Overcoming Mid-Winter’s Blues…
To most anglers’ dismay, the walleye bite of mid-winter is nothing to behold. It’s not nearly as fantastic as first ice, and definitely not as impressive as season’s end. In fact, you might say, in comparison, the bite bites this time of year.
Still, just because the walleye are in a blue mood doesn’t mean you can’t catch these winter-weary fish. Actually, I feel there’s no reason one can’t conjure up a limit or two during the mid-winter season. Like any other time, locating fish is priority one. And this time of year, walleye roam in some peculiar places. Once found, figuring out just what they will eagerly eat won’t be hard as fishing with a slow and easy approach and live bait is always a good plan.
But before I delve into the how-tos for overcoming mid-winter’s walleye blues, you must first understand why it can be so tough to trigger strikes from these fickle fish this time of year.
Slow Down, You Move Too Fast
There’s not much going on with the environment of a lake in the heart of winter… And that’s the problem.
This is when the water’s at its coldest for the year; sometimes just a mere half degree away from solidifying top to bottom. And walleye, like all freshwater fish, are cold-blooded and their body temperature is the same as their surroundings; their muscles are stiff and blood flow is at a minimum.
And there’s not much oxygen attached to those slow moving blood cells, either. That’s because the O2 level within a lake by mid winter is at an all-time low, as well.
Short daylight hours coupled with the lack of sunlight penetration through thick ice, especially in areas of the country that receive heavy snow fall, is the culprit. Photosynthesis- the process in which sunlight sustains plant life-is at an all-time low, and has been for months. The once oxygen-producing weeds have been slowly dying off, have topped over, and are decomposing and generating toxic gasses.
Now add to the aforementioned all the major cold fronts passing through, as well moon phases in the minor. During the times all these events meld together, fish will go into a hibernation-like state; not only unwilling, but unable to expend more energy than it takes to hunt and then chase down forage.
With all this taking place at once, you can see why the walleye bite of midwinter can be so inconsistent. It’s a wonder a fish of any species can even live through the winter months.
Look Low, Fish Slow
By mid-winter, the majority of walleye have followed their food sources-aquatic insects, minnows and young-of-the-year fishes-into the deep-water haunts of main-lake basins.
It’s in these areas that I like to use live minnows, all the while keeping the bait within the strike zone of lethargic walleyes for as long as possible, offering them the opportunity of an easy meal without chasing it down. This is when I target them with tip-ups techniques and dead-stick methods.
Because the bait of both rigs are stationary in the water column, I make sure to use the liveliest minnows possible so that there’s always some motion at the business end. But keeping live bait lively in ultra-cold conditions can be a challenge at times.
In the case of minnows, I use a model 722 Plano bait bucket, which is well insulated with a foam liner that keeps the water within it from freezing. It also has an aerator hose hole and clip so that I can attach and run a battery-operated aerator, which keeps minnows in prime condition.
Rigged And Ready
Rigging minnows for tip-ups and dead-sticking is simple.
To tip-up line, I’ll connect a 3-foot-long leader of 8-pound-test Berkley Fluorocarbon via a small Berkley Ball-Bearing Swivel, both the leader and main line tied with a Trilene knot. To the end of the fluorocarbon leader I use a thin-wire size-8 Bleeding Bait (red) Daiichi treble hook, attached with the same knot. I then pinch on a small split-shot about 1-1/2 feet above that.
A size-8 treble’s small enough that a walleye won’t notice the steel in its mouth when it strikes, yet has a gap wide enough that it penetrates the fish’s mouth easily during the hook set. And the metallic-red shine flickering off the Bleeding Bait hook adds just the right amount of flash.
For added flare when fishing stained water, I’ll add a size-4 Northland Baitfish-Image holographic spinner blade, separated from the hook by a few brightly-colored beads. As the minnow waggles, the blade will glimmer and is easier notice from afar.
I like to place my tip-ups along the breaklines on the outer edges of the basin I’m fishing. I find these by drilling lots of holes with my StrikeMaster Lite II power auger and then getting a bottom reading with my Lowrance sonar. There may only be inches difference along some breaklines, but I still place tip-up over them. And I give each hole about an hour’s time, and then will move the tip-up to another hole.
For the most part, I keep the minnow about four feet off bottom. But if I haven’t had a hit here it’s time to raise the bait to the upper half of the water column, where feeding walleye often roam. One student of a mid-winter Ice-Fishing Vacation/School I instruct landed his largest walleye to date on a tip-up after he raised his minnow to 12 feet below the surface while fishing over 50 feet of water. The fish weighed over 10 pounds.
As for deploying a minnow on a dead-stick, I’ll reduce the pound test of the leader down to 6-pound as the bend of my medium-light-action ice rod takes up much of the shock of the fish during the fight. I’ll also change reduce the size and change the style of the hook to a Daiichi size-10 single hook, and use a slip bobber to hold the minnow up off bottom.
For the most part, I fish a dead-stick from within my Otter Large Ice Resort portable shanty, where winter winds won’t interfere with me seeing the bite. And when I get a hit, I’ll let the bobber sink several feet before setting the hook, to make sure the fish has it securely in its mouth.
Slow And Easy Wins The Race
Although the bite from mid-winter walleye is nothing to behold, it’s still worth your every effort to fish for them. Just remember the fish are in a funk due to the environment of the lake, and fishing slow and easy will often take fish with everything else fails. Use the liveliest minnows possible under a tip-up or dead-stick rig and you’ll have plenty of strikes when the bite bites.
Mark Martin (markmartins.net) is a touring walleye tournament pro with Anglers Insight Marketing (aimfishing.com) and an instructor with the Fishing Vacation/Schools group (fishingvacationschool.com), who reside in Michigan’s southwest Lower Peninsula.