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How Far Off the Bottom For Walleye Ice Fishing?

How Far Off the Bottom For Walleye Ice Fishing?

Whether you have been targeting walleye for decades or you are about to hit the ice for the first time this winter, this age-old question is top of mind:

How deep should I be fishing?

Like anything in fishing – ESPECIALLY ice fishing – there isn’t a definitive answer to this question, but there are important factors to consider. Rather than reinventing the wheel, keep reading for advice from seasoned ice fishing experts.

Get your auger ready, because we will drill deep into:

  • The factors that determine where walleye will most likely hold on northern lakes in the winter.
  • Where to fish lures and bait in the water column for walleye ice fishing.

What is the best depth for early winter walleye ice fishing?

One key factor is the specific time of year. Fishing early in the winter, walleye can often be found shallow – lurking in weed beds between 6-10 feet deep. Check out the following youtube video on targeting walleye early in the season by Northland Fishing Tackle:

Early Ice Walleye Tips & Tactics

Some extra tips – When fishing this shallow, it’s imperative to be stealthy. Move around sparingly, make sure not to drop anything on the ice, and be prepared and in a good spot for the peak bite times (around sunrise and sunset).

Another factor is latitude. The further north you are, the colder it tends to be. In the states, especially southern Minnesota and South Dakota, and anywhere south of there, these “early winter” conditions can occur well into January.

What is the ideal depth for mid-winter walleye ice fishing?

How To Find Winter Walleye!

The coldest, darkest months see most walleye marked deeper than 20 feet, often up to 40 feet down. It depends on the lake and conditions, but usually, the best bottom depth to fish is between 25 and 30 feet.

Looking for certain features on the bottom is also important, but this is only possible with higher-tech instruments. A GPS with lake bottom mapping can change the whole game. Gaining access to this topography of the lake bottom requires some investment, but it can deliver in spades.

Check out the above video to see how Youtuber Jay Siemens had an epic first time fishing Lake of the Woods by strategically targeting large flats at specific depths surrounded by deeper pockets.

How far off the bottom should I fish my walleye lure?

Ice fishing tips from Gord Pyzer: Top walleye lures

Now let’s consider a different part of the “depth” question – distance from the bottom. We’ll start by discussing best practices for lure fishing specifically.

Fishing at the right distance relative to the bottom is super important with our notoriously skittish bottom-dwellers, and philosophies generally converge on this matter. ‘Eyes are so much fun because they are proper predators. When they eat, they usually hunt for prey right where the prey is hiding. So, if you fish right at the bottom to a foot or so off the bottom, you’ll catch fish…eventually.

But the prey is hiding there for a reason. Panfish and minnows stick to the bottom – especially a weedy or rocky one – because it’s an effective way to avoid getting eaten. So, fishing your spoon or tungsten there can prevent your lure from getting eaten as well.

Basically, if you stick too close to the bottom, only a fish right on top of your lure will see it. And walleye – true to their name and with adaptations ideal for seeing in very low light – tend to rely on their sight to keep their bellies full. So where does one move their lure so fish can see it more easily?

Jigging about 3-4 feet off the bottom tends to be the most effective.

Maybe the fish aren’t even there. But if it’s the right fish, it will come up to grab it. Those that bite will be more aggressive and more fun than the sluggish cruisers that pass by your bait or lure.

So, while it’s important to pay attention to where the fish are that you’re marking, it’s usually best to be a bit above them if they are hugging the lake floor.

While using an imaging device like a fishfinder  or camera  can tell you when and where fish are right below you, the nature of ice fishing still forces you to be able to attract fish from further away. And if a fish can’t detect your lure, it will just mosey along – nothing more than a missed opportunity.

How far off the bottom should I fish a bait rig?

Deadstick Systems for Ice Fishing (The Complete Guide)

The shrewd angler uses every tool available – which often includes additional lines. Live bait rigs are tried and true on the ice. Deadsticks (stationary rod and reel), tip-ups, and tip-downs can vastly improve a slow day on the water. Sometimes, the fish only want live minnows and will ignore your jig all day.

With these rigs, the depth argument is much simpler – fish these on the bottom. If you suspend your live minnow or worm up in the water column, you’re far less likely to catch a walleye and far more likely to catch anything else – perch, trout, panfish, bass, or pike, depending on your watershed.

Check out this quick beginner’s guide, which has a section on fishing with live bait, and make sure to check your local regulations to see how many extra lines are allowed in your area.

Now, where on the lake are walleye?

WALLEYE SPECIAL - Underwater Video

As discussed above, this question varies based on the time of year. Early in the season, they are often in the shallows, but go deeper as winter wears on.

One simple rule is that they will follow their prey. Often, catching perch is a precursor to catching walleye later at a peak feeding time. Perch and panfish prefer structures to hide from, well, walleye. So, many of the ideal spots have rocks and weeds. Areas that feature a large, main structure on the bottom, like a rock bar or gravel bar often see the most huts set up on the ice, and tend to be fish magnets.

Sometimes, ‘eyes will be near mud and soft bottom, especially if weeds are growing there too. Weeds tend to last through the early part of the winter while the sun still shines through the ice, but often die off without sun.


Here’s a quick review of what we covered:

  • Walleye will most likely hold in shallow water in early winter but around 25-30 feet in the dead of winter on northern lakes.
  • Lures are best fished 3-4 feet off the bottom.
  • Bait is best fished right on the bottom for walleye.
  • The hottest walleye action occurs where the prey are – usually around the structure and near the bottom of the lake.

Tight lines, go get ‘em!