Winter is a time of dreaming and planning for the angler. Thinking about that dream fly in trip, or all the new lures you want to try on opening day. Yet sooner or later, no matter how much you dream, an angler needs to get outside and fish. It’s what we do. In Northwestern Ontario, and wherever else there is ice in North America, walleye are often the focus of winter ice fishing attention. Despite frigid water temperatures that make walleye rather sluggish, they still have to eat. So you can catch them at just about any time in the winter. The kicker is that winter is a time when forage such as minnows and aquatic insects are at a low level. That means walleye have to be less choosy when they see a minnow or sucker. This is good news for ice anglers, as they just have to find where the fish are and show them something that is both tasty and easy to grab.
Winter walleye will use a variety of depths and structures, so it pays to experiment with locations. Staying mobile will help you locate fish. Bass anglers call this the ‘run and gun’ fishing. Yet in the winter, moving around is a little more difficult than just turning the key on a bass boat. A sleigh and snowmobile can be a pretty good form of quick transportation in the winter, but not everyone has that option. If you are on foot, make sure you can pack everything up quickly and easily. Tip ups with minnows or small suckers catch most of the largest walleye during the winter, as the big girls like to use as little energy as possible for the maximum gain. Hook up a 4 to 5 inch sucker minnow with a #10 treble just under its dorsal. Use enough split shot above the bait to keep it from running away from a visiting fish. On really large minnows or suckers, clipping the tail down a bit will make it easier for a walleye to grab. After you get a strike, let the fish take some line before you set the hook.
If you like to jig, you’ll want to add a few finesse presentations to your bag of tricks. One of the best techniques for fooling winter walleye is called reverse hooking. Hook a minnow through the back of the body (near the tail) or behind the dorsal fin with a light lead head jig. Use the lightest jig you can get away with. An eighth ounce Fire Eye jig and medium minnow makes a very natural presentation. If the fish are hitting harder than normal, bump up the size of the jig to quarter ounce. Good jig colours include orange, yellow and chartreuse in dark water; silver, gold and black in clear water.
Winter is also a surprisingly good period to use artificial attractor lures such as a Jigging Rapala or the now legendary Chubby Darter. Jigging Rapalas and Chubby Darters both give walleye the sideways profile of a minnow, and create a lot of pulse in the water. An aggressive lift drop action with these lures will call in the big ones. Add a minnow head to the bottom treble of the jigging minnow as sweetener if the bite is off a bit. Letting the artificial lure dangle for a half a minute or so will sometime trigger a strike. Don’t ask me why.
When the days get longer, the walleye really start slamming. You’ll want to more actively jig a ball head and minnow. Classic quarter ounce jigs work well in the majority of situations; Hook the minnow on by the head. To save on bait, push the hook point into the mouth and up through the head of the minnow. If the bite is super hot, you may want to pull your set line and just jig two rods. This can be a lot of fun. Be careful where you lay your jigging rod down however, as more than one rig has disappeared down the hole due to a hard strike and no one there to answer it.
If you spend a lot of time fishing for walleye during the winter, you’ll ultimately catch a trophy. Consider taking a few shots of a late winter trophy walleye and quickly releasing it. There are generally lots of eater walleye to be had. Winter walleye fishing has its challenges, but it’s one of the best times to be out. You can usually get enough of the golden fish for a mid-winter feed. For most of us, that’s as close to a Canadian shore lunch as we will get for a while.