How To Ice Fish For Walleye (Detailed Guide)
UPDATED 25 AUGUST 2021
by Bill Laney
Walleye are among the most popular fish that ice anglers love to chase during the hard water season. And while they are aggressive hunters, they aren’t always easy to catch, since they can be hard to locate, and are sometimes finicky biters.
To improve your odds of landing more walleye on ice, we’ve compiled our best advice, tips, and tricks for walleye ice fishing in this detailed guide.
Where can you find walleye for ice fishing?
One of the biggest challenges of catching walleye under the ice is locating them. This is especially difficult because their behavior changes over the course of the winter, and in addition they actively roam around and move between different depths over the course of each day.
Because of this complexity in walleye behavior, one key factor for catching more walleye under the ice is your ability to stay mobile, and to move on to new locations if you don’t see any evidence of walleye in your current spot. Many of the most successful walleye anglers use systematic hole hopping to find the best spots.
In addition to mobility, you should also use every resource you can get your hands on to figure out where to target walleye. This includes lake contour maps, ice fishing sonar, and underwater cameras. Use the contour maps to find the most promising spots (more on that below), and then use the sonar and/or underwater camera to check for the presence of fish in those locations.
Last but not least, you can also ask in local tackle shops to get advice on where the best spots are.
Where do walleye go in winter?
During the coldest parts of winter, walleye move into deeper basins, and are often found in 30 to 40 foot deep water. In early winter, however, you’ll find them in much shallower water of 7 to 15 foot depth, usually in bays and on flats that hold large concentrations of baitfish. And finally, during late winter, they once again move more shallow, and can often be found in 10 to 20 foot deep water close to their spawning grounds.
What is the best structure for walleye ice fishing?
The best structures to target for walleye ice fishing are underwater hills, the edge zones of flats, and the extensions of shoreline points. Look for transition zones that connect deeper water with shallow areas that hold lots of baitfish. Very often the most productive parts of a structure are drop off zones between these two types of areas.
Another prime structure to target are “pinch points” between two shore points, which act as a funnel that forces patrolling walleye into a smaller area as they pass through the choke point. One of the most effective ways to catch walleye in these pinch points is by setting up a series of ice fishing tip ups to increase your odds of catching fish.
Look for concentrations of baitfish
If you don’t want to chase the walleye with active hole hopping, an alternative strategy is to find locations that hold lots of baitfish, such as yellow perch, shad, or minnows, and then sit tight and wait for walleye to show up for the evening bite.
Even if you don’t catch any walleye in a place like that during the day, it’s very likely that they’ll show up in the evening, which is their most active feeding time. Usually they’ll push into more shallow water to feed on schools of baitfish at this time of the day, and you can take advantage of this by waiting for them in these locations.
How to attract walleye for ice fishing
The best way to attract walleye during ice fishing is by actively jigging with bright flashy lures, or lures that produce a lot of erratic movements (such as the Rappala jigging rap). The flashy colors and jerking movements serve to call in passing walleye, which come closer to investigate the commotion.
In some cases you can attract them and catch them on your active rod, while in others they’ll prefer a live bait set up on a second rod.
What is the best bait for walleye ice fishing?
The best baits for walleye ice fishing are jigging lures baited with a minnow head or a whole minnow. You can also use either of these baits effectively on their own, but many years of experience have shown that it’s hard to beat a jig (or small spoon) sweetened with a juicy minnow head.
The flashing color and jigging movement of the lure serves to attract walleye, and when they come in close, they’ll smell the scent of the minnow head, which is often enough to seal the deal.
That being said, you should always test different lures and baits, as you’ll find that walleye can change their preferences from day to day. There can be no doubt that the best live bait for walleye in winter are minnows, and you should always take some of these along when you fish for walleye.
What depth should you ice fish for walleye?
The ideal depth to target walleye under the ice depends on what part of winter you’re in. In most cases you’ll want to target them about 1 to 2 feet above the bottom.
Early winter: Walleye can be found in shallow water of 4 to 8 feet depth, usually in bays or on flats with lots of vegetation and large concentrations of baitfish.
Mid winter: Walleye prefer to hold in deeper basins of about 30 to 40 feet depth during the day, but pushing into more shallow water of 10 to 25 feet depth at night in order to hunt baitfish.
