Wednesday, February 1st, 2023
Wednesday, February 1st, 2023

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Icing walleyes all season long

By Jerrod Vila

Contributing writer

Venturing out onto the hardwater is easily one of my favorite things to do. As the winter presses on, tactics along the way will change. 

First Ice

First ice is almost always the best time to ice fish for any species. The only exception to this I could possibly think of is pre-spawn northern pike the last two weeks of the season in early March. However, that is a discussion left for another time a couple of months from now.  

Let us focus on first ice scenarios and why they are so productive with a specific spotlight on walleyes. 

First ice can be the single best time to target walleyes through the ice. Underwater weeds have not yet died off, which is a crucial element in targeting early season ‘eyes. Weeds, particularly weedlines and expansive weed flats, are the single most determining factor here. I cannot reiterate this fact enough.

Anglers need to look for the greenest and most lively looking weed beds they can find. However this is not an easy task. This takes hours and hours of scouting rather than actual fishing and also the need for either a really good electronic unit that you are very familiar with and know how to use or the better choice an underwater camera. 

Once luscious weeds/weedlines are located, their depth will determine when the best setup will be. Deep weeds, say anything in the 15- to 20-foot range, will be targeted more in the transitional time of dusk and dawn. Shallow weeds, say in the 3- to 8-foot range, will primarily be targeted after dark and into the night. 

Shallow weeds are probably the most overlooked places to find and catch big walleyes during a first ice scenario. They almost exclusively have to be fished well after dark for two reasons; one, the walleyes just are not there during daylight; and two, if setting up in shallow weeds during the day time the un-targeted by-catch of bass and pickerel will just drive a true walleye angler insane. The point is to target these shallow weedflats in the middle of the night. The prey species are still in there, and the marble eyed hunters emerge from the depths to patrol the shallows well after the sun slinks out of sight. 

Of course, this is also no easy undertaking. It is dark, it is much colder, there really is nothing appealing about it, except the chance to capitalize on some killer walleye action. You really have to be the go-getter type of the hardest core angler to be attempting this kind of thing, but you know what they say – you have to take the risk if you want the reward. Night fishing shallow weed flats is a high-risk investment, but the dividends can handsomely be paid.

The heart of the season

Moving along into the more meat and potatoes of the ice fishing season, in the range of mid-January to mid-February tactics will change up a bit. 

This also applies to the more traditional time frame, as in daylight, that the majority of anglers will choose to target. Here is what I have found over the years and tend to look for. 

First off, still look for, or know of, shallow weed beds, which may possibly be beginning to die off now that the sunlight penetration is starting to fade with thicker ice and snow cover prevalent; that is really step number one. 

Next, find the deepest basins adjacent to those flats. Now, it is time to look for troughs, saddles, or abrupt weedlines leading to and from the deep water into the shallow feeding flats. The theory is to intercept the fish on their way to and from primary feeding grounds. 

This technique is very comparable to selecting treestand locations for deer hunting. Would you haphazardly choose a random spot and sit square in the middle of a field with a bow while deer hunting? Probably not. Well, why do the same exact thing while ice fishing? I see this all too often, and anglers wonder why they are getting skunked. 

The walleyes will be traveling these depressions in the bottom topography to make their way from deep water into their nighttime feeding zones. Finding said depressions, troughs, and saddles can be a heck of a lot of work that requires good electronics and a lot of time. Drill a crazy number of holes and read each one in a given area, after awhile your brain will begin to form an underwater map of all the bottom contours and then you can really start to focus on specific areas. Apps like Navionics can be a start, but there is really no substitution for “boots-on-the -ground” with actual holes drilled and checked with electronics.

Really thick weedlines can also be a super hot area to focus on, the thicker and more wall like the weedline, the better. Fish will cruise this outer edge for long distances if available. This is comparable to the path of least resistance type of deal, just like a natural funneling effect. However, when targeting weedlines of this nature, it is absolutely imperative that your sets be exactly in the right spot. Two feet into the weedbed, and your offering will go from a succulent bait dangling out in the open for all predators to take advantage of to an entangled mess of weeds that is absolutely useless. 

Another mistake I all too often see when targeting walleyes is that anglers are not getting set up early enough. To really catch the morning walleye bite, you need to be hitting the ice at a minimum of 4:30 a.m. Half the time, I am literally leaving the ice an hour after light and see countless fishermen just pulling in and heading out to set up. Simply put, you have missed the bite window by hours. 

An angler must remember that a walleye is a very crepuscular fish, meaning that it is most active in periods of low light. Knowing your quarry in and out will ultimately help put more walleye fillets in the pan. All you have to do is fish the proper window, and full limit days are not uncommon.

Last call

Lastly, the walleye season in New York closes on March 15. The last couple weeks of the season, walleyes will shift patterns and begin to stage in pre-spawn areas. Angler focus now shifts to streams and creeks flowing into a lake. Similar troughs and depressions will now be the target but out in front of inlets. 

Just remember, these areas are typically the first to see ice deteriorate given current and an influx of warmer water. Be extra careful and overly cognizant of ice conditions when fishing these areas. 

If you are the type that just enjoys going out, soaking a few tip ups and have the “Hey whatever decides to bite is great” type of mentally then so be it, there’s absolutely nothing wrong with that. These techniques are probably not for you. However, if you want to be at the top of game and are willing to put forth the effort to make that happen by all means drill away and scout, scout, scout, before ever setting a tip up in the ice!

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