Icing Prime Time Walleyes
By Gary Parsons and Keith Kavajecz
Not long after you put your hunting gear away for the year, the lakes begin to glaze over with the first layer of ice. If you stop down at the local watering hole, you are likely to hear someone mention that they drove past a lake and “saw some nut” out on the ice. It never fails. Each year, as soon as the lakes firms up, people begin to get feverish about getting out. As tempting as it might be to get a line in the water, this is also the time when you need to slow down and use common sense.
Most ice fishing accidents happen right after the lake freezes over. We prefer to wait until there is 4-6 inches of ice before venturing out. Even then, there are safety precautions to take. If the ice seems a little bit iffy, be sure to use a spud to constantly check the ice depth out as you go out. If it is less than four inches, turn around and come back when it is a little thicker.
We also recommend using a Nebulus Emergency Floatation Device. This product can be a lifesaver should you break through on your sled. At a minimum you should have life jackets along. If there is not a lot of snow, it can be very easy to slip and fall. Wearing a good pair of ice spikes will give you solid footing.
So when is the best time to chase after winter walleyes? While it varies from year to year and lake to lake, often the best walleye fishing begins late in December. This bite can stay hot until the end of January. On larger bodies of water such as Lake of the Woods, Devil’s Lake and Lake Erie (when it freezes), due to competition, the walleye don’t have a tendency to become lethargic and tend to stay active longer.
As much as we would like to portray ourselves as being tough guys, we absolutely hate getting cold! This is why we fish out of a Clam X200 shack. You could heat this thing with a candle! One of the great features of this shack is the built-in light bar that allows us to see inside after dark. This is important since a lot of the best ice fishing for walleyes is often after the sun goes down.
There are several ways to catch walleyes through the ice, whether it be jigging, dead sticking or using tip-ups. When it comes to jigging, there are lots of options in the rod department. If you are looking for a low-end rod, the Bass Pro Shops Extreme Arctic Angler ice fishing rod is a great choice for the money at $10! We personally like to fish with high-end rods. Our favorites are JT Outdoors Shiver Sticks and jigging rods.
One of the best reels we have found is the Bass Pro Micro Lite Elite MEX10F. It is super lightweight with a great drag system. It has a foldable handle to easily fit in ice bags and can be paired with both high and low-end rods.
In addition to jigging, this is also the time of year to set-up multiple lines, such as tip-ups and JT Outdoors Hot Boxes. What we like about the Hot Box and 36” JT Outdoors Snare Rod set-up is that we can stand up to reel the fish in and our hole doesn’t ice over. The rod itself is a high-grade fiberglass with a super slow action. This provides a parabolic action, which allows the rod to load ultra-subtly.
When the fish grabs the bait, the spring bobber and rod loads the fish. When the fish begin to feel this tension, they react by trying to swim away, which in turn puts further load on the rod and the fish end up setting the hook themselves! The length and long bend of the rods give plenty of time for anglers to get to the hole and land the fish. Not only can no other method or set-up match the sensitivity of this system, but it gives anglers the ability to spread out lines as they would tip-ups, yet be able to fight the fish with a rod instead of pulling it up hand over hand.
For bait, we like to use sucker minnows that are 4-5 inches long or Gold Shiners. Lake Shiners also make great bait if you can find them. We use 8-10 pound Berkley NanoFil with an 8 lb Berkley 100 percent fluorocarbon leader, on the snare rods. A lot of people use Dacron with tip-ups because it doesn’t tangle as much as other alternatives but they also use the fluorocarbon leader.
Location is key when it comes to finding walleyes under the ice. Look for a large bay with lots of weeds extending out into deeper water. Green weeds are what you want to focus on finding, especially if they are sporadic. The walleye tend to follow pan fish into these weeds.
The weed edge is important, as it is a fish highway. When jigging, drill the hole on the outside of the weed bed so you don’t get a glide bait, like a Moonshine Shiver Minnow, tangled on the weeds. This “minnow-like” jigging lure has a dramatic side-to-side darting movement when jigged, giving you great horizontal coverage of the area under your ice hole. The Shiver Minnow comes in various sizes and colors, including long lasting glow patterns that are excellent during the prime times of dusk and dawn.
If you aren’t having luck with a Shiver Minnow or blade bait, try jigging a fathead or crappie minnow on a 1/32oz. or 1/16oz. jig.
Another place to look for winter walleyes are shoreline connected humps and points with weeds on top or weeds and rocks. The fish will often sit on top of these in the afternoon and evenings. If we are fishing an area that is 18-25 feet deep, we will set up for jigging in 21 feet of water, then spread out tip-ups or Hot Boxes with Snare Rods in shallower areas and on top of weeds.
While a lot of people like to fish shallow for walleyes, they can be easily spooked in the winter by the noise you make just walking around. This is just one of the reasons we like drilling holes with the new ION X auger. This piece of machinery is an absolute beast when it comes to drilling holes, but it is quiet too.
Don’t be frustrated if you head out on the ice at three in the afternoon and don’t get any action. It is common for it to be quieter that time of day, but right before sunset, the tip-ups and Snare Rods will start to go nuts! You have to be on your toes, because in any moment you could get your Next Bite!