Walleyes are among the most mobile of all freshwater fish. Ice fishermen, on the other hand, have traditionally been among the least mobile of all anglers. Put those two facts together and you can see why ice fishing for walleyes is often a hit-or-miss proposition.
When lakes first freeze over, walleyes are often found on the same shallow flats and bars where they have been for most of the fall. These places usually still have green weeds that hold baitfish and, thus, walleyes. By mid-winter, however, walleyes on most lakes have shifted to a pattern of holding in deep water by day and moving up onto bars, points and flats at night to feed.
Consider for a moment how the most successful anglers you know fish for walleyes during the open-water months. Odds are, they stay mobile until they locate fish, then try a range of techniques and baits until they start catching them. The most successful ice anglers today are doing the same thing.
Just as in the open water season, it's critical to stay on the move until walleyes are found.
An angler in a boat can cover a lot more water than an angler walking or even driving on ice. But once the hard-water angler finds fish, he can park right above them, without heed of the winds and currents that will push a boat off its target. Portable shelters that convert to sleds and fish locators that read through the ice have made moving and finding fish an easier option for today’s ice angler. Underwater video cameras go a step further, allowing the structure-minded angler to actually see rocks, gravel bars, weed beds and other bottom types that hold walleyes.
Winter walleye anglers use two basic rigs: tip-ups and jigging rods. Tip-ups come in a variety of designs. Some even have lights that come on when a fish hits, enabling anglers to fish in the dark. Fill the spool with braided line and add a 6-foot leader of 4- or 6-pound test. Tie on a single, long-shank hook or a No. 10 treble, depending on your preference. Vary the hook size according to the size of your bait.
Bait tip-ups with live minnows, hooked through the back between the dorsal fin and tail. Some anglers clip a fin or a portion of the tail to keep the minnow off balance, forcing it to keep wiggling. (Most minnows wiggle just fine without any help.)
Jigging rods should have enough backbone to handle a big fish and enough flexibility to withstand a sudden run. Attach an open-face spinning reel filled with 4- or 6-pound test monofilament. If you use a high-tech braided line instead, tie on a few feet of mono as a leader.
A variety of jigging lures will take walleyes: spoons, swimming minnow imitations and jigs are the most popular. Take along a selection of colors, and try different lure and color combinations until you catch fish. Fish them plain or tipped with a minnow or minnow head.
Lures that glow are especially attractive to walleyes, probably because they can see them from a long way off. Many ice anglers find the new generation of glow lures, those that emit a phosphorescent glow, to be deadly on deep walleyes. The glow lasts half an hour or more, and can be quickly recharged with a battery-powered strobe. Tiny light sticks that glow for hours and can be attached to any lure are also available in several colors.
When, Where To Fish
Today's portable shelters allow mobile ice anglers to take comfort and protection with them when searching for fish.
Most walleye action occurs early and late in the day, or even at night, but if you locate fish, you should be able to catch them even during daylight hours. On bright days, use a hole cover or disc-type tip-up to keep sunlight from spooking fish.
Any noise on the ice may spook walleyes temporarily. This includes drilling holes, so drill all the holes you think you’ll need at one location before you start fishing. Use a locator to determine where you want the holes, depending on depth and structure. Then one angler can drill holes, while his partner scoops out the ice chips. A third partner can begin setting tip-ups.
On shallow lakes, Wisconsin guide Bruce Peterson suggests hitting the weed flats closest to shore, which usually provide a broad area where you can intercept walleyes on the prowl.
“Even in shallow water, spread your tip-ups out and set them at a variety of depths, from just off bottom to 2 feet under the ice,” Peterson says. “Walleyes don’t always cruise through shallow weed flats near bottom. Even in 6 feet of water, they sometimes come up to hit baits just under the ice. Vary the depth until you see what works consistently, then set all your baits at that depth.”
Peterson likes emerald shiners or golden shiners for walleyes, as their flash is readily visible from some distance away. Both large and small walleyes will hit the smaller emerald shiners, while large walleyes prefer golden shiners.
With the right strategy, hard water anglers can catch walleyes all winter long.
On deeper lakes with more structure, another Wisconsin guide, Chuck Demlow, looks for points and rock bars, using a locator and video camera, then moves in and out on them until he finds fish.
“I’m also looking for hard bottom,” says Demlow, “which a locator will show you if you don’t have a camera.”
Demlow scatters tip-ups over the structure, some shallow, some deep, until he starts catching fish. He likes to set at least one tip-up in very deep water to detect where walleyes are coming from.
“Move up and down the slope on a bar,” Demlow says. “On a point at the mouth of a bay, set tip-ups on the inside and outside of the point and back in the bay.”
Fishing with one or two partners will let you set out more tip-ups and cover more water. Be sure each angler is using a different jigging lure and that each tip-up is set at a different depth. If fish are caught on only one lure or at one depth, switch to the hot lure or depth and stick with that until the fish quit biting or leave the area. If the action is slow, you can send one angler to scout another location. Portable, two-way FRS-band radios let you keep in touch. If the bite starts at a new spot, your group can pick up and move.
Stay mobile this winter. It’s more fun to go to the walleyes, rather than wait for them to come to you.