January 10, 2023
By Scott Mackenthun
It's mid-January and the rush of first ice has passed. The weather is getting colder, the ice thicker, and in many places the walleye bite is becoming tougher. Dissolved oxygen levels start sagging on smaller lakes in the absence of photosynthesis, and the fish get lethargic. More anglers are hitting the ice on bigger water and making more noise, and the pressure and disturbance of vehicles and fish houses begin adding up. Midwinter walleyes might be tougher to find and fool than those first-ice fish, but for anglers who know where to look and what to use, the ice fishing can still be fantastic.
"Walleye fishing in midwinter doesn’t have to get tougher," says Jason Mitchell, long-time Devils Lake fishing guide and host of "Jason Mitchell Outdoors."
He says he finds midwinter walleyes in predictable locations, usually on some of the Midwest's larger lakes. Early in the hardwater season, he suggests, smaller lakes fish very well, but fishing pressure usually results in a quick decline moving into midwinter.
"On marginal walleye lakes, it's good fishing but not great fishing, especially as the fish get picked off," Mitchell says. "There might be a spot that holds 200 walleyes, but by the middle of winter, half of them are gone and the rest are getting wise to [the] telltale noise of vehicles, cracking ice and commotion. By the middle of January, things can get beat up a bit."
He feels destination-type fisheries such as Lake of the Woods, Devils Lake, Lake Oahe, Leech Lake and Mille Lacs Lake offer better opportunities come midwinter, but wherever anglers go, they'll need to log some time and effort to find walleyes.
"When people can first walk out, they can reach the prominent bars, points or a gravel reef," Mitchell says. "By the time vehicles can show up out there, those spots are over."
On smaller lakes, this may mean that the angler is simply out of luck. However, on bigger lakes, there is still a lot more structure left to reach. He suggests that serious walleye addicts should try to get to places where others have not already been with trucks and hard-sided fish houses.
"Midwinter can be excellent if you are on the tip of the spear," he says. "If you are fishing new water and new spots as ice develops, you'll do fine. But if you fish the same structure that has been visited for a month straight, it is going to be tough."
The best midwinter walleye strategies are to get to middle-lake reaches and avoid the crowds. You can plot your ambush by hedging your bets on depth transitions. You're setting a trap to catch roaming walleyes, especially as they move up on foraging structures. Mitchell says anglers can't go wrong with offshore spots. He especially likes targeting deep transitions that taper to mud or scattered rock. Other options include reefs, islands and humps, though saddles and corner transition turns can also hold fish.
These are spots where fish are looking for prey along pinch points, all offshore and untouched until midwinter. Purchase a quality lake map or use a mapping app with good definition and pick a few spots to try. Or spend late fall or summer graphing your favorite walleye lakes with automatic chart building capabilities and mark your own spots ahead of the winter.
Know that the spots that produced walleyes at first ice have slowed down, the fish having moved off to deeper water where they'll spend more time roaming. It takes a bit of effort, but you'll likely start your search in deeper water and at places where depth changes intersect. Roaming fish will cluster on structures or at least pass through frequently enough to give you plenty of encounters.
FIND AND FINESSE
Mitchell likes using the whole day to find fish come midwinter, including the midday period with a high sun. Fish are most active around dawn and dusk, so he suggests using the bulk of the day to scout. If you do catch a walleye or mark lots of fish on a spot at the wrong time of day, Mitchell says to make a mental note, then plan to capitalize on that information in the evening or the next morning. Mitchell says the bite window may only last around 20 or 30 minutes around sunrise or sunset, so you want to be ready. If you appropriately use the daylight to check those spots and develop a solid strategy, you should be ready come prime time.
Midwinter walleye anglers should plan a good one-two punch. Start by fishing aggressively to find fish. Make your first drops with Clam Tikka Minos, Leech Flutter Spoons or Rattlin' Blade Spoons. When you know there are fish in the area, slow things down and work carefully.
"Once I know fish are around," Mitchell says, "a deadstick really shines midwinter. Fish just want a little less. If you are marking fish where they won't even come into your cone angle or [where] you jig the bait and they’re gone, or if they're really temperamental, just go down to a plain hook and shiner with a split shot."
Sometimes, he says, a rattle reel will outfish anything in midwinter, especially if you're sitting on a good spot. He suggests that a minnow on a plain hook is one of the hardest things for fish to become conditioned to on high-pressure lakes. On lakes with a high density of walleyes, he says anglers can be a lot more aggressive because there are just more fish out there and they don't all get to see everything first. However, on smaller waters, finesse tactics with tip-ups or set lines often rule the day. In general, pay attention to how fish are reacting and make changes accordingly.
Covering mid-lake transitions can mean an aggressive jigging line paired with a simple jig-and-minnow under a bobber in the hole next to you. Or you can string a series of tip-ups over a reef or a drop-off, giving you coverage in a variety of depths. If the same tip-up keeps getting hit, consider moving others to similar depths. An aggressive tip-up approach is as simple as tail-hooking a large minnow, chub or sucker to allow for more action in the water. A more subtle tip-up approach is a standard hooking through the mouth or near the minnow’s dorsal fin to limit movement. To further restrict things and keep your minnow from swimming off too far, simply add more weight to your line.
HIT THE RIGHT ICE
When picking the ideal midwinter walleye lake, choose carefully by accounting for lake size, the amount of in-lake structural elements, the amount of fishing pressure to date and the abundance of walleyes. Mitchell says every lake is going to set up a little different, and there is no one-size-fits-all solution. However, if you find a good mid-lake spot, fire up some fish to know if they are around, cover the depths and get ready for prime-time feeding windows, you should do well. And just like that, your midwinter walleye woes will be a thing of the past.