The Walleye is a popular game for their aggressive fighting. It’s not uncommon to hear this toothy predator referred to as Walleyed Pike or Yellow Pickerel. Whatever name you prefer, the Walleye’s tasty filets won’t disappoint if you’re fishing for dinner.
Native to the northern United States and Canada, Walleye are a migratory species and challenging to locate under the ice. Knowing all you can about Walleye’s preferred foods, feeding times, and habitats under the hard water will help you ensure the likelihood of a successful trip.
What do You need to Know About Walleye?
One of the more significant perch family members, Walleye, averages about 2-7 pounds in larger inland lakes and reservoirs. In larger systems like Canadas Lake Winnipeg or the Great Lakes, they top out at twenty-plus pounds in giant systems like the Great Lakes.
The Walleye’s name comes from milky white eyes, which are the result of a reflective layer in their eyes that is common to nocturnal animals. Walleye have two dorsal fins, one spiny and the other softer. Their backs are greenish to gold with the telltale black stripes typical to the perch family, and they have a whiteish belly.
What’s on the Walleye’s Menu?
What Walleye feed on largely depends on the local food chain. Because they are near the top of their food chain they will feed on whatever’s available. The Walleye’s diet includes smaller perch, Ciscos, chubs, minnows. Insects and nightcrawlers.
Walleye spawning begins under the late ice of early Spring and runs into the early Summer; this is a time you should look for Walleye in shallower waters. The preferred spawning grounds are rocky ledges, and gravel beds near the mouths of tributaries.
They lay their eggs there where there is enough water flow to clear away sediment allowing for better fertilization and higher oxygen levels for their eggs. Walleye live an average of ten years.
Where to Look For Walleye?
Walleye are a favorite target species found throughout Canada and much of the northern United States. Walleye prefer deeper, quiet, cool waters and can be found in various inland waterways, including lakes, reservoirs, and streams. Walleye are also common in the Missouri and Mississippi rivers. They are migratory fish, so finding them can be challenging.
Under Early Winters First Ice
Early winter’s ice is clear and thin, allowing more light penetration, so the sound is easily transmitted. For this reason, under the first thin ice, silence is golden as fish are easily spooked by stomping around or noise in general.
The deeper penetration of sunlight through early thin ice keeps vegetation alive and oxygen levels higher. When the sun is high, Walleye hunt around the vegetation taking advantage of the cover and increased oxygen the vegetation provides. On smaller no more than 35 feet deep, you’ll find walleye around five to fifteen feet deep on average, or around vegetation in bright sunlight.
Peak feeding time for Walleye occurs at dusk. A secondary spike in feeding occurs several hours after sunset and feeding slowly declines throughout the night until peaking again at dawn. Check out this article on John Aldens Solunar Calendar to learn more about how times of day affect fish activity.
Under the early ice, look for the same types of structures you would target when fishing open water, including fallen trees or brush piles and gravel beds. If you’re on a reservoir, old flooded buildings are a perfect hiding place.
By mid-winter, the environment under the ice has changed. Oxygen levels are lower because vegetation has died back, and the water temperature has flip-flopped, with warmer water near the bottom. For both these reasons, you’ll now find walleye enjoying the more hospitable climate of the deeper water.
Under the mid-winter ice, walleye activity decreases, and the fish are more sluggish when they feed. At these times a sonar unit like the Garmin Striker Vivid 4C or an underwater camera like the Eyoyo Underwater Fishing Camera Video Fish Finder will pay for themselves in time saved and fish caught.
Fish the deeper zones around 18-25 feet at these times. By this time of the season, life under the ice has slowed down and fishing techniques should follow suit to mimic the sluggishness of natural baits.
Dead sticking, which is nothing more than letting your line and bait dangle motionless at the appropriate depth, is an effective method. Use live baits such as chubs, shiners, or minnows about 3-4 inches long.
Hook the minnow behind the dorsal fin with either a single or treble hook. Walleye are sluggish and less likely to chase their prey by mid-winter, so weigh your bait down with split shots or snip the fins to prevent their running.
If you prefer jigging, small ball head jigs or small spoons work well. Effective colors vary depending on watercolor and clarity. Adding a smaller minnow hooked through the head makes your jig more appealing.
Use the standard jigging action, raising and dropping your lure, just slow it way down; the Walleye are moving in slow motion now. Because they’re sluggish, their bites will be lighter and softer. Wait until they have hold of your bait or jig.
Late Winter & Early Spring Ice
As the Winter moves toward Spring, the increased sunlight acts as an alarm clock for the Walleye, and they begin to turn on again. They’re feeling a bit frisky because the spawning season is approaching.
Because they’re on the move, you’ll need to try different depths and locations to find feeding Walleye this late in the season. Beginning in March and until the last ice vanishes, you’ll find Walleye schooling where tributaries empty into their water system
To avoid the crowd, look for naturally occurring rock formations, ledges, or gravel beds along the shoreline. Walleye are waking up, so you should go back to more active jigging to attract your prey. Travel light and move to a new spot if you’ve had no activity within an hour.
As the Walleye turn on, you can go to larger jigs, spoons, and even your favorite Rapalas. Work them hard, so they make some noise. Dead sticking one line is still an option; make sure it’s well secured while you work a jig or a spoon, so a hungry trophy fish can’t swim off with your pole.
Walleye in Giant Water Systems
America’s Great Lakes and giant bodies of water like Canada’s Lake Winnipeg are enormous systems and home to teeming fisheries for many species, including Walleye. These are the lakes where you’ll find your monster twenty-pound Walleye!
However, because of the vast size of these systems, many of the tactics used in smaller inland waterways simply won’t be effective. The strength of unseen currents and the sheer depth of the lakes changes everything. You will catch some Walleye using the tactics discussed above.
A discussion on tactics for these giant waterways is a completely separate article. If you want to learn how to successfully fish these vast waterways read Matt Straw’s post, Giant Winter Strategies on Giant Walleye Water.
At What Depth Do I Fish For Walleye?
In the early Winter, deeper light penetration keeps aquatic plants growing for a while which means oxygen levels remain higher and cover remains. For these reasons, Walleye move to shallower waters when the sun is high. Look for them around 15-feet when the sun is lower in the sky.
The depth question has two facets. First, the depth of the water from the bottom to the surface. Second, how close to the bottom to suspend your bait. In order to get your bait seen, suspend your bait a minimum of two feet off the bottom. This holds true for live baits or jigging spoons or lures.
By mid-winter, the fish have gone deeper to take advantage of warmer water. Look for them in water ranging 17 to 25-feet deep. The distance of the bottom remains a minimum of 2-feet. However, because you’re in deeper water you might try jigging between 4 to 2-feet of the bottom.
In late Winter and Early Spring the ice thins, light penetration increases, and the fish wake up and become more active as the spawning season approaches. Locating the right depth will include a lot of trial and error. They tend to move into the shallower waters, but may also stack up around structures in deeper areas. Don’t invest too much time in one spot before moving.
Wrapping it All Up
Walleye are found throughout much of the northern United States and Canada. Known as strong fighters and tasty dinners the Walleye is a highly sought after game fish and remains a popular target of ice anglers wherever they are found.
Being a migratory species, locating Walleye is challenging; however, they follow a predictable pattern with the thickening and thinning of the ice. Under early winter’s ice look for them near shore around cover and weed beds or around traditional structures. But not more than 15 feet deep about two feet off the bottom. Live baits such as minnow, chubs, cisco are popular baits for walleye. Actively jigging with spoons or ball jigs tipped with minnows is an effective technique for early winter.
Mid-winter Walleye are sluggish and found in deeper water. You need to slow down the action of your lure to match or limit the mobility of chubs or minnows used for bait. Once again around two feet off the bottom works best, maybe as high as four feet in the deeper areas.
Late Winter and early spring Walleye are heading back into shallower water or gathering near stream mouths for spawning. They are much more active and you can return to much more aggressive methods. Hit the ice with these techniques in mind and the walleye are all but in the pan.