Baby, It’s Cold Outside…
Just because it’s winter, it doesn’t mean you can’t catch walleye. Most of the basic rules continue to apply, but there are some specific cold weather strategies that can increase your chance for success.
Firstly, the best times for catching walleye still hold true. The hours surrounding dusk and dawn are when walleye are most aggressive, taking full advantage of their low light capability to forage for food. You can also have good luck during regular daytime hours if the weather is snowy or overcast. Start fishing deep during daylight hours and move to shallower areas as the sun begins to set. Walleye are a little like zombies – they don’t like to come out in the bright light.
Night fishing for walleye can be rewarding, as well. Wait until their renowned light gathering eyes have adjusted, an hour or so after darkness has set in. They’ll be back on the prowl, patrolling shallower waters looking for a late-night snack. If you have some good moonlight, all the better.
Knowing when a walleye is in a biting mood is one thing, but you also need to know where they’re hanging out. It’s always good to learn the best spots on a lake or river before the ice sets up. If you’re not already familiar with a particular body of water, you can use a fish finder and map out the areas and depths where they‘re holding. Again, most of the usual rules apply. Walleye like rock or gravel bottoms, holes, dams, structures with drop-offs, etc.
There are differences, however, between early and late winter walleye fishing. As the first ice begins to set early in the season, walleye tend to remain in deep water that’s close to the shallows where they can take advantage of the last remaining bait fish. But during the latter part of winter, they will begin to focus on the spring spawn and move into staging areas near their spawning grounds. If you’re lake fishing, locate spots where rivers or creeks come in, as they tend to supply the warmer water walleye like to stage in. If you’re on a river, look for areas where their upstream movement will be blocked by dams or other man-made or natural obstructions. But remember, they aren’t exactly at those spots just yet. They’ll be exhibiting their late winter, pre-spawn behavior, which means staging themselves somewhere just off their spawning ground. So the key often is fishing the spot closest and deepest to the spawning site. But, don’t wander too far off from ground zero, walleye are likely staging within 30 feet from that point.
Jigs are probably the most popular lure for fishing walleyes. The jig is a hook with a silicone or rubber-coated lead head that comes in various sizes, weights, colors and configurations. Very often live or plastic baits are placed on the hook to complete the presentation. 1/8 and 1/4 ounce jigs are good for shallow waters. A 3/8 to 5/8 ounce jig weight works well in deeper or strong current settings.
The idea is to fish with the lightest weight possible, just enough to let you feel the bottom. If you keep a variety of different weight jigs, you’ll be ready to match all environments. Jig color is also an important factor in attracting hungry walleye. Chartreuse, orange, and green are popular colors. Again, usually the darker the water, the brighter colored jigs you’ll want to try. They stand out in the walleye’s eye, but each situation is different, so if one color isn’t working for you, switch over to another. There’s sometimes no telling what walleyes might be attracted to on a given day.
Crankbaits, also known as plugs or divers, are hard bodied lures that come in many sizes, shapes and colors. There are hundreds of them to choose from, but look for specific characteristics that are the most successful in enticing hungry walleyes. The “action” of the lure is all-important. Most hard baits wobble from side to side as they are reeled in. But walleye are most attracted to a bait’s top-to-bottom roll, or “side flash”. Walleye lures typically have bright colored sides and dark backs. As these hard baits move forward through the water, their roll presents an alternating flash of color that simulates live prey, a presentation walleyes find hard to resist.
Check this video of Rapala Pro Anglers, Al Lindner and Dan Sura, catching Walleye using three-way rigging techniques with Rapala lures like the Rapala Flat Rap, Rapala Original Floater and Jointed Rapala.
A spinner lure (aka crawler harness) includes one or more metal blades that spin as it moves forward. Its attraction is twofold in that the spinning action creates a visual flash and the vibration mimics live prey. A spinner rig also includes a number of small brightly colored beads to increase visibility. Add a juicy nightcrawler, leach or minnow to the trailing hook and you’ve got yourself one of the best walleye baits there is.
There is no doubt plastic baits are very successful in landing this elusive fish, but artificial baits and lures are missing a couple of key traits that live baits offer. First, hard baits don’t display the natural random movement of a live minnow or crawler. Second, artificials don’t exhibit the typical flight response of live bait when harassed and nipped at by a hungry fish. Minnows, crawlers and leeches are the most popular live baits for catching walleye, but they can be picky eaters. If they’re not interested in their usual fare, frogs, salamanders, and crayfish can be appealing alternatives.
And, by the way, none of the above are particularly expensive to buy. Every place from the neighborhood Walmart to your favorite tackle shop will likely have great walleye baits and lures for a decent price and purchasing online could save you even more.
You’re never too young to learn how to catch a walleye!