Twice in January I ventured out on to the frozen Ottawa River and had two terrific days of Walleye fishing. Same river, different times of the day and different strategies each time.
Timing: During daylight hours the Walleye stay deep just off the main current. At dusk, they move shallow to take advantage of low light conditions to prey upon baitfish. When it starts to grow dark above ice, the light below is near gone and feeding activity drops off.
The day bite: I fish deeper – about 7-8 meters not far from the main river channel and what is commonly open water until far into February. Even though there might be open water 20 meters away, we make sure we are walking on about 25 cm of ice. The goal is to position ourselves close to where the bottom just starts to slope up at the head of the bay. It takes some walking and plenty of test holes to check ice thickness and depth, but patience and tenacity will pay off in the end.
The Dusk Bite: This time the goal is to find the top of the slope. Again, a good walk towards the main channel, but this time you’re looking for bottom that starts to slope down. In our case, the bay we were walking on had an average depth of about two meters, but our goal was to find three. The Walleye cruise the shallow flats and points to feed at dusk, but you need to position yourself to intercept them as they leave the deeper river bed.
Catching Walleye is never the issue, it’s finding them, and that’s all about understanding time and place. Now you know what we were looking for, here’s how we caught them.
Technique: Walleye aren’t hard to catch, but you do need to know a few basic techniques that almost always work. The technique I used for both the daytime and dusk bites involved jigging spoons with minnow heads.
Bait: I use a 3/8 Ounce rattle spoon about 7-cm in length. Both times it had a Perch glow finish as snow cover on top of the ice meant minimal light penetration below. This time of year – still relatively early in the ice fishing season – I don’t use a whole minnow. Walleye aren’t that hungry yet. I’ll start using whole minnows later in the ice fishing season with a dropshot rig. I’ll position the minnow about 10 cm off the bottom using my favorite Trokar 150 hook size #4 tied on 6lb ice floral connected to my main PowerPro Ice Braid main line with a tiny #14 swivel. If I were to use a whole minnow now the Walleye would grasp the tail and tug it free from the hook. By using just the head, you still get the benefit of live sent and taste to draw in Walleye. Attach the minnow head on two of the spoon’s treble hook points, being careful to make sure the actual hook points are exposed.
Presentation: Since it’s difficult to move to the fish, you need to tempt the fish to come to you. Lure the fish in by tempting all their senses. Start with their ears and lateral lines using the rattle of the spoon and the odd bump on the bottom. When they swim over to investigate they will see the glow and movement of the bait. Their smell and then taste come into play as they draw closer and ultimately make contact.
Jigging: Try a slow jigging action just off the bottom being careful to follow the bait back down while applying a few subtle twitches to rattle the bead affixed to the spoon. Walleye always seem to commit to taking the bait just as the spoon stops its upward rise and begins its fall. By following the bait back down you can often detect the feel of the take, or at the very least, the absence of downward momentum. A sweeping hook-set is plenty to achieve positive contact.
Capture: I caught Walleye as small as 27 cm and as long as 55 cm. You know your fish is big when you can feel its head shake from side-to-side as it attempts to pop the hook free. A medium-action ice rod with a fast tip and decent backbone like a 28-inch Shimano Convergence will allow you to detect the smaller marauders, while still having enough power to get the big ones to the hole without causing the lure to pop free. Six lb fishing line and a 1,000 size reel with smooth drag like the Shimano Sahara or Sedona 1,000 reels are excellent choices. Use the same reels for summer fun fishing panfish on ultralight rods, or let younger kids use the entire set-up for fishing from docks or boathouses.
Conservation: Remember, Walleye larger than 50 cm in length should always be released. These are the breeders that will ensure the future of the fish population. If you’re going to harvest a few for the table, stick to the fish under 40 cm, but always check your harvesting regulations and consumption advisories first.