Late winter: Walleye can be found on shallow flats of about 10 to 25 feet depth that are located close to their spawning grounds.
In most cases you’ll want to target them about 1 to 2 feet above the bottom. Keep in mind that the ideal depth to target walleye changes over the course of each day during winter, and tends to be more shallow in the evening and during the night, and deeper at midday.
Finally, the exact depth at which you’ll find walleye can also vary significantly from lake to lake, as some fisheries are more shallow than others, and you’ll have to adjust to the local conditions. A great way to determine this is by asking local anglers.
See also: the best depth to ice fish for walleye
Deep water walleye ice fishing
When targeting walleye in deep water over 20 feet deep during the winter, keep in mind that there will be less light penetration at that depth (especially if there’s snow on the ice), making it harder for walleye to spot your lure. That’s why you should try using bright, flashy spoons, as well as lures that produce vibration or sound when targeting deep water walleye under the ice.
While walleye usually relate to the bottom in shallow water (i.e. under 20 feet deep), they are just as often found suspended in deeper water, which makes it harder to choose the right depth when ice fishing in deep water.
That’s why it’s essential to use a sonar (either an ice fishing fish finder or flasher) to find the right depth for deep water walleye, and often the best strategy is to look for suspended schools of baitfish, as walleye will suspend at the same depth as their baitfish, and then lower your lure to the same depth.
What’s the best way to catch walleye with ice fishing?
One of the best ways to catch walleye with ice fishing is to fish with an active rod on one ice hole, and a deadstick on a second hole nearby. On the active rod, actively jig a spoon, jig, or jigging swimbait, and on the deadstick use a live bait rig baited with a minnow or sucker.
The active rod serves to call in any walleye passing by nearby who are attracted to investigate the movement, and if they’re not ready to bite your lure, they may still end up eating the live bait on the other rod.
When you employ this strategy, you’ll find that on some days you catch more walleye on the active rod, and on others you’ll catch more on the deadstick. If you find that you’re getting most bites on deadstick with the live bait, bait your active rod with the same live bait as the deadstick, and slowly jig it up and down (by using a tungsten jig head),
Jigging for walleye ice fishing
Jigging is the best technique to catch walleye under the ice, since it is perfectly suited for vertical fishing. Artificial lures like jigs, spoons, and jigging swimbaits are designed to work best when pulled up and down vertically in the water, and produce enticing movements and color flashes when worked that way.
The great thing about jigs and jigging lures is that they can be additionally baited with a minnow head, or even a whole minnow. You can either use a dead minnow, since you’ll be imparting movement to it with your jig, or you can use a live minnow, and further entice hungry walleye to bite.
Pro tip: walleye almost always strike your lure on the pause. So make sure to pause it regularly between upwards and downwards jigging sequences, and when you pause it feel for a short tap or double tap that signifies a walleye bite.
How to target big walleye ice fishing
In order to specifically catch big walleye while ice fishing, it’s necessary to use big bait fish that are at least 7 to 10 inches long. Suckers are a great baitfish option for this purpose, since they can grow up to 20 inches. Baitfish of this size are simply too big for small walleye, so you’ll automatically be selecting the bigger ones that are over 5 pounds.
Also make sure to choose a location where big walleye can be found. Usually the bigger walleye like to hold in deeper water that’s at least 25 to 40 feet deep during the daytime, but will push into more shallow water during the night, in order to feed on baitfish.
A great strategy to catch big walleye under the ice with night fishing. Experience has shown that smaller walleye can be caught throughout the day and at sundown, while the bigger ones show up later during the night.
Walleye ice fishing rigs
When you’re ice fishing for walleye with live baits, you’ll need to use a live bait rig, which is most often a split shot rig. A split shot rig consists of a single or treble hook tied to a 3 to 4 foot long leader, with a split shot positioned about 6 to 12 inches above the hook. If you’re using bigger baitfish, and need to keep them at the right depth, you can add a sliding sinker to your main line, right above the leader.
A split shot rig is a great option to use with a dead stick rod, while using your second rod to actively jig on another ice hole. Another rig that works great for vertical fishing is a drop shot rig, which is actually ideal for ice fishing walleye, as it allows you to target a very specific depth above the bottom.
