Ice fishing for Walleye, Pro Tips
Many anglers enjoy ice fishing for walleye. Walleye are one of the most popular freshwater game fish for anglers fishing northern waters. This certainly is true when lakes and rivers freeze over as well. This article will cover the tackle, lures and baits, locations, and techniques to help anglers be more successful when chasing walleye through the ice!
Anglers who would like to read more about ice fishing can purchase Capt Jim’s E-book, “A Complete Guide to Ice Fishing” by clicking on the title link.
Special thanks to Rick DeGagné who owns The Hook ‘n’ Cook Inn, Victoria Beach, Lake Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada. While not a guide, Rick is an expert at ice fishing for walleye. While Lake Winnipeg will be discussed, the tips, tackle, and baits shared will work on hard water walleye anywhere!
Ice fishing tackle and gear
Ice fishing requires some specialized gear and equipment. Some of this is not inexpensive. The rods, reels, lines, and terminal tackle are reasonably affordable. However, ice augers, fish finders, apparel, shelters, GPS units, and even specialized vehicles do get pricey. Most of these items have safety ramifications and anglers should not skimp in these areas. Ice fishing is great fun, but must be done with angler safety in mind. Anglers can read more about ice fishing tackle and gear in this article.
Ice fishing rods and reels
Ice anglers will do well using shorter rods ranging from 24” to 36” and sometimes 42”. Although it is much easier to use a shorter rod, Rick prefers to use a Med/heavy 36” rod with 6lb line when ripping lipless rattle baits like the Live Target. For other lures especially when dead sticking, Rick suggests using shorter 28” rods. However, there is no “wrong” choice, it really is a matter of preference.
Ice fishing shelters
Shelters are a must, especially on larger bodies of water. Insulated flip-overs or pop-ups heated by propane heaters are the preferred choice. Like many other productive lakes, Lake Winnipeg is considered by many to be a featureless lake and therefore the fish are nomadic and are always on the move chasing bait fish. It is common to have to move on the ice so being portable is the way to go.
For this reason most hard core fishermen wear special ice fishing gear that protects them from the extreme cold and winds. Some are also have floatation features. They consist of bibs and jackets. An example would be Striker Ice Climate jacket and bibs. They come with removable liners so they are very useful in different temperatures. A very good pair of boots is also very important! Cold feet will shorten your time on the ice quickly. A great brand would be Baffin boots. They are made for extreme climates.
Fish Finders are a must when ice fishing. It can mean the difference between catching 1 fish or catching 10. Flashers are probably more popular with anglers but graphs are starting to gain more popularity as more advanced technology keeps coming out every year. They are well worth the investment for anglers who are serious about ice fishing for walleye.
Ice fishing augers
Ice thickness can get up to 5 feet thick on far north waters, depending on the season. On average it gets to be 3 to 4 feet thick near the end of the season. Gas powered augers are a must on Lake Winnipeg and other lakes with very thick ice. Electric augers will work but performance is limited in extreme cold and very thick ice. I’ve seen every brand of electric augers breakdown when the ice is 4 feet thick and very cold temps. Skimmers or scoops are also a necessity to clear the slush and ice chips left in the hole. Augers also vary in size, but on Lake Winnipeg 8” to 10” augers are most popular.
GPS units are essential for locating underwater structure. Most anglers do their “homework” during the open water, marking potential holding spots for winter walleye. Also, GPS units are essential safety gear as well. Weather can turn quickly, reducing visibility. Also, if an anglers gets in trouble and needs medical attention, help will know where to come.
Ice fishing for walleye with lures
Artificial lures are extremely effective when ice fishing for walleye. They provide weight to sink, flash and vibration, and of course a hook. Many walleye anglers, Rick included, almost always combine live bait with an artificial lure. Ice fishing lures must be presented vertically, as opposed to open water fishing where they can be cast and retrieved. Most ice fishing lures fall into three categories; jigs, spoons, and plugs.
Ice fishing jigs
Jigs are very popular ice fishing lures for walleye and other species. Anglers chasing panfish use tiny versions. Most anglers ice fishing for walleye choose jigs that weigh 1/8 to ½ ounce. Water depth and current will dictate which size is required. Most quality jigs are Tungsten, which a very dense.
Jigs are usually used in conjunction with a soft plastic bait. This is proven combination that catches fish all year long. The jig and grub can be tipped with a live or frozen minnow.
