Stealth is an important element to shallow success for Guide Bret Alexander.

Stealth is an important element to shallow success for Guide Bret Alexander.

Shallow water walleyes present unique challenges for ice anglers. It’s about walking softly and carrying a stiff stick. These fish are in such skinny water that the ice can be nearly as thick as the water beneath it. Presentations and equipment must be refined to fool these wary fish. You can see them, and they can potentially see you. Blink and they’re gone.

On Green Bay, Wisconsin, Guide Bret Alexander waits until late ice to experience the best shallow bite of the season. With safe ice arriving shortly before New Year’s Day, he takes advantage of the incredibly consistent and prolific whitefish fishery. Walleyes are available for those willing to fish the 20- to 40-foot contours during low-light periods, but when groups can load up on 100-plus great-eating whitefish in a morning, walleyes take a back seat. It’s not until giant prespawn walleyes show up in greater numbers and slide into water less than 6 feet deep that walleye fever takes hold.

“When the weather turns nicer in March and anglers flock to the rivers in their boats to catch small, staging male walleyes, we relish the opportunity to catch double-digit fish in just a couple feet of water on short jigging rods,” he says. “The weather is comfortable. New fish move in every day and personal-best fish often are caught daily. It’s the perfect time to be on the ice cracking ‘eyes.”

Prespawn Walleyes
While walleyes can continue to be caught along deeper shoreline contours throughout late ice, the most consistent and exciting bite occurs in bays with features that attract prespawn walleyes. Essential elements include flats with easy access to deep-water migratory routes; sheltered bays lined with seepage areas that provide late season runoff; and irregular depths and distinct transitions in bottom content. Vegetation or small creeks that attract and retain baitfish are beneficial. These factors offer the ideal combination of food, shelter, and spawning grounds for prespawn walleyes.

Once Alexander finds a likely walleye holding area, he devises a plan to intercept as many fish as possible. Shallow fish can be easily spooked, so he gets an early start each morning. More than an hour before first light, he fires up his 10-inch Jiffy Pro 4 auger and drills from a couple dozen to nearly a hundred holes. “The Jiffy Pro 4 has a powerful 49cc 4-stroke engine that runs on a small propane tank,” he says. “That means easy starts in the dark without mixing gas, priming, or choking. Plus, it runs quieter and cleaner than gasoline engines.”

Holes are spaced from 15 to 30 feet apart, depending on the size of the area to be covered. Successive straight lines of holes are drilled parallel to the shoreline to cover multiple depths and to increase the odds of locating areas that funnel walleyes.
After drilling holes, the area is allowed to “rest” for 20 to 30 minutes before an assortment of jigging techniques are employed. During this time, holes are scooped and Frabill Arctic Fire tip-ups and Automatic Fisherman units are baited with emerald shiners or golden shiners and set in holes not reserved for jigging. He drills a second hole close to each of these holes, occasionally jigging a large flashy spoon or lipless rattlebait in these open holes. This approach triggers bites from walleyes that were already drawn in by the livebait and also attracts walleyes to the livebait, even though they may refuse the lure being jigged.

Catching shallow ‘eyes requires stealth. “When targeting these late-season walleyes, you have to figure that the fish are holding under the ice in shallow water all night long, becoming active at prime feeding times,” Alexander says. “As the sun gets high in the sky, walleyes pull out to deep water, returning shallow that evening. We are literally walking over them on the way out each morning and anything you can do to not disturb them during this pre-dawn period is essential. So I drill and prep holes in complete darkness. Once first light comes, we avoid running our Ranger ATVs through the area and advise customers against walking around with ice creepers. Any extra noise or vibration on the ice can make these already wary fish much more difficult to catch.”

In clear-water settings, Alexander prefers subtle jigging techniques with a mix of Rapala Jigging Raps, Salmo Chubby Darters, and jigging spoons. He favors lures that kick out to the side and provide a swinging action under the hole. “When fishing in water 3 to 6 feet deep, walleyes are rarely cruising more than a foot off the bottom, so we keep presentations 10 to 12 inches above the bottom,” he says. “I typically start with a Jigging Rap and give it a quick snap, followed by a long pause, then another snap and pause, with a slight quiver of the rod tip. This quivering action gets the minnow head on the bottom treble hook to bounce and give off more scent. I repeat this process, varying the height of the snaps and the length of the pauses until fish tell us what they want.”

During low light, Alexander uses Vexilar sonar units to spot fish approaching the bait. When he sees a fish move in, he jigs slightly more aggressively. Shallow walleyes typically are feeding fish, so don’t give up on them if they move off sonar. They often come back within a few minutes to again inspect or take the bait. If a fish doesn’t commit on its second visit, change your lure to a different color or to a different style of bait.

Presentation Details
He says color preferences of walleyes can be dramatic at times. “It’s not uncommon to have groups of 12 to 20 anglers for a morning trip and I try to have at least two rods rigged for every angler with a variety of lure styles and colors. My favorites are #5 and #7 Jigging Raps in firetiger, chartreuse, white, and glow. At certain times, one color produces more fish than all others, and we change everyone’s lure to that color. Other days, the flash of a spoon or the natural rise and fall of a minnow on a jig is what they want.”

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