Another popular live bait rig for walleye ice fishing is the slip bobber rig, which consists of a slip bobber on your main line, which is attached to a snap swivel. The snap swivel is in turn attached to a leader with the hook. For more details on this rig, check out our walleye rigging guide.
Walleye ice fishing rigs tend to be more simple than the walleye rigs used during open water season. In fact, the most common rig is simply to tie a jig or jig head directly to your main line, which is as simple as it gets.
What is the best walleye ice fishing rig?
The best walleye ice fishing rig is a jig head tied directly to the main line, baited with a whole minnow or a minnow head. If you’re using a whole minnow on this kind or rig, you can opt for either a live or a dead one. Since you’ll be jigging it up and down actively, even a dead minnow will look enticing to walleye.
What time of day is best for walleye ice fishing?
The best time for walleye ice fishing is during the hour around sunset, which is their peak feeding time. Walleye are nocturnal feeders, and tend to bite better during the night compared to the day, and there’s a second peak feeding hour around dawn.
See also: when do walleye bite best in winter?
Walleye ice fishing at night
Many walleye specialists like to ice fish for them at night, since this is not only a more active feeding time for walleye, but also tends to produce bigger fish than during the day.
If you want to try out ice fishing at night, it’s always best to set up during the afternoon. Not only does this allow you to use daylight to get everything set up correctly, but that way you’ll also take advantage of the evening bite, which often produces the most fish.
You can target more shallow locations for walleye at night, since this is where they hunt their prey while it’s dark. In many cases these are mud flats with generous amounts of vegetation that attract baitfish. A great strategy is to set up along the edge of such a flat, either with your rods, or with a series of tip ups.
Essential walleye ice fishing tips
Here are our 5 top tips to catch more walleye with ice fishing:
- When you mark fish, combine an active rod with a deadstick on an adjacent hole: There can be no doubt that active jigging is the most effective way to catch walleye under the ice. But on some days the bite is slow, and on those days you may end up catching more fish on a live bait that’s set up on your deadstick. So, the ideal method is to use both of these strategies side by side. That way, your active rod will call in the walleye, and if they’re not in the mood to eat your lure, they may still go for the live minnow that’s a few feet next to it.
- Look for transition zones: The best places to find walleye are in transition areas that bridge different kinds of structure. The most obvious one is a drop-off, but there are many others that you can use to your advantage, including transition zones between weed and gravel, sand and gravel, etc.. Even on big flat lakes that don’t have a lot of structure, you can still use transition zones like this to your advantage.
- Stay mobile and use systematic hole hopping to find fish: While a lake map and an ice fishing flasher can point you to the best locations that may potentially hold walleye, you’ll probably find that some of these spots don’t produce any bites. That’s why you need to stay mobile and drill 10 to 15 holes in every location that you test out. For example you can drill a systematic pattern of holes along a drop off to determine which depth performs best. Once you’ve drilled your holes, spend about 5 to 10 minutes on each hole jigging a bright flashy lure with aggressive movements, and check your sonar to see if any fish come in to mark it.
- Use aggressive jigging techniques to call in fish: Since walleye can be finicky biters, many anglers mistakenly assume that you need to use a subtle bait presentation in order to catch them. But in actual fact, a more aggressive lure presentation is much better for calling in fish to investigate. So regularly snap your jig up a foot or more, and every now and then pull it up higher in the water column with jerky movements to see if any fish will come up and mark it.
- If the walleye bite is slow, switch to live bait: If you see fish marking your lure on a flasher, but aren’t getting any bites, this means that the walleye are finicky on that day. In that case, you’ll probably have more success with live bait. You can use a live bait both on a deadstick and on your active rod. For your active rod, use a tungsten jig head and bait it with a minnow that’s either hooked through the upper lip, or just behind the dorsal fin. Also, you shouldn’t jig a live bait as aggressively as a lure, to avoid tearing out the hook.
This concludes our guide to walleye ice fishing. If you try it out, you might find yourself as addicted to catching ice walleye as I am. And then there’s the additional draw that there are few game fish as delicious as freshly caught walleyes in early winter.
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