Late-Winter Walleye through the Ice

by Justin Hoffman (c) 2000

 If you are feeling the mid-winter blahs of walleye fishing, and sense that the fish must hibernate during this slow period, take heart, as some of the best hard-water angling is just around the corner. Late winter walleye react in many different ways in comparison to earlier in the season, and their aggressive nature, typical holding areas, and plentiful numbers make this time of year your best bet to be out on the ice. Paying attention to key spots, and having a willingness to move with the school will cause you to turn that frown directly upwards into a smile, and that's the way fishing was intended to be.

Where to Search?
As spring approaches and the days warm up, walleye again become active, and will start their migration to typical spawning areas. Once this migration urge takes hold, walleye will begin travelling along shorelines in order to reach compatible rivermouths, as well as rock and gravel bars. After this movement has begun, usually during the last month of the winter season, ice anglers in the know will concentrate their efforts on staging pre-spawn walleye directly off rivermouths. Fish will set up on these prime spots of real estate until the water reaches an optimum temperature and the mating ritual is "activated." Areas such as these can stack up incredible numbers of fish, yet, can also attract large amounts of anglers, which can typically thin out the school due to heavy pressure. Hitting these spots during the height of the staging, or during early morning or late evening productive periods, will greatly increase the odds in your favour.

Another key area to search out are shorelines which feature prominent points, reefs or shoals; especially those located close to recognized spawning areas. These spots will hold large schools of hungry walleye that travel along these "highways" in order to feed, and wait, until the spawn begins.

Late-ice walleye typically relate to a variety of depths, and structures, during this migration, and the best word of advice is to maintain a "run and gun" attitude. Experiment with different depths and locations, and if the fish aren't present, don't try to force-feed something that isn't there.

Mobility is the key during this period, and optimizing the use of a sled in order to transport gear and tackle quickly, and effortlessly to the next spot, is your best bet. Limit yourself to an area for only as long as a half hour, and if you haven't picked up a fish or two, then its time to pick up your rod and try to connect with the school at a new location.

Tools of the Trade
Walleye at this time of the year are extremely aggressive and in a competitive feeding mode, due in part to the long winter they have faced, and in order to build up reserves for the exhausting task of mating. Choose lures with a lot of flash and vibration, as these will call fish in from afar. Do not be afraid to use larger spoons than you are accustomed too, as these fish are definitely not finicky at this time of year. Some of my greatest late-winter walleye fishing has been as a result of using flashy Williams Wabbler spoons and Jigging Rapalas which seem to give off the right amount of vibration and flash that these fish want. I've found that your best bet is to use an aggressive lift-and-drop technique with your chosen lure. Don't be afraid to impart more action than you normally would earlier in the season, as this isn't the time for finesse.
As the weather continues to warm and the walleye's aggression really begins to show, a change to ball-head jigs, tipped with a large shiner or chub, will put some of the bigger fish on ice. Maintaining contact with the bottom is the key to this lure, and will enable you to stay in the strike zone of these bottom-hugging fish.
Tipping during the late-winter period is slightly different from earlier in the year. I usually tip my spoons with only the head of a minnow, as this is all that is needed to get a fish to hit. It will also dissuade fish from striking short; a definite problem when using  a whole minnow. Stick with a whole minnow on a jig, though, as this provides the flash that is needed to lure fish in.

Underwater Eyes
In order to make your search easier and more productive, I suggest the use of a portable flasher or LCD unit. Not only can you spot fish in deep water, but more importantly, you can accurately find the depth where active fish are living and can read subtle differences in bottom composition. These units can make running and gunning more productive as time spent in unproductive water can now be left to a minimum. My trusty flasher has enabled me to locate reefs, and shoals, that I never knew existed, and has put me on fish quicker, while giving me the edge of staying with the migratory school. The flasher has never left my side during the hard water season, and, if you don't own one, you're limiting yourself to fishing blindly in most instances. Pick up a unit this season before the action becomes fast and furious, and discover why two pairs of eyes are definitely better than one!
As you can see, late-winter ice fishing for walleye is your last, and best, chance of connecting with numbers of plentiful fish, with the possibility of landing that trophy of a lifetime. The mid-winter period may have been discouraging, and had you rubbing your head in disbelief, but by discovering this "hot" period of winter, the walleye will surely become yours, and your stomachs, best friend again. 


 

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