Compared to early-ice or late-ice, catching walleyes during midwinter tends to be a tad tougher. It's hard saying why, though several variables could contribute to the altered attitudes of the fish.
Minimal light penetration caused by thick ice, snow cover, or dirty water can contribute to depleting oxygen levels. In some waters, baitfish and walleyes may relocate to places with more oxygen. Less light penetration also results in darkness, which may make it appear to be nighttime most of the time and possibly could alter daily movements -- making it difficult to pinpoint when fish will be active. Lack of light also may make finding your bait more difficult for fish.
Baitfish like perch, ciscoes, smelt, and shiners may make seasonal movements under the ice, triggering walleyes to move. And passing weather fronts tend to stifle any fish activity during winter. But even after considering the negative variables, one positive remains -- walleyes still must eat to survive. And there's a chance what they eat will be your bait if your out there dangling it.
Switching presentations or changing locations often is the key to icing walleyes. Anglers struggle over leaving spots that have produced in the past. But if you're not seeing any sign of life, it's not the spot to be fishing at that particular time. You're much better off searching for signs of life elsewhere.
While searching, we can't preach enough about the importance of electronics. It's amazing how much you can learn about the underwater environment and fish behavior by using a sonar and an underwater camera. Most importantly, though, electronics allow you to determine activity where you've drilled holes. Most anglers are surprised to learn after one session with an underwater camera that the underwater world looks nothing like the picture they envisioned. True, too, that for years everyone assumed that most walleyes traveled tight to the bottom during winter, and therefore we fished the bottom foot or so of the water column. After watching the camera and sonar, though, we know that some fish swim one to several feet above bottom.
Lure Options -- Seeing and feeling are two primary senses fish use to find food, and jigging lures that vibrate and flash are ideal for attracting fish. Lures remain a top choice for attracting fish -- a top ice fishing priority. Flash lures like the Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple and Acme Kastmaster attract fish via flash and vibration as they're jigged up and allowed to settle back. Tipping with a minnow head often entices fish to bite when they move in close.
Most swimming lures, designed to swim horizontally when vertically jigged, often match the profile of real baitfish. But until recently, the downside of traditional swimming lures, like the classic Jigging Rapala and Nils Master Jigger, is that they perform subtly compared to flash lures, have a smaller profile, and don't transmit much of a signal to fish via flash or vibration. So even though they're great for triggering strikes once a fish has moved in to investigate, they're not great attractor baits.
Popular larger-profile swimming lures, like Nils Master Jigging Shads and Salmo Chubby Darters, are designed to imitate baitfish, but their increased size and swimming action offer substantially more flash and vibration. Most anglers prefer to tip swimming lures with some sort of bait, like a minnow head, although tipping often isn't necessary. Small fish usually target the fish head or the tail of the lure, while larger walleyes inhale the whole bait.
Baits like a Reef Runner Cicada or Heddon Sonar create mostly vibration and are particularly effective in dark water or for walleyes roaming large basins. Start by working the baits fairly aggressively, by lifting the bait 12 to 16 inches and slowly lowering it back into place on a taunt line. After five or six aggressive jigs, pause at least 30, to 60, even up to 120 seconds, before jigging again. If a fish moves in on the pause, consider holding the bait motionless or maybe slightly bounce the bait to see what happens. If the fish moved in while the bait was motionless, that's probably what they wanted. On the other hand, continuous jigging produces, too. Negative fish that aren't responding to conventional jigging tricks sometimes slam a vibrating bait worked aggressively -- actually disturbing them into striking.
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Walleyes may become lure leery, especially in lakes with heavy fishing pressure. In fact, all animals seem to instinctively learn, over time, to recognize things that could be dangerous -- a natural means of survival. When you're seeing fish and they won't bite, consider switching baits. I often keep another line rigged and ready with a different type of lure. Say a walleye moves in and noses right up to my swimming lure, but turns and starts swimming away, I quickly reel up and drop a flash lure or jig tipped with bait; sometimes the different look triggers a strike.
Livebait presentations -- Without question, walleyes are naturally attracted to livebait; it's what they eat to survive. At times, suspending livebait below floats and tip-ups, or using a deadstick, can outproduce jigging.
Floats remain one of the most popular methods for suspending bait through the ice. Select a float with just enough buoyancy to keep your bait positioned at a desired depth. (Fish also less likely detect the resistance of a smaller float.) Slip floats, in particular, feature a stop on the line to position the bait at a specific depth, yet allow you to reel and fight fish. Handlining is required with stationary floats. I've been using Thill's Double Ring Slider, which features an extra long ball-tipped antenna that's visible above the hole. Use sonar or a clip-on depthfinder weight to set the stop up or down the line until the bait is positioned 6 inches to 2 feet from bottom.
Deadsticking is one of the most functional forms of suspending livebait, particularly while jigging. A deadstick is about half backbone and half noodle. The tip of the rod should be light enough so the minnow below can work the tip as it struggles, and it should also bend with ease when a fish takes the bait -- serving as a strike indicator. Yet the rod also should have enough backbone to fight fish.
To set a deadstick rod, position the bait anywhere from 3 to 12 inches off bottom. Then place the rod on a bucket or in a rod holder. Even slight wind works the tip, prodding the minnow to move. Moving locations requires only reeling up the jigging rod and deadstick -- much quicker and easier than relocating a tip-up or resetting a float. Most anglers use a jig to control the minnow and keep it anchored fairly stationary, but a split shot and bare hook work, too. Reverse hooking a minnow so it struggles away from the weight of the plain head (undressed) jig keeps the bait moving.
Tip-ups are one of the best ways to spread lines to locate and catch walleyes, especially when multiple anglers are fishing together or when walleyes seem scattered at different depths. Most states allow at least two lines per person for ice fishing. A typical approach for walleyes begins with cutting plenty of holes over deep and shallow areas. Consider setting tip-ups shallow while you jig over deeper water.
Quick-strike rigging increases your odds for hooking fish. Typical rigs consist of hooks rigged in tandem from 2 inches apart to as much as 4 inches apart for bigger bait. For walleyes, quick-strike rigs have small trebles -- #8s. Nick the first hook into the bait at about the dorsal fin, while the hook at the end of your line is nicked in just behind the head of the bait. If you don't use quick-strike rigging, a single small treble works better than a single hook. Nick one tine of the treble near the dorsal fin of the baitfish.
Select active bait. Sucker minnows, for instance, tire quickly and eventually are content to just stay motionless. Shiners, rainbow chubs, or even large lively fatheads typically produce better.
There are loads of ways to catch midwinter walleyes. But the best approach is simply to get out there and find 'em. After all, even if they're not as active or aggressive as they are at first-ice, they still gotta eat.