Breakin' it down: Walleye under the ice

Article By: Nathan Zelinsky, Tightline Outfitters

Every now and then, I hear fishermen say how hard it is to fish for walleye through the ice. Yes, it can be somewhat difficult, but it really can be a blast. Ice fishing for walleye is nothing more than building a pattern. Once you have that pattern built, all you have to make sure of is a quick hook set. What makes the fishing so rough is building that pattern. Sometimes it can take 4 or 5 hours on the ice to achieve it, and other times, it may take a couple of weeks. And in those couple of weeks, frustration can mound up and some anglers will end their season in those two weeks. Ice fishing for walleye is a challenge, but it can also be extremely productive. I’m going to talk about the things I look for when I’m ice fishing to build a productive pattern to stick some walleye.

The first, and always reliable, piece of the puzzle is that walleye will be relating to structure. The type of structure I look for is a drastic contour, something deep to shallow. Some examples are river channels, sunken islands, or a large stair step near shore. I usually like my contour change to be at least a 10-foot contour change, sometimes up to 40 or 50 feet. What that structure is made of is a whole other story. 70% of the time, it doesn’t matter if it’s made of sand, rock or mud, but then the other 30% of the time, it really does matter. When it matters, it’s usually later in the season, around February or March. Typically this happens when the walleye are beginning to migrate to their spawning grounds. It’s this time of year they tend to stay away from the mud and weeds and look for a harder surface suck as rocks or pebbles.
The second piece to the puzzle, is determining where the walleye are feeding on the structure. The walleye are using the structure as a hunting tool. They use it as a way to get whatever type of baitfish they are feeding on to come to them. Here’s a typical rule to follow when I’m fishing a structured face. Say from the top of the structure to the bottom is a 20-foot drop in 30 feet of water. On my Vexilar, I see there are fish in 20 feet on the bottom, some suspended in about 10 to 15 feet, and then there are fish right on top of the structure about ten feet under the ice. The most active fish will be the ones on top, or near top of the structure. The suspended fish may be active and on their way up to feed, so concentrate on those second. And the fish on the bottom are done feeding for the time being and will stay stationary, so I wouldn’t spend much time on them. The biggest thing to remember is the most active fish are usually the ones on top of the structure. The tricky part is, they might only stay there for 20 or 30 minutes, depending on how much food is available in that area. The other thing to remember if you’re a trophy angler, many times the more mature, big walleye, in the 6lbs.+ range, will not associate with the typical average sized walleye.


So what I do is once I find my structure, I drill many holes anywhere from dead center on top of the structure, and maybe a couple on the sides of it, (still staying on top, just not centered) and then a few that I can fish all the way down the structure. I drill all my holes at one time, that way I’m not disrupting the feeding walleye if I have to move holes. Then I use my flasher, I prefer a Vexilar FL-18 (or FL-20), to start looking for either walleye or baitfish. A lot of times, I like to see the bait first, because then you have a couple of minutes to set up before the eyes move in. In the last few years of ice fishing seasons on the Front Range, I have noticed you usually get about 3 feedings per day. Most of the time, those feedings are taking place right on top of the structure. There’s usually a good bite in the first hour to hour and a half in the morning and the same thing in the evening right before dark. The bite that is tricky to pinpoint is the mid-day feeding. My pattern last year was between 1pm and 3pm. This is why building a pattern is so important, these walleye will hit like clockwork. You just need to make sure you’re in the right spot for the meeting.
Now for the important part, when you are looking at structure and seeing fish, you need to pay attention to everything. Where are you seeing and catching fish? What direction are the fish coming from? Where is the bait and what direction is the bait coming from? Catching walleye is an accomplishment, but slamming them is an award. All it really takes is paying attention and breaking down what you are seeing.

Here is an example from last year. I was on a piece of structure that had about a 20-foot contour change around it and the top was 15 feet. The first time I fished it, I saw fish all over the structure on the top and the sides. I sat right on top of the bait, slightly off to one side. I caught 8 walleye that morning and I was happy. The next day, I went to the same structure and drilled more holes so I could experiment a little more. I was in the deeper water to the East side of the structure and I saw a ton of shad move through and then I saw the walleye moving in to feed on them. I caught a couple of walleye, but they moved out too quickly, so I moved toward the top again. I sat right on the edge on the East side where the shad was coming from. The top of the structure was 15 feet, so I sat in 15.5 feet with one hole and 16 feet with the other. I hammered them. After a few trips out there, my pattern ended up being the walleye were everywhere, but when they were on the deep sides, they were moving around too much and I couldn’t stay on them. Once those fish reached the top, they were still catchable, but a little picky. But when I would sit just slightly on the side, they were extremely vulnerable and open to taking a variety of baits. So in this example, it was only 6 inches to 1 foot that made all the difference.

When you go out ice fishing, it’s very important to have a target. Don’t go fish for “Whatever’s biting,” because that doesn’t work. And when you go out fishing for walleye, keep in mind that they are structure-oriented and it’s not as simple as putting a line in the water. Do some scouting first, find the bait and you’ll find your fish. If you can really pay attention to the structure and conditions of the day, you can build your pattern and start being successful at this ice fishing for walleye thing. It takes time, but the payoff is awesome!


Nathan Zelinsky
Tightline Outfitters
(303) 947-8327