Winter is comin’ on!
As winter closes in and the ice begins to set, lots of reports are coming in from the upper Midwest of hungry fish with an aggressive bite. Temperatures dropped early this season and the first ice brought fishermen out in droves to take advantage of what’s considered to be the best time for ice fishing. And it doesn’t necessarily matter if you’re way up in Minnesota, Wisconsin or Michigan, because early season ice fishing can be super just about anywhere. The fish go into a feeding frenzy this time of year and walleyes are no exception.
The question is, why does the action get so hot and heavy while everything else is cooling off? There are a number of theories, but no definitive answer. One possibility is that all the sediment that was kicked up during fall’s unstable weather begins to settle out once the ice puts a lid on it. The water clears and the baitfish are still in the shallows and easy to see, so walleyes don’t stray too much from their earlier haunts and habits. They will continue to hang around their usual breaks and structures. Another point often made is that the females are especially concerned with feeding in preparation for the spring spawn.
Another theory drops the sediment angle and simply proposes that early winter feeding is just a continuation of fall habits. The sun shines bright, oxygen content is high, and the minnows continue to meander about the shallows. Add the notion that the fish are bulking up in preparation for midwinter and you’ve got the perfect conditions for some hot action.
So, this is a great time to break out the winter gear, because by the middle of January the light will diminish under the snowpack, the oxygen content will drop, walleyes will move to deeper water and the bite will definitely slow.
Of course, this is a good time to remind everyone that safety comes first. You’ll want to be certain that the ice is thick enough to support whatever you’re bringing to the game. According to the experts, if it’s just yourself and your gear, the ice should be at least 4 inches thick. If you’re bringing your midsized truck onto the ice, make sure you’ve got at least a foot underneath you. By the time the ice is that thick, it will be the middle of winter and time for a new strategy to tempt those otherwise lethargic ’eyes to take the bait.
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!