My earliest memories of ice fishing for walleye go back to my childhood. During that timeframe, we chased walleye with much different equipment and presentations than we use today. I remember sitting on a five-gallon pail with a 24-inch wooden dowel in hand and a yellow-hair jig tipped with a minnow. The dowel was just a means to hold the line. When a fish did bite, we’d set the hook, drop the dowel, and start the hand-over-hand line retrieve to get the golden prize through the hole in the ice, all in one motion.
Back then, the plan for each outing was to drop your jig down the hole. Once it hit bottom, we’d lift it up six to 12 inches then hold it as steady as we could so you could feel a fish strike. Some days, with this waiting game, we’d catch a pile of fish. Other days, we would catch very few and blame the fish for not being hungry.
Sometimes I’d get bored sitting and waiting for a walleye to bite and I’d either pull the jig off the bottom and drop it back down or jiggle my fishing rod back and forth for something to do. Often, I’d get a bite when I did some of those “crazy “things. In those days, I’d chalk those incidents up as coincidental occurrences and not triggered strikes.
Eventually, this clued me in to the idea that the motion and movement of the jig was helping me catch more fish. At that point, ice fishing for walleye was not just a sit-and-wait game. It became a time to be proactive and to try to trigger bites instead of simply waiting for them. At the time I started experimenting with jigging movements, there was a growth in the development of ice fishing rods and reels. That helped with being able to feel the lures and move them in a controlled and finessed manner. There was also the introduction of all kinds of shapes and sizes of lures. Each had its own unique motion when lifted and dropped.
Solving the Mystery
The fun—and yet sometimes frustrating—thing about winter walleye fishing is that there is no one proven method to use day in and day out that guarantees the fish will bite. Walleye are unpredictable. Some days, certain lure movements or the lack of movement either triggers fish to bite or it spooks them. I have experienced days where a slow-dropping lure that flutters as it drops will trigger walleye to bite. Other days, what works is the combination of motion and the clunk of a big, fast-dropping lure banging into the lake bottom, pinned there by an aggressive walleye. Still sometimes, the only way to get a walleye to bite is to suspend a minnow while dead-sticking it or holding it motionless, like I did when I first started walleye fishing.
The more active the fish are the more aggressive you can get with your jigging and the bigger the lures you can use. Thanks to the modern technology of flashers and underwater cameras, it is very easy to see how walleye react to lures and jigging presentations. If you don’t use electronics, you can still read the fish by looking at how a fish strikes. If you don’t get any bites or encounter short strikes, it is safe to assume that the fish are neutral to inactive. If the fish are smashing the lures or inhaling your entire lure fully into their mouths, they are in an aggressive mood.
Jigging Up Walleye
Given that most jurisdictions allow ice anglers to fish with two rods, I will often start my day with two opposite presentations. My first rod will be a suspended lure on a dead stick with a minnow or meal worm. Once my dead stick is set, I’ll start jigging aggressively via a second rod rigged up with a large, flashy lure. I’ll use long jigging strokes where I will lift the lure three to four feet off the bottom, then let it free fall.
After a series of long, sweeping jigging strokes, I let my lure drop to the bottom of the lake. After it hits bottom, I slowly raise it up. Then, I suspend the lure a few inches off bottom and jiggle my fishing rod to cause the lure to shimmy and vibrate. This process often pulls in walleye and triggers them to either strike my dead stick or jigged lure. If I nail a fish with either method, I know what is happening. If my aggressive presentation doesn’t produce any fish, I will slow down my jigging cadence and use smaller lures with less action and flash until I find the right combination to attract and catch fish.
If fishing with buddies, we all start fishing with different presentations and lure styles. As soon as one of us starts catching walleye, the rest of us will switch over to that presentation and lure combo. If things slow down, we will all start trying different jigging presentations.
Using the Water Column
For years, I believed that walleye were always hugging tight to the bottom and that is where I needed to be fishing. After using a flasher, I was able to see that fish are suspended throughout the water column at times. By reeling up to these fish and working them with my offerings, I often get them to bite. Some of those fish may be tullibee or pike, and some of the suspended ones are walleye. As a result, I always try to catch the fish higher up in the water column.
While targeting suspended fish in the water column, I discovered that I would often draw in additional walleye from near the bottom. The reason is that when a lure is worked higher up in the water column, fish from further away can see the commotion above them and move in to take a closer look. Because of this, I always jig higher up off the bottom to increase my chances of drawing in more fish to come look at my offerings.
To maximize a lure’s presentation, it’s best to understand the various styles of walleye lures and how they work. When selecting walleye lures, keep in mind that every lure has its own unique action, and that even changing between sizes of the same lure will change the action. For example, heavier spoons will fall to the bottom more quickly than lighter spoons do, and they’ll hit the bottom with more of a solid thud. Lighter spoons will drop more slowly. Depending on their shape, they’ll drop and fall more erratically. They’ll also strike the bottom with less of a thud, but they will still disturb some silt when they hit bottom.
Jigs come in a variety of shapes, sizes and colors. The common theme is that they have a solid body of lead or tungsten and a single hook. Jigs are extremely versatile, and can be jigged or suspended motionless. They can also be tipped with a variety of live, dead or artificial baits.
