So, you’ve caught enough fish to feed a village, but the one that got away still lingers in your memories: The infamous Walleye. But instead of giving up and living with regret, you should commit to catching that beautiful fish, even if it means trying a new strategy.
Ice fishing for Walleye has become one of the most popular types of fishing in the last few years. There’s nothing quite like hitting the ice on a chilly winter morning, drilling a hole, and waiting for the Walleye to bite. Yes, the chill factor isn’t always pleasant, but the thrill of the catch keeps ice anglers coming back year after year.
The secret to finding Walleye is figuring out their movements; they change during the first, middle, and last ice of the season. Understanding their activity underwater can help you walk away with one or more prized catches.
But if you’re new to the Walleye ice fishing game, just follow our simple guide, and you won’t end up with the same old Pike.
Have you ever heard the fabled myth about Walleyes constantly on the move and prone to long-distance migrations? No? Well, that’s probably for the best. While this might be true for some lakes or reservoirs, it’s not always the case. Walleye movement doesn’t have anything to do with winter at all.
Studies show that 60% of Walleye in the North end up migrating over 30 miles down the river to the St. Lawrence. Another study on Lake Winnebago showed that 21% of tagged adult Walleyes were recaptured 25 to 90 miles from their release point origin. Over time, many other studies correlated these findings with some Walleye movements starting at 120 and ending at 240 miles.
Much of these findings were conducted on larger lakes/reservoirs and were associated with pre-spawn and post-spawn movements. What does that mean? Those fish swam long distances to reach suitable spawning grounds. In some cases, they returned to their open-water summer haunts after spawning. It would appear that little tracking had to do with winter movements because some Walleye tend to make long-distance migrations before the ice comes up.
Many researchers believe that big-water Walleye time long-distance autumn moves within the vicinity of their spawning grounds to take advantage of their prime physical condition. They prefer to make the journey in the fall after a summer of leisure rather than the spring when exhausted egg-laden females are pushed to their limits from all the swimming. Winter fisheries around Lake Erie, the Bay of Quinte, and the Red River in Manitoba are some examples. In each of those fisheries, large groups of Walleye migrated longer distances in the fall to settle for the winter. They often stay close to where they spawn in the spring.
When you experience a relatively stable ice fishing season, it’s mainly because of minimal long-distance movements in the water. If the movements occur as they do on Erie, Quinte, and the Red River, it would mark the last of the open-water fall migration.
If you want to catch Walleye, you’re going to have to find them first. This may seem obvious, but listen up. Targeting Walleye can be difficult because of how sporadic their behavior is and how much it changes throughout the ice fishing season. On top of that, they swim around and move between different depths each day. It’s almost like playing a game of “Where’s Waldo,” but instead, it’s Where’s Walleye (we’re trademarking that).
Because Walleye behavior is so complex, your best bet when catching them under the ice is to stay completely mobile. If you don’t see any Walleye activity under the ice, it’s time to move on to another location. That’s why so many Walleye anglers resort to hole hopping to find the best fishing spots.
Where would anglers be without handy equipment to help them locate more fish? Honestly, you should get your hands on the best resources possible, including fish-finding sonar, lake contour maps, and underwater cameras.
Use those contour maps to find promising ice fishing spots, and then use the sonar or underwater camera to check if any Walleye are swimming below.
When in doubt, you can always rely on your local tackle shops. Some of the most experienced anglers will be able to advise you on the best ice fishing spots. Furthermore, they can share tips to help you make the best catch possible.
You know that point in the winter when it gets beyond cold? Walleye feel it too. As the season becomes more frigid, Walleye move into deeper basins and can be found in 30 to 40-foot-deep water.
During early winter, at the beginning of the first ice, you can find Walleye in shallower water of roughly 7 to 15-foot depth. These fish swim along bays and on shallow flats brimming with large groups of baitfish.
In the late winter, they move again to shallow water where they can be found in 10 to 20 feet of deep water, closer to spawning areas.
Walleyes are like people; they like to frequent familiar areas. Some of the most popular structures you should target are underwater hills, edges of flats, and the extensions of shoreline points.
The best tip we can offer is to look for transition zones that connect deeper water with shallow areas. These locations will have a lot of baitfish, and where there are baitfish, there will likely be Walleye. The most productive ice fishing spots would be where there’s a drop-off between water and shallow areas.
Another structure to look out for are pinch points between two shore points. You must be wondering what “pinch points” are exactly. They act as a funnel that forces Walleye into smaller areas as they pass through the choke point. Yes, it’s a lot of points. The most effective way to catch Walleye in these pinch points is by setting different tip-up stations on the ice to increase your chances of catching these fish.
When trying to attract Walleye, the best option includes jigging lures with a minnow head or whole minnow attached. There are many alternatives, but nothing beats a jig or small spoon with the head of a minnow. That sounds barbaric, but it works.
The flashing colors and jigging movement of the lure can attract Walleye like nothing else. As they near the bait, they can detect the scent of the minnow, which is usually enough to get them to bite.
We’re not saying you can’t try other lures or bait. As we mentioned, Walleye can change their preferences on a dime, so it helps to have some backup options.
One thing to note is that if the water appears to be clear, you could use silver spoons as an effective way to draw in nearby Walleye. Silver spoons are best used in the early ice fishing season when there isn’t much snow cover, and the Walleye are holding their ground in shallow water.
