A Beginner’s Guide to Ice Fishing for Walleye
Are you ready to experience the joy of catching your first walleye? If so, you’ve set your sights on a worthy adversary! Any seasoned ice angler will tell you that catching this tricky fish in the winter requires skill, technique, and most all of patience. The thrill of the chase is what makes sinking walleye so rewarding.
If you’re prepared to give it all you’ve got, your friends here at Ambush Hunting Products have compiled some tricks and tips that will help you make the most of your beginnings in ice fishing.
The King of the North
Walleye are a cold-water species native to the northern United States and Canada. They are a prized fish in this region, much like salmon in the west. Walleye range anywhere from twelve to thirty inches in length. Females can weigh up to ten pounds, with the males topping out at around six.
During the day, this fish is quite comfortable swimming deep in lakes and rivers. They are typically found anywhere from 15 to 30 feet below the surface, though they do come up to feed.
Walleye take their name from their so-called glassy “wall-eyes,” which give them eyesight favorable to hunting in low-light conditions. Their excellent hunting ability makes walleye top hunters; other than humans, they have no natural predators.
They are known among fishers to be aggressive and finicky, which can make them difficult to catch even in the warmer months when they are more active. Their energetic personality means that ice fishers must be ready to adapt to the whims of this fish.
Those who succeed in luring them are highly rewarded. Walleye is a delicious white-fleshed fish, a favorite dish in the places it is prevalent.
Devising Your Game Plan
Success in walleye ice fishing is dependent upon creating a solid game plan before you even leave your house.
Lakes Versus Rivers
First things first: where do you want to fish walleye? Do you prefer lakes or rivers? Proximity to these bodies of water is a deciding factor for many anglers, but if you are traveling long distances, you’ll need to decide. Ice fishing in lakes and rivers varies enough that you will have to plan according to the location you choose.
Once you determine where you’re going, you’ll need to figure out where to fish.
Good old word of mouth is a great place to start. Ask local bait shop owners for recommendations and talk with other anglers to find out where fish are biting. The Internet can also house a vast wealth of information.
If you decide on a lake, walleye can be fished both on the shore and on the ice. They come up to shallow flats to feed, so you’ll want to set up camp in certain places: gravel bars, rocky drop-offs, and in weed lines along the shore. They also like structures like islands and the areas where sand turns to soft bottom.
Rivers are a different story. Walleye stay close to the bottom of rivers, where there is little to no current. They congregate at dams and near shore close to woody debris during the winter months.
When ice fishing, it’s best not to become too attached to any one place. If you’re not getting results, even in the areas where fish are supposed to be, moving somewhere else is the best course of action.
Catching Walleye: Not All Hours Are Created Equal
Knowing when prime walleye activity occurs is essential. If you sink a line in the middle of the day, you’re likely to be disappointed.
The best time of day to catch these underwater predators is around dawn or dusk. These low-light times of day are when they come up to shallower depths in hopes of finding their next meal. However, the exact time frame will depend on whether you’re fishing on a stained or clear-water lake.
Clear-water lakes often require you to fish after dark—you may even find fishing through the night can be productive. Stained waters present a different scenario, with the lead-up to dusk (about an hour and a half) usually the most productive time to fish.
Whatever type of lake you’re on, patience is critical when it comes to the walleye. Their metabolism slows in winter, making them lazy and sluggish, another reason they are widely regarded as the most challenging fish to catch.
Clothing & Equipment Basics
You’ll need to make sure you have the proper gear before heading out. So what are the essentials you need to catch walleye?
Donning the proper clothing in bitterly cold walleye regions will make all the difference when it comes to enjoying ice fishing.
Start with your feet. Since you will be in constant contact with wet ice, invest in a genuinely waterproof pair of boots that can stand up to these conditions. A pair of thick, wool socks is another must. Some anglers opt to wear two pairs—a moisture-wicking pair next to their skin to pull sweat away, and a wool pair on top. Keeping your feet warm and dry is critical.
A waterproof coat and overalls are every angler’s staple, but what you wear underneath will determine how warm you are. Layers are your best defense against cold. Pair a thermal shirt or two with fleece, which will trap heat. You may also want to consider long johns under your overalls, and gloves are a must.
While ice fishing equipment can vary, the following items are essential:
- Fishing rod
- Carrying box
- Ice auger
These are the basics your ice fishing expedition can’t live without.
What Kind of Live Bait Should You Use?
Walleye are finicky fish that require you to always be on your toes. Their strong personality is why, when it comes to bait, it’s good to carry at least a couple of different options. Live bait won’t let you down.