Slab or straight-style jigging spoons are heavy lures with flat profiles. Due to their shape, they drop very quickly and with limited flash and vibration. When dropping, they’ll veer off unpredictably to one side of your fishing hole and then move towards the middle as you tighten the slack line or suspend the lure. Included in this category of lures are the Clam Pinhead, PK Rattle Spoons, Northland Buckshot Rattle Spoons, Bay de Noc Swedish Pimples and Acme Kastmasters.
There are a number of bent lures currently on the market too, such as Clam Leech Flutter Spoon, PK Flutter Fish, Bay de Noc Do-Jiggers, Acme Sidewinders and Jig-A-Whooper Hawger spoons. These lures offer lots of flash and vibration, and they will erratically plane away from the middle of your fishing hole as they drop. These lures are effective on both aggressive and neutral fish, which often inhale them when these lures drop. When selecting bent lures, keep in mind that the greater the bend, the more motion they will have on the drop.
Thin, lightweight lures with lots of surface area such as Blue Fox Tinglers, Northland Fire-eye Minnows and Acme Little Cleos drop at a slow rate. While doing so, they tumble erratically. This wobbling motion emits lots of fish attracting vibration and flash. These lures are great for sunny days, in deep water areas or on days when a slow, enticing action is required to turn on neutral fish. Since these lures often get bit on the drop, be prepared to set the hook as the lures fall.
Jointed lures such as the Clam Jointed Pinhead, Clam Time Bomb or PK Panic feature a two- part lure that is connected by a ring. Often the top part of the lure is bigger than the bottom portion and since the two parts of the lure are only connected by a ring, both parts can tumble as the lure drops. When lifted, these lures will lurch upward and then drop fast to create vibration and flash that trigger walleye to bite on the drop.
Swimming lures like Jigging Rapalas, Clam Tikka Minos, Moonshine Shiver Minnows, Nils Master Jiggers and System Tackle Flyers are minnow-shaped jigging lures. When lifted upward, these imitation fish dart like live minnows trying to escape. When dropped, they fall in a circular pattern like an injured minnow. They move quite quickly and are ideal for active fish. Typically, walleye will hit these lures while the lures are suspended and motionless, even though it is often the upward and downward fall that attracts the walleye. These lures are best suited when fishing aggressive fish or when trying to trigger a reactionary bite.
Rattlebaits such as PK Ridge Rattl’rs, Northland Rippin’ Shads and Yo-Zuri Rattl’N Vibe Crankbaits are lipless crankbaits with rattles built into their bodies that attach to your line via a loop on the upper back of the lure. These minnow-like baits dance when jigged and emit loud walleye attracting sounds. These lures are best used to attract walleye and on aggressive fish.
More Options and Choices
All of the above listed lures come in a variety of color options. Silver, brass and gold lures work great because they give off lots of flash and glare, especially on sunny days. Natural lure colors that match local baitfish, such as perch and cisco, also work very well (especially on cloudy days or in stained water). On days when the traditional colors aren’t working, try something different like a lure in glow, white, pink or chartreuse.
Bait adds both a visual and scent factor to lures. However, too much bait can weigh down a lure and destroy its fish attracting actions. For best results, tip your lures with a small piece of bait such as a tiny minnow, a minnow head, meal worms or where legal perch or small walleye eyes. In recent years, I have also had great success using scented artificial baits such as the Clam Maki Plastics.
Enticing A Bite
On days when the fish come in and won’t commit to either the dead bait or the lures being jigged, I try to entice them to bite. If the fish is just looking at my lure but not biting, I slowly raise the lure upwards to imitate an aquatic creature trying to slip away. Often, slowly raising the lure up a foot or so is all it takes to get a bite. If the fish follows but doesn’t take the lure, I jiggle the lure to add some motion. If the fish still doesn’t bite, I drop the lure to the bottom of the lake, then pound the lure on the bottom three or four times. I then repeat the process. As I lift the lure up and past the fish, that often causes the fish to raise up with the lure and inhale it.
If after a couple attempts of lift/drop and there’s still no bite, I reel up and start dropping smaller lures, different lure styles, different colored lures and different types of bait. I use a similar jigging approach until I can get the walleye below to bite. Once I get a bite, I’ve cracked the code for the day and keep on with that presentation.
Location and Timing
During the first ice and last ice periods, walleye are often on the prowl feeding all day long. Much of this feeding takes place in shallower water areas and near structure. However, during the rest of the winter, they can be quite finicky. They can slide into deeper water midday and only put on the shallower-water feed bag early in the morning and late in the day.
Even with the best of lures, baits and presentations, you will not catch any walleye if they are not in the area where you’re fishing. So, keep a journal of when and where you catch your winter walleye. Return to those areas year after year to put your jigging skills to work. Walleye typically use the same areas year after year.
If you plan to fish mid-day walleye in deeper water, keep in mind that any fish caught in excess of 30 feet of water will likely suffer from barotrauma as it is reeled up. Fish suffering from barotrauma will have bulged eyes, bloated bellies and other internal damage you can’t see. Even if released immediately, these fish will have a very low survival rate and will likely die. As a result, it is best to restrict your mid-day fishing depths to those that are safe for fish to be released, or else plan to target other species, such as perch or pike.