How To Find The Right Depth To Ice Fish For Walleye During Early, Mid And Late Winter
UPDATED 29 JANUARY 2021
by Bill Laney
Walleye are among the most popular gamefish for ice anglers. But one of the big challenges of ice fishing for them is finding the right depth to catch them during the winter.
The depth at which to ice fish for walleye depends on the time of day, and whether it’s early, late, or mid winter. At midwinter they are often found in 30-40 ft. deep water around noon, while towards evening they move into more shallow water of about 10-25 feet to feed on schooling bait fish during the night. A great way to find the depth at which fish are holding is by using a hole hopping approach to scan for fish with a flasher and a jigging rod.
Walleye depth movement over the course of winter
During early winter, walleye can be found in shallow water of 4-8 feet, since this is where a lot of their prey like to feed. They feed almost exclusively on small fish at this time, and their commonly sought prey fish include perch, shiners, minnows, and others.
As winter progresses and the water gets colder, walleye move into deeper water. In mid-winter, they are often found in basins that are 30-40 feet deep, and like to hold in areas that are close to more shallow structures, such as underwater hills or mud flats rising to a depth of 10-25 feet. Their prey can be found in these more shallow waters, and walleye typically stay in deeper basins that are within quick striking distance of bait fish, such as schooling perch or minnows.
Then, as winter starts to transition into spring, the walleye move into more shallow water once more as they move closer to their spawning grounds. At this time they can often be found in 10-20 feet of water.
Walleye depth movement over the course of each day
At noon on a bright sunlit winter day, walleye are usually always found in the deeper basins around 30-40 feet. But as the sun starts to set, they move into more shallow water to hunt their prey in waters that are 10-25 feet deep. They continue hunting at this depth over the whole night, and move back into deeper water again after the sun rises the next day.
Walleye have extremely sensitive eyes, which gives them an advantage over their prey at night, as well as during dimly lit conditions. That’s why you can sometimes experience walleye moving into more shallow water to hunt when cloud cover moves in over the sun, even if it isn’t time for dusk yet.
So keep in mind that walleye tend to hold in deeper water on a sunny winter day compared to an overcast day. If cloud cover or even a snow storm starts to move in during the middle of the day, you may find the walleye moving in to the shallows as if it were their evening hunt already.
At what depth should you fish for walleye in winter?
As we’ve seen, the best depth for catching walleye in winter depends on the time of winter.
During early winter you should fish for walleye close to shore in 4-8 feet of water. Look for spots that attract many bait fish, since this is where the walleye will also be feeding. Very often these are areas with weeds that provide lots of cover and food for the bait fish.
During mid winter you’ll find the walleye in deep water of 30-40 feet during the day, and in more shallow water of 10-25 feet at dusk and at night. If you’re searching for them in deep water during the day, try to look for spots that are close to drop offs leading to the more shallow areas where they like to hunt after the sun sets.
During late winter you’ll find walleye in more shallow areas of about 10-20 feet that are close to their spawning grounds. Look for these close to where streams and rivers flow into the lake. Within these areas, you’ll find them feeding wherever there are large concentrations of baitfish.
See also: where can you target walleye for ice fishing?
Finding walleye ice fishing depth by searching for bait fish schools
A great way to find the depth at which walleye are holding is by using a flasher to look for their prey. You may be able to find schools of bait fish suspended in midwater, and groups of walleye are often nearby, holding in slightly deeper water under these schools.
If you don’t have a fish finder, you can test several ice holes with a small jig until you find a spot with lots of small perch. Once you’ve found a spot like that, you can be sure that walleye will show up at that depth in the evening, as they move into shallow water to hunt the schooling perch.
Finding walleye ice fishing depth with a mapping device and hole hopping
If you’re trying to find the depth at which walleye are holding during winter, it really helps if you have a GPS device with mapping functionality, such as LakeMaster or Navionics (for more information on the features of these mapping softwares check out our article on which is better – LakeMaster or Navionics?).
Hydrographic mapping software is especially helpful when fishing on big lakes, where finding walleye is often hardest. The mapping device will help you to find promising structures, such as underwater hills and points, as well as their exact depth contours.
Look for areas where deeper water transitions into more shallow water quite rapidly (for more details on this, check out our article on how to read a lake map for walleye ice fishing). When you’ve found an interesting location, then drill a series of holes in a line, each at a different depth point on the map (see image below):
Scanning for fish with GPS mapping and hole hopping
After you drill the holes, then move from hole to hole with a jigging rod and a flasher. Spend a few minutes at every hole while observing your flasher to see if any walleye show up. It’s best to use a relatively large and flashy lure for this, since you want to attract the attention of any walleye that may be in the area.
See also: best ice fishing flasher.
Move the jig as conspicuously as possible at about 5-6 feet above the bottom, which helps to grab the attention of walleye that are nearby, and these will then often move in to investigate. At this point you just want to find the depth at which they are holding, without trying to get them to bite. It’s very common for walleye to mark a lure and investigate it without biting, which you’ll be able to see on your flasher.
If a fish or two show up on your flasher, then you know you’ve found the right depth, and there must be others nearby. You can then focus your ice fishing on that depth for the next few hours. At this point you can set up several deadsticks with live bait, plus try some finesse techniques on your main rod.
In order to do hole hopping effectively, you need to be able to cover a lot of ground until you find walleye, which requires having the right gear to do this. Here are the most important tools you’ll need:
- Snowmobile or ATV
- Mapping device with GPS
- Gas powered auger (expect to drill 20+ holes minimum)
- Flasher or fish finder
If you’re ice fishing on foot, or using a manual auger, it’s much harder to do this properly, since you’ll be exhausted after a few holes.
Finding walleye ice fishing depth at dusk and at night
As already discussed, walleye move into more shallow areas of about 10-25 feet depth when the sun starts to set. On most days, dusk is the very best time to ice fish walleye if you know where to find them at this time (for more details on this, check out our article when do walleye bite best for ice fishing?
A great way to find the right fishing depth at dusk is to identify shallow areas that hold lots of bait fish, such as perch or shiners. When you find an area like that, you can be sure that walleye are bound to show up in the evening. You can drill multiple holes around this area, and set up several deadsticks with live bait in anticipation of the evening bite. In addition, continue jigging with your main rod to experiment with different lures and presentation techniques.
You should also experiment presenting your lure at a range of different depths. In many cases, you’ll catch most walleye close to the bottom, but sometimes you can get better results by fishing 4-8 feet off the bottom at night. You may also want to set up several of your deadsticks at different depths to test for this.
That way you’ll quickly notice at which depth the fish are most active when the evening bite starts, and as the night settles in.
This concludes our article on how to find the best depth to catch walleye with ice fishing. Finding the right depth to ice fish walleye can be quite a challenge if you’ve never done it before. But when you succeed in finding them, the rewards can be great, as you fill your bucket with a dozen or more nice sized fish.
Want to learn more? Grab our ultimate guide to ice fishing.
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