Minnows are the most commonly used bait when fishing walleye. Minnows are appropriate for colder water temperatures, and they are widely available at bait shops. Smaller minnows will help you catch mid-size stuff, while larger minnows will allow you to pull in some truly impressive walleye.
Nightcrawlers and leeches are also great options, though they are better suited for slightly warmer water temperatures. They are a great choice from late spring to early fall. That said, having either one of these in your bait box as a backup is always a great idea.
What Kind of Lures Attract Walleye?
Lures are a highly effective alternative to live bait, popular among anglers. They come in several forms. Your success will depend on your ability to use a combination of these lures, so get to know and use them all.
Jigs’ main appeal is that they offer versatility in many situations. A jig is a hook with a soft body that comes in many shapes and sizes. You can use any color jig to attract walleye, but they do seem to prefer darker colors.
Crankbaits are lures with plastic lips made out of plastic or wood. This plastic lip causes the bait to dive down into the water. It’s important to choose a crankbait appropriate for the depth you will be fishing in. For the walleye, deep diving crankbaits work best. If you’re fishing in clear water, go for silver, gold, or blue colors; in dark water, bright crankbaits are best.
Jigging spoons and flutter spoons are the two types of spoons anglers use to catch walleye. They flutter to the bottom much the way a dying minnow would, attracting the fish’s attention in a very natural way. The main difference between jigging and flutter spoons is the rate at which they sink, with jigging spoons dropping faster.
Ice House Options
Many anglers opt to bring an ice house to make their time fishing more enjoyable. These portable mini shelters allow for protection from the elements and come in a wide range of designs and price points.
The main advantage of bringing an ice house with you is the comfort factor. You can put chairs, equipment, food, and a portable heater inside and create a cozy microclimate. Some even come with a heating system.
You’ll want to keep certain things in mind when purchasing an ice house. Your budget is the most important, as the price of ice houses can vary significantly. Also, since they do come in a variety of sizes, you’ll need to know how many people will generally be using the ice house and plan accordingly. Finally, the ease of set up is another important consideration.
If the thought of having to set up an ice house doesn’t appeal to you, there are also permanent options. Many establishments rent ice houses to anglers, which run the gamut from small two-person huts to larger cabin-type accommodations. Some are even intended for overnight use and include bathrooms.
You’re There—Now What?
Once you’ve got your gear prepared, your fishing license and your game plan mapped out, what about the actual fishing? Do you drop a line and wait?
The great thing about ice fishing is that it requires you to be mentally active and adapt to the conditions. It’s rarely as simple as just dropping a line.
First of all, you’ll want to make sure you’re fishing at the right depth, which will vary according to lake type. On stained lakes, the six- to twelve-foot ranges will probably yield the best results. It’s a different story for clear lakes, however, where you’ll want to fish more in the ten- to the twenty-foot range. That said, depths outside of these ranges can be fruitful as well.
Most anglers use two lines, one for jigging and one as a dead stick. The idea is that the movement of the jigging line will attract the fish. If it’s not biting, often the fish will opt for the live bait that’s not moving. In either case, the two-line method is an excellent walleye strategy.
If you are planning to fish with two lines, check that the state you are fishing in allows this practice. Some states’ fishing regulations, like Minnesota, only allow one line per fishing license.
If you have access to a sonar unit, this equipment is hugely beneficial. Sonar allows you to see where fish are, which is undoubtedly helpful in icy conditions. If you see fish on the sonar, but they are not biting, this is a signal that it’s time to change up your approach.
Ice Fishing Tips & Tricks
For many anglers, the real joy of ice fishing lies in finessing their technique. They use a wide range of tips and tricks when the going gets tough. We suggest that you:
- Add some live bait to your lures. Many anglers note that putting a minnow on a jig can be very useful.
- Tease a fish that’s teasing you by jiggling your lure at the same time you raise it higher in the water and repeat. This practice can yield excellent results.
- Shake your rod as fast as you can to produce vibrations.
- Don’t get complacent with your lures. Experiment with a variety of lure types and colors and bait until you figure out what the fish want.
- Be mobile! If the fish aren’t biting and you can move, go somewhere else.
- Most importantly, don’t forget to check at regular intervals for dead or missing bait. You won’t catch any fish with no bait.
Keep in mind that these are just a few of the many tips and tricks anglers use. Over time, you will discover some of your own. Talk to other anglers, read informational articles, and see what works for you.
Now Onto to the Fun Stuff
With a little bit of luck and proper technique, you’ll be well on your way to catching your first walleye. Your team at Ambush Hunting wishes you happy fishing and lots of luck!