If the water appears stained or murky, you can resort to colorful lures, such as chartreuse, to entice Walleye to bite. Brighter, more vibrant colors are a godsend for stained water ice fishing, as they help Walleye locate your lure.
But at the end of the day, minnows are the best live bait for Walleye, so you should always bring some along with you just in case.
The ideal depth to target Walleye while ice fishing will depend on which part of the season you’re entering.
In most cases, you’ll want to target Walleye at about two feet above the bottom of the lake. It’s pivotal to remember the ideal depth for Walleye can change over the winter months. They prefer deep water during the day and shallower water during the night.
There’s no exact depth at which you’ll be able to find these fish, as it varies from lake to lake. You have to take into account that some fisheries are shallower than others, and the local conditions may factor into whether you’ll catch anything.
When ice fishing in deep water, keep in mind that there will be less light penetration at deeper depths, especially if there’s already snow on the ice. This will make it much harder for Walleye to spot your lure, which is why you should use bright, flashy spoons, and lures that produce vibrations/sound.
Because Walleye frequent both shallow areas as well as deeper water, it can be hard to gauge what depth you should choose when ice fishing.
Using a fish finder or flasher can assist in locating the right depths for Walleye ice fishing. One of the most efficient strategies includes looking for suspended schools of baitfish, as this is where Walleye are likely to roam. Once you’ve located some unsuspecting baitfish, you can lower your lure to the same depth and wait for a bite.
Are you looking to go the extra mile and walk away with more than one Walleye? We hope you say yes because we’re about to tell you about one of the most effective ways to catch them.
Start by drilling holes in the ice. Two holes ought to do it if you're a beginner. Fish with an active rod on one ice hole and use a dead stick rod on the other. Start by jigging lures on the active rod while the dead stick has a live bait rig with a minnow or sucker fish.
If nearby Walleye pass by your lure and don’t bite, they’re likely to end up going after the live bait on the other rod. If you find that you’re getting the most bites with the live bait, you can use it on your active rod and slowly jig it up and down to attract Walleye.
Sunsets are usually the go-to spots for romantic evenings on the water. But did you know it’s also a prime spot for Walleye ice fishing? The hour around sunset is the peak Walleye feeding time.
Walleye are nocturnal feeders and tend to produce more bites during the night rather than the day. If you’re up for some night fishing, this could be the best time of day to make a big catch. There’s also a second peak feeding hour around dawn if you’re willing to get up early and tackle that ice.
Many anglers prefer to ice fish for Walleye during the night, as they’re more unlikely to walk away empty-handed. Not only is it a prime feeding time, but the probability of catching a bigger Walleye is much higher.
If ice fishing at night is in your near future, it’s integral to start setting up in the afternoon when you have the most daylight. This will give you enough time to get everything set up before preparing for the evening bites.
Try to target shallow locations for Walleye since that’s where they’ll be hunting for their prey at night. Flats with a large amount of vegetation are likely to attract nearby baitfish. Setting up shop near those flats with your rods or a series of tip-up stations could yield positive results.
If you’re ice fishing for Walleye, you’re most likely planning on catching as many as possible. Why else would you be out there on the ice? Here are some helpful tips to catch Walleye while on the ice:
There’s no denying that active jigging is the most effective way to catch Walleye while ice fishing. However, the activity of Walleye can be unpredictable, and you may find that you’re getting fewer bites than you had experienced before. That’s where the live bait and deadstick combo comes in. Use these strategies side-by-side, and you’re almost guaranteed to make a catch. As we said previously, if your lures aren’t enticing roaming Walleye, they may go after the live bait on the other rod instead.
Transition areas are some of the best places to find Walleye, especially drop-offs. There are other transition zones you can resort to, such as zones between weed and gravel or sand and gravel. Even if you’re ice fishing on big lakes that don’t have a lot of underwater structures, you can still try your luck with transition zones.
Finding the right spot to drill a hole is the beginning of the battle. You might not always get a bite, even with a contour map or fish finder. Instead of just waiting around one ice hole all day and night, you should stay mobile and drill multiple holes in each location you visit.
For example, you can drill multiple holes along a drop-off point to determine what depth provides the most Walleye action. Spend at least 10 minutes jigging a bright lure at each hole, and check your sonar to see if any fish are coming in to investigate.
Any avid angler understands how stubborn and finicky Walleye can be, and they often believe it has to do with their bait presentation. However, a more aggressive lure presentation will do the trick, as Walleye will swim closer to examine the lure and bait.
So, how do you use aggressive jigging techniques? Start by snapping the jig up a foot higher. After a minute or so, pull it up even higher in the water column and use jerky movements to see if any nearby fish will strike.
Sometimes the Walleye bites are slower than usual. As we said, they can be really finicky. If you notice that the fish are under the ice but aren’t going after your lures, you may want to switch to live bait. For an active rod, try using a tungsten jig head and bait it with a minnow hooked through the upper lip or the dorsal fin.
Make sure you don’t jig a live bait as aggressively as you would with a spoon. Too many rough movements could tear the hook through the minnow, and that just wouldn’t be helping anyone (except maybe the Walleye).
Using a trusty fish finder can work wonders when you’re freezing your butt off on the ice late at night. Fish finder units come packed with excellent features, such as side imaging, GPS sonar, and depth temperature, all on a sleek, high-def screen. Prepare to be awe-struck when you use one of these reliable devices on your next Walleye ice fishing trip. It’s well worth the price if you’re as enthusiastic about fishing as we are! Read our guide on the top ice fishing fish finders here.