The best approach when ice fishing for walleye is to allow the jig to float down naturally through the water column. Most walleye will be found on or near the bottom. However, a roaming game fish of any species may intercept it on the way down. Once the jig hits the bottom, it should be bounced lightly. The noise may attract a walleye. Anglers need to be patient and use their sonar units!
Ice fishing spoons
Ice fishing spoons work very well for several reasons. Most are heavy and sink quickly. This results in the bait getting down to the bottom quickly when fishing deeper water. They put out both flash and vibration, which will hopefully attract a hungry walleye. The hook up ratio is good with spoons as well.
Jigging spoons are also fairly easy to fish. The spoon is lowered down to the bottom, then jigged off the bottom using quick movements. As in all fishing, anglers should vary the retrieve until a productive pattern emerges. The same applies to ice fishing spoon sizes and colors, anglers should experiment with various sizes and finishes. Spoons can be tipped with salted frozen minnows as well.
Ice fishing plugs
While many anglers picture plugs being cast out and retrieved, some are effective in a vertical presentation. These really only include specially designed ice fishing plugs as well as lipless crank baits.
The Rapala Jigging Rap is a legendary ice fishing plug. The #7 Jigging Rap is a good size for walleye. Rick likes brighter color patterns for these baits. The bait has a fin on the rear which results in a circular swimming motion as the lure falls through the water column.
Live Target Golden Shiner lipless plugs are a favorite of Rick. The lure is dropped down and ripped up. Most bites occur as the lure falls. The Bill Lewis Rattle Trap is another example of this type of lure.
Ice fishing for walleye with live bait
Many anglers choice to fish for walleye through the ice using live bait. There is certainly good reason for this! The most popular bait for walleye fishing is a live minnow. These are readily available at bait shops that cater to anglers ice fishing.
Live minnows can be fished on a bare jig head as well as a hook. Jig heads are the best choice in deeper water. Anglers fishing over weeds or other structure can fish a live minnow under a float. A small split shot will get the bait down. A float can be used to suspend the minnow at a certain depth.
It is very important to hook the minnow correctly. This is especially important when fishing a tip up or down where the rod is not being actively fished. It is fine to hook a minnow through the lips when being jigged on the bottom. However, on the other rigs or when suspended, it is important to hook the minnow near the tail, behind the dorsal fin. This will cause the minnow to swim down, pulling against the line. These struggles will attract hungry walleye to the bait!
Nightcrawlers are another popular live bait for anglers ice fishing for walleye. Like minnows, they can be fished on both jig heads and on hooks. Nightcrawlers tend to work better early and late in the season when the walleye are in water that is not as deep.
Best spots to catch walleye under the ice
The same spots and areas that produce walleye in open water fishing will produce under the ice as well. Walleye also exhibit a seasonal migration. It is a bit like summer, but in reverse. Early in the ice fishing season, fish will be found in shallower water. Weed beds, points, creek channel edges, and submerged islands in 15 to 20 feet of water are good spots to start fishing.
As the season progresses, walleye will generally move deeper. Main river channels, deeper reefs, and other spots will often be the most productive. As spring approaches, walleye will again ease in a bit shallower.
Effects of weather when ice fishing for walleye
Weather has a huge effect on fish activity under the ice just as it does in open water. Prime times to fish are early and late in the day. Also, approaching fronts will have the fish feeding. Conversely, post front conditions with a bright, high sky can make for a sluggish bite.
Ice fishing strategies for walleye
Once out on the ice, it is time to go fishing! However, successful anglers have a game plan, based on local information, weather, and experience. The best approach is to drill multiple holes in a crisscross pattern. Ideally, the holes will cover several different depths over cover and some type of structure break.
Once the holes are drilled, the sonar unit can be deployed to see what life lurks below. Hopefully, bait and game fish will appear on the screen. Even if there is no action, it is still worth dropping a bait down. A jig and minnow is a good place to start. Spoons are a good second choice.
If fish are seen but they do not seem interested, it is time to try different lures, baits, and presentations. Finicky fish usually respond to slow, subtle movements and smaller baits. However, sometimes ripping a plug will result in a reflex strike.
2 pronged approach for walleye fishing success
There is a technique to fishing on Lake Winnipeg. It works on many other lakes as well. Anglers are allowed to use 2 rods in one hole. The longer rod is used for ripping the Live Target tipped with a minnow/shiner head through the eyes on the back treble and a shorter rod for a dead stick. The dead stick will consist of either a jig head tipped with either a live minnow through the tail or a frozen salted minnow/shiner, a bobber rigged with a live minnow hooked through the tail weighted down with split shot, or a spoon like a Macho Minnow tipped with a frozen salted shiner on the treble hook. The Macho minnow as it has a plastic fin that flutters with the slightest movement that seems to trigger a bite.
Lake Winnipeg, like other lakes, is murky so you need to attract the fish. This is where the Live Target and other lipless baits comes in. You attract the fish by ripping the lure 4 to 5 feet off the bottom. The rattle is quite loud and can easily be heard in your shelter. I keep ripping the lure for a good 5 minutes then let it sit about 2 feet off the bottom for a few more minutes. Then I move to the dead stick and give it very subtle movements.
Teasing the walleye to the lure
This lure is about 1 foot off the bottom. The lure is worked back and forth until a fish appears on the fish finder. They usually come up from the bottom. The goal is to try and get them to chase your lure towards the ice at the right speed. If you reel too fast, you will lose them. If you reel in too slow, the fish will lose interest. Yes you do catch some as the lure drops towards the bottom but most are caught on the chase towards the ice.
Bites often occur 2 or 3 feet below the ice from fish chasing the lure from the bottom in 20 foot. This is why a fish finder is important. The chase can last a long time with a fish chasing your lure up and down several times before biting the lure to then decide it is more interested in the dead stick. You then switch rods, start jigging the dead stick and start the chase with that lure. It is like playing a video game. Of course you can’t use this approach with a float rig. The live minnow will create it’s own chase with the fish.
Sometimes when the fish a lethargic, the Live Target just acts as a dinner bell and the fish are only interested in the dead stick. A less aggressive approach with the Live Target is best in this situation to not spook the fish.
Tip ups and tip downs can be good options as well. Live minnows are the best choice in the situation. However, dead minnows, nightcrawlers, and even cut bait can be effective as well. Sometimes a dead bait sitting motionless on the bottom is what is required to get a walleye to bite!
Walleye fishing on Lake Winnipeg
Lake Winnipeg produces huge Walleye. Many anglers from the U.S. come up here in search of trophy Greenbacks. Some come up 3 or 4 times a season. It is a world renowned sport fishery. Several 30” plus walleye are caught each season. March is the preferred month as the weather gets milder. It is called “March Madness” in the ice fishing world on Lake Winnipeg. All the local hotels and lodging gets booked solid during March.
Temperatures and weather on Lake Winnipeg during ice fishing season can get very extreme. Temperatures can get as cold as -40 degrees Celsius. It also gets very windy on Lake Winnipeg with gusts at some times reaching 70 km’s per hour. This is why the lake earned the nickname “Big Windy”. On average one can expect temperatures around – 20 Celsius during the winter with winds between 10 to 20 kms per hour.
Live minnows or frozen salted shiners/minnows is all that is used in winter months on Lake Winnipeg to try and match the forage in the winter. The South Basin of the lake is a sandy bottom with very little structure. The fish are always on the move looking for baitfish who are also always on the move. More people are purchasing nautical online to pinpoint subtle changes in depths or depth outlines on the bottom as well as a few rock outcroppings that may hold fish. Navionics or the FishSmart app are a couple of examples.
Successful anglers work together
Rick will usually start in the 20 feet of water range and is best to fish in groups as saves a lot of time locating the fish. Groups of 4 to 5 tents can cover a lot of area if each group fishes different depths and work together. The use of walkie talkies is handy in these situations. For example, 1 tent fishes 14 foot, the next 16 foot, and so on. In some locations this could easily span a kilometer or more. In other locations this could span 100 yards. Once a school of fish is located everyone moves into the general area.
Things to also look for are large ice ridges that stick out of the ice. These are caused by the strong winds which usually happen during the early ice freeze. These ridges create structure under the ice for bait fish to hide. Often walleye cruise the ice ridge lines feeding off these bait fish. The ice in these areas is usually quite thick. I usually add a 12” or even 18” extension to my auger to make it through the ice.
Most trophy walleye over 28” are released back into the water as there are pretty much all females full of eggs. They are the future of the fishery on the lake. Having said that, you are allowed to keep 1 Walleye over 28” per season.
Lake Winnipeg as well as all of Manitoba is barbless so you must secure your bait on the hook or it will fall off. A small rubber stopper will do the trick. There are items on the market that are specifically made for this like the Bait Buttons. They come with a handy dispenser too.
In conclusion, this article on ice fishing for walleye will help anglers catch more fish!