-leather rush, but more of a gradual push that gives anglers plenty of opportunity to intercept.
Last-ice walleyes are aggressive, so a variety of lures and techniques will work.
"It's pretty hard to beat a 1/4-ounce Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon on last ice," claimed Brosdahl. "Add a minnow head or whole minnow to it. If you can't get minnows, then plastics like Northland's (www.northlandtackle.com) Impulse Smelt work almost as well. You don't have to rip it or be too aggressive. Just use a lift and fall." Swedish Pimples are a personal favorite. He says that lures like Jigging Rapalas and Puppet Minnows score, too.
Because last-ice walleyes are often in extremely shallow water, thin, lighter spoons that fall slower can be dynamite on last ice. Light spoons like Bay De Noc Lure's (www.baydenoclure.com) Do Jigger as well as Custom Jig & Spin's (www.customjigs.com) Slender Spoon slowly wobble down when jigged, like a dying minnow. That action can produce arm-jolting strikes when you only have 6 feet of line out. You can fish the spoons clean or add a minnow head or a plastic tail to slow the fall and produce a seductive flutter. Drop some of your dead minnows down the hole to get the party started.
Water during the dead of winter will be crystal clear because there's no run-off or wave action. On last ice the water can be stained or colored up. Run-off can be happening far upstream from where you're fishing and making its way down to the lake. When this happens lures need to be seen and/or heard. One reason the Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon works so well on last ice is because of the rattles. Rattling lipless crankbaits work for the same reason. Walleyes can "feel" them even in the murkiest water and in low-light conditions. Glow-colored lures stand out, too.
Instead of waiting for the walleyes to show up, you can set a trap line from deep to shallow to stay on the hot bite. Drill holes well in advance of prime time from deep to shallow to give you a hint as to when the feeding migration has begun. Probe the holes in deeper water until the action starts or, where laws allow, set multiple lines as series of tip-ups leading from deep to shallow water. Once the tip-ups start popping you'll know the walleyes are headed your way.
Last ice has its perils. Last ice is deteriorating, melting from above and below so you really don't know ice conditions from day to day. It's best to error on the safe side. Fish with a buddy when you can and carry life-saving devices like a long length of rope, ice awls, a cell phone in a watertight bag or container. Let someone know where you're going and when you expect to return. Don't rush out to the holes you fished yesterday. Slowly pick you way along while using an ice spud to probe and check ice thickness.
A life jacket is a good idea when fishing last ice. You hardly know you've got inflatable life jackets, like the ones made by Onyx Outdoors (www.onyxoutdoor.com), on. They're light weight and don't interfere with your fishing. You can go one step further by buying a flotation suit. Frabill's (www.frabill.com/new-products/new-ice-products/i-float-jacket) new I-Float jacket and bibs offer an added measure of security and safety. The I-Float system is the only flotation-assisting ice fishing suit to be recognized by the United States Coast Guard as a USCG Certified Personal Flotation Device. The I-Float suit features ergonomic design and durable construction with a mesh-like, self-drainage system so if you do go through you can get back out onto the ice. High-visibility USCG orange lining and garment accents make sure you can be easily found if an accident happens.
My buddy and I sat watching other anglers trying their luck on a river during the last ice period. The ice looked iffy, but the sight of a couple guys icing two pig walleyes influenced our judgment. We reasoned if we just tiptoed along where everyone else had walked we'd be fine. We reached the group of anglers and as I started to move towards an opening in the group a voice said, "I wouldn't do that." I looked in the direction of the voice and an angler said, "A guy just fell in right there ahead of you" as he pointed to a hole in the ice. I stopped and pounded my spud once, twice on the ice and it went through. I gingerly turned around and walked directly to the path we had walked out on. We made it back to the truck, but I still managed to get a boot full of water before we hit shore. No walleye is worth risking your life for.
Walleye fishing seasons vary greatly from place to place. 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.
By all means take advantage of the hot last-ice walleye bite, but be safe doing it.