Well, here we go. The winter walleye season will soon be entering its final stages. Anglers across Canada and the northern U.S are chomping at the bit to experience the impending hot bite during the late ice period.
Where will these fish end up? When will they end up there? How will they be tempted? Every lake is different, but there are key similarities that will make walleye predictable not only late into the season, but throughout their seasonal movements. I’ve heard some really experienced walleye specialists utter the words “there are two seasons, early ice and late ice”. I suppose they are highlighting the fact that there is a lull in the action around the mid-point of the winter. Why? One determining factor to keep in mind is that a walleye’s metabolism slows down during this period (consuming less than 1% of their body weight/day). Also, they are not relating to or staging around spawning grounds, thus, they are not driven to put the feed bag on in preparation for a long winter or a taxing spawn.
At first ice, walleye can be found on typical fall haunts. Throughout the season walleye can be found on structural elements such as points, saddles, main lake reefs and of course, bars. As the winter pushes on they will be staging on spots closer to spawning grounds such as river mouths or wind swept shoals where they moved to in late fall. At late ice, you can bet transitioning flats closest to these structures will be your best option when locating actively feeding marble eyes.
So how do you find these key areas? How about heading out during the open water season and scouting areas of the lake that have the structures I just mentioned with a GPS/sonar. Mid-day in winter is also a good time to scout these spots with an underwater camera or simply your eyes. Bottom composition can be a factor on how patterns emerge. Areas with a transition in substrate along a soft bottom could be the ticket. Maybe you find an opening inside a weed edge, or a rock outcropping along a predominately mucky shoreline behind a flat. Whichever it is, find areas that forage relate to, and you can bet walleye will be close behind. Now, let’s keep in mind that prime feeding times are during the low light periods of dawn/dusk. Some will argue that the peak time is the transition from afternoon to evening.
On an early season ice mission, Kawartha, Ontario angler Aaron Jolicoeur, noticed an emerging pattern. “I stumbled on early ice walleye while searching for crappie. I took what I had seen to lakes where I could target them and had good success”. He continues “In my experience, walleye enter areas abundant with green weeds during early ice. They are there feeding on perch and to my surprise, at times, have a belly full of bluegill as well.” After a few weeks, this pattern will break down as walleye move farther away from these areas and a mid-winter “doldrum period” as he puts it, sets in. At which point, crappie and panfish will be the predominant species you will find at the end of your line on these spots. Aaron explains that he will return to these shallower areas/lakes to find that these walleyes have returned to the same areas they were at the on-set of the season. As far as how he tempts them, Aaron counts on lipless crankbaits. “Rattles, size and cadence is more of a factor than color. Sometimes it’s the hard cadence of the ‘Clackin’ Rap’ while other times they prefer the higher pitch of a crankbait with more, smaller bearings. If I’m fishing with a partner(s) I will use different rattles, and dial them in on that factor alone”. On a few outings, one of Aaron’s fishing partners added attractants.
Gear is basic. Aaron counts on 28”-32” med-med/heavy rods paired with a Shimano Symetre 1000, spooled with 10lb Power Pro braid rounded out by a long 4-6’ 10lb fluorocarbon leader (he replaces the leader when it cuts down to 1’)
Sam Ecker, who spends his time chasing walleye around southern Ontario, will concentrate his time on “large sand flats typically between 10-25 feet of water with scattered weeds being a plus but not always present”. He continues “during prime time, I like to get to shallow structure adjacent to this flat”. Keeping an eye on his Vexilar FL20 flasher, Sam will use a noisy rattling, lipless crankbait (3/4oz Live Target ‘Golden Shiner’) to “call active walleye over to inspect”. This can result in hook ups. Sam preferred technique here is to give three hard rips of the rod tip while watching the flasher for walleye moving in. After 5-10 seconds Sam will repeat this presentation until he either connects with a fish, or decides on a change of tactic. “I caught a bunch of walleye on a bigger than average size bait this season. Don’t let the size of bait intimidate you, when walleye are on the prowl, they will often hit these baits like it’s the last meal they’re going to get”.
What to do when they are not in an aggressive state? Sam explains “when ‘lookers’ on the Vexlar don’t turn into biters, I downsize to a 1/8oz Northland Tackle Buckshot spoon w/rattle, tipped with a minnow head”. Sam utilizes the same ripping/jigging technique as with the lipless crank, just less aggressive. “When walleye come and inspect, the minnow head definitely pushes them to commit”. One good piece of advice is to have a fresh minnow head on more often than not because there is no substitute for a bloody scent trail.
Gear includes a 32” heavy action St.Croix “laker stick”, Shimano 1000 reel spooled with 10lb braid, coupled with a 12lb fluorocarbon leader to accommodate the aggressive presentation of the lipless crank. For the Buckshot spoon, a 28” medium action St.Croix Premier rod, Shimano 1000 reel spooled with 6lb fluorocarbon tied to a small cross lock snap swivel (to avoid line twist).
What about fishing for resident walleye in a river system? Robert Conley and Robert Fuchs spend their time bouncing around the mighty Ottawa River in search of toothy eyes, so let’s draw on their experience shall we?
First off, a walleye’s dominant forage base is the same anywhere you go. Perch, minnows such as shiners, and as was mentioned earlier, bluegill. When searching for walleye in the river, the Roberts look for shallow feeding shelves of around 8-12 feet of water adjacent to deep water. “Imagine it’s like a conveyer belt where baitfish move in and out tightly followed by hungry aggressive walleye. Throughout the day we focus on these deeper sections of the river, however, we move shallow towards prime time (dusk) following the baitfish”.
The Roberts (affectionately known as The Bassassins) favor flashers to scope a new areas depth and weed edges/structure to get a read on active/inactive fish, and how walleye are reacting to a specific presentation. The first choice of lures is an ‘orange glow’ Buckshot spoon, retrofitted with a stinger, tipped with a whole or half minnow. Robert Conley explains “When the bite is tough, downsizing is the key
. We turn the tables on tough days with micro jigs dressed with just a minnow head/tail.”
“A good set-up has to be versatile. The 26” medium action Streamside Predator is terrific, offering a soft tip and lots of backbone. Thin diameter 4-6lb fluorocarbon gets it done, for deeper presentations we add a 2’ leader to a swivel to combat line twist”. The big girls have seen it all, so the more natural the presentation, the higher the odds get in hooking a trophy”.
So there you have it. You have several anglers’ tips and tactics from the Kawarthas, to the mighty Ottawa River and everywhere in between. Some things vary slightly, while many variables remain constant. Take this knowledge and apply it to your favorite body of water and remember experimentation is paramount from season to season. So just roll with the punches and keep your options open so you can develop a generalized game plan that you can base your hunt for these golden beauties around.
See you out there.