Going Deep for Midwinter Walleyes


“Got one!” my son Parker called out. I had set my dad and son set up with jigging presentations, and was busy setting a couple dead sticks when our first fish of the day bit. I helped Parker land his 18-inch walleye, then got a minnow head on his VMC Rattle Spoon and got him back down to the mark just off the bottom on his Humminbird Ice 55. “I am seeing some fish,” my Dad said as he was aggressively teasing a mark on the Humminbird with an Ultralight Rippin’ Rap.

I had just finished setting a minnow under a slip-float in the fourth hole in my Clam hub shelter when Parker got bit again. A feisty 24-incher came up the hole this time. As I was re-baiting Parker, I heard my Dad’s drag slip, and he said, “You better get a line down while they are still hot.” After getting his 20-incher up and his lure back down the hole, I finally got a jigging spoon tipped with a minnow head down my hole.

Fish were coming up from the bottom, pretty regularly visible on our flashers, and every five minutes or so one would slam one of our fairly aggressive jigging presentations. In the half-hour before sunrise and the first hour after, we caught eleven walleyes, including one in the tight slot on Minnesota’s Mille Lacs Lake.

When the bite slowed, I got two more holes drilled outside, and put small sucker minnows down under tip-ups in these holes. My son got one more fish jigging while I was doing this. Shortly thereafter, as I got back into the house, a walleye took the minnow under the slip-float. At this point, I changed my Dad and son to a rattling jig tipped with a lip-hooked live minnow, and instructed them to be more subtle with their jigging actions. After a few more fish on that technique, the deadstick and tip-ups, I switched to this more subtle approach as well. We would stay with this approach until closer to dark.

This is pretty typical for walleyes in February in my home state. A fast bite on aggressive baits early in the morning, followed by a slower bite on more subtle presentations during the day, and then back to more aggressive fishing for a better bite again in the evening. If you are in the right spots, with fairly stable weather, you can catch fish all day during this cold-weather, thick-ice period.

The right spot is deep water, offshore. These areas are easily accessible with the thick ice this time of year, using a good GPS to get you to the spots-on-the-spot.

Depending on the lake, I like to target the edges of deep, offshore rock humps, gravel bars and mud flats. On Lake Mille Lacs in central Minnesota, we head for the deep, mid-lake mud flats. These flats hold numbers of walleyes, including plenty of big ones, all year long. If possible, stay away from large groups of fish houses and the noise and fishing pressure that tends to accompany these “villages” on the ice.

I like to set a portable shelter up on the top edge of these mid-lake structures an hour or more before sunrise. This is especially true for structures like gravel bars and mud flats where the depth change from the top edge to the bottom edge is only five to ten feet. Once the bite slows, I will move my portable shelter to the bottom edge of the structure. If we had a good early bite up shallow, I will cover my shallow holes with Styrofoam bucket lids to keep them from completely re-freezing to I can move right back to them when evening approaches.

I do this only when our move deep doesn’t take us too far away. If this is the situation, I will leave one tip-up or two, depending on the number of anglers, up shallow where our morning bite was, to give us a heads-up when fish start moving shallow again later in the day. Sometimes the shallow bite can get started again sooner than you might expect, so this way, I don’t miss out. As mentioned earlier, I use larger baits with a more aggressive action during the early- and late-day peak bites, and then go to smaller baits with a more subtle action—or no action on a deadstick or tip-up during the middle of the day.

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Equipment is relatively simple, but can make all the difference. I use Clam portable shelters to be mobile, and Humminbird Ice Flashers and the Helix Ice 7 Sonar/GPS combo to first get me on the spots, and then spot the fish. You can learn to read a fish’s “mood” on your ice flasher as it approaches your bait, and then dial in what type of action—or none at all—attracts fish and then gets them to bite.

I pop my holes with my StrikeMaster Lithium 40 Volt electric auger. After a couple seasons of using this auger, I will never go back to gas or propane.

For jigging, I use St. Croix Mojo Ice rods with Pflueger spinning reels spooled with 8-pound test Berkley Fireline Ice. A small barrel swivel splices a few feet of 8-pound test Berkley fluorocarbon as an invisible leader for stealth in the clear water of winter. A small snap at the end of the fluorocarbon allows me to switch baits quickly and easily to match the mood of the fish.

Rattling jigging spoons, Ultralight Rippin’ Raps, and Jigging Raps are my most common baits on these rod/reel combos early and late in the day. For the middle of the day, I like a horizontal jig tipped with a whole, live minnow, lip-hooked so it can swim subtly. I like a larger minnow early and late, and a smaller minnow mid-day under a slip-float on a deadstick, a Frabill Round Thermal Tip-up or on a rod in an I-Fish Pro.

Adjust to the mood of the fish. Some days, they are more active early and late. Some days, they want an aggressive presentation early, late and in between. And some days, they want baits still or barely moving all day long.

A couple tips for making staying out all day long more enjoyable, especially if you have young anglers with: Bring a portable grill with some burgers, brats or hot dogs. A hot lunch warms the body and rejuvenates the mind for a full day on the ice. Some hot coffee or hot cocoa in thermoses, and plenty of snacks are also a good idea. Finally, with my seven-year-old son with, I bring a football, a baseball and a bat. Something else to do during a slow bite in the middle of the day can make the time between peak bites pass more quickly, and a little exercise never hurt any of us.

Don’t give up on walleye fishing once late January and February arrive. While the first ice bite for walleyes can be the best of the year, it is not the only winter walleye bite. You can enjoy some great fishing during the depths of winter if you get out to deep, offshore structures and have the right equipment to make your day productive and enjoyable. That day on Mille Lacs in the opener, we caught eleven walleyes early, five walleyes and couple jumbo perch mid-day, and then eight more walleyes the last hour before sunset and a short time into the dark. We kept our one slot fish each to eat in addition to the two perch, and 26 inches was our biggest walleye. Not a bad day on the ice.