Shallow Water Walleyes
by Steve Ryan
Shallow water walleyes present unique challenges for ice anglers. It’s about walking softly and carrying a stiff stick. These fish are in such skinny water that the ice can be nearly as thick as the water beneath it. Presentations and equipment must be refined to fool these wary fish. You can see them, and they can potentially see you. Blink and they’re gone.
On Green Bay, Wisconsin, Guide Bret Alexander waits until late ice to experience the best shallow bite of the season. With safe ice arriving shortly before New Year’s Day, he takes advantage of the incredibly consistent and prolific whitefish fishery. Walleyes are available for those willing to fish the 20- to 40-foot contours during low-light periods, but when groups can load up on 100-plus great-eating whitefish in a morning, walleyes take a back seat. It’s not until giant prespawn walleyes show up in greater numbers and slide into water less than 6 feet deep that walleye fever takes hold.
“When the weather turns nicer in March and anglers flock to the rivers in their boats to catch small, staging male walleyes, we relish the opportunity to catch double-digit fish in just a couple feet of water on short jigging rods,” he says. “The weather is comfortable. New fish move in every day and personal-best fish often are caught daily. It’s the perfect time to be on the ice cracking ‘eyes.”
While walleyes can continue to be caught along deeper shoreline contours throughout late ice, the most consistent and exciting bite occurs in bays with features that attract prespawn walