The winter walleye fishing opportunities in Michigan are amazingly good, from in-land treasures to the Great Lakes and connecting waterways, the list is long…


December 01, 2015

It’s amazing to me how cooperative walleye can be when fishing on first ice. It’s like that initial covering of ice puts the fear of God into walleye that seemingly realize the easy pickings of spring, summer and fall are over.

Jake Romanack took this eating sized walleye by working a Salmo Chubby Darter. High action lures like this the Jigging Rapala and the Shiver Minnow are good bets for active early winter walleye. photo by Mark Romanack.

Walleye bite great on first ice, but before you can catch them you have to find them. Fishing late into the fall has helped me predict the whereabouts of walleye on first ice. The same places walleye frequent in late fall are going to hold fish on first ice. As the winter progresses and forage fish become harder and harder to find, the same holds true for walleye.

If there is a moral in this discussion it’s how important it is to get out on first ice when walleye are going to be vastly easier to find and catch. Waiting until the ice is thick enough to support a pick-up truck is a big mistake when it comes to winter walleye angling.

Breaking Down

The Presentations

A number of popular walleye fishing presentations will take fish consistently on first ice. I break these presentations down into three categories including high action jigging/swimming lures, moderate action jigging spoons and subtle action lead head jigs.

Because walleye are typically very active on first ice, the jigging/swimming and jigging spoon categories tend to be among the best producing options. Both of these lure groups will put fish on the ice and tweaking these baits is often the difference in getting a few bites or limiting out.

Jigging/Swimming Lures

This category of ice fishing baits has gained in popularity rapidly over the years. The original Jigging Rapala started this trend towards aggressive ice fishing tactics. Today, every major manufacturer of ice fishing lures has a product similar to the Jigging Rapala.

All of these lures hang horizontal in the water and are designed to dart to the side when jigged and when allowed to sink on a slack line these baits circle and glide to a resting position. The swimming motion of these lures makes them especially deadly on active fish.

If this category of ice fishing lures has a shortcoming it’s the small hooks that typically come factory installed on them. The first thing I do after purchasing jigging/swimming lures is to replace the bottom treble hook with a hook one size larger. Many anglers also use red or other brightly colored hooks to add enticement.

After adding a larger hook to these lures, the next step is tipping the bottom treble hook with the head or tail of a fresh minnow. I hook the minnow right up through the top of the head and then pinch off the bait about a half inch behind the head.

Some anglers argue that tipping these baits reduces their natural action, but I’ve always found the added attraction of scent and taste puts more fish on the ice than fishing these lures clean.

A sub-category of the jigging/swimming lures includes baits that are designed to dart and swim, but also to sink slower. The Salmo Chubby Darter and Lindy Darter are two baits that fit squarely into this category.

These baits have action similar to the Jigging Rapala, but they are lighter and sink slower. When walleye are very aggressive it doesn’t seem to matter if a rapidly or slower sinking swimming lure is used. The difference becomes noticeable on those days when the fish aren’t biting all that well and the slower sinking lures rule.

Ironically, tipping the Chubby Darter or Lindy Darter with a minnow or minnow head isn’t a good practice. The swimming action of these baits is easily destroyed by tampering with these lures.

Jigging Spoons

Jigging spoons like swimming/jigging lures come in different designs that impact on how fast they sink. Slab-style spoons like the Luhr Jensen Crippled Herring, Bay de Noc Swedish Pimple, Northland Forage Minnow and Acme Kastmaster sink very quickly and tend to function best on actively feeding fish.

Wider and slower sinking spoons like the Bay de Noc Do Jigger, VMC Tingler and the Slender Spoon by Custom Jigs and Spins sink slower and on average tend to produce on a wider number of days than slab spoons.

Changing out the factory hooks is a common practice on jigging/swimming lures, but doing so on jigging spoons is tricky business. The slower sinking rate and wobble/fluttering action these spoons possess can be quickly destroyed by adding a hook that’s too large and heavy.

Changing out a bronze hook for one that’s red is about all I can recommend when it comes to customizing slow sinking spoons.

Lead Head Jigs

The most subtle category of winter jigging lures are the lead head jigs. Any lead head jig can be used to target winter walleye, but I prefer a stand-up style of head anytime I’m fishing vertical. With a stand-up head the minnow or soft plastic grub is positioned facing up off the bottom when the jig is at rest on bottom. This puts the jig in position to hook fish in the roof of the mouth should they suck the jig off bottom.

With round head and other jig head designs it’s a game of Russian roulette as to where the hook ends up when a fish sucks it up off the bottom. Since stand-up jigs cost only pennies more than ordinary jig designs, it makes sense to use stand-up jigs for ice fishing and other vertical jigging applications.

Old school ice fishermen wouldn’t dream of fishing a lead head jig without a lively minnow. These days, anglers are split in their opinions about using live bait or soft plastics for winter walleye.

My opinion falls in the middle and it’s a rare day you’ll catch me on the ice without both minnows and soft plastics on hand. I typically start out with live minnows and if the bite is good, switch over to using soft plastic to maximize the time a lure spends in the water.

The soft plastics that work

the best for winter walleye are

those which are scent and flavor

enhanced. Some of the popular choices include Berkley Gulp,

PowerBait, Rapala’s Trigger X, Northland Tackle’s Impulse and

Yum Baits. The softer these baits

feel to the touch, the more likely

they are going to produce walleye on the ice.

After Market Scents

A growing number of anglers are reporting that using after-market scent products is improving their catch rate. Some claim that the scents they use actually attract fish and stimulate them to bite. Others are of the opinion that adding scent products masks human and other unnatural odors on fishing gear.

Either way it’s abundantly obvious that a majority of anglers are using scent products despite what they might be reporting to their friends and fishing buddies! My two cents in this discussion is that using fishing scent is certainly less important than finding locations that routinely support fish. However, once fish are located it’s often the little details that make or break a fishing trip. Using natural scents that are made from forage fish and crustaceans that walleye feed on regularly can certainly do no harm and in some cases might be putting a few more fish on the ice.

Pro-Cure is a brand of fishing scents based on the west coast that is starting to penetrate the Great Lakes markets. This company got its start producing curing products for preserving eggs, cut bait, shrimp, etc. More recently they have expanded into a lineup of fish attracting scents that are made from herring, alewife, smelt, crayfish and other natural forages that walleye routinely feed on.

Pro-Cure scents are highly concentrated, sticky so they stay on lures for the maximum amount of time and they also include UV attractors that help enhance the visibility of fishing lures. A two-ounce bottom will last the average angler a full season. For more information on these scent products check out

Final Words

The winter walleye fishing opportunities in Michigan are amazingly good. From in-land treasures like Houghton, Muskegon, Long and Hubbard Lakes to reservoirs like Holloway and Hardy Dam Pond, the list of winter walleye fishing destinations is long. It would also be remiss not to mention the Great Lakes and Connecting Waterway fisheries including Saginaw Bay, Munuscong Bay, Little Bay de Noc, Lake St. Clair and Lake Erie.

All of these fisheries and more are prime locations for hitting the ice early in search of red hot walleye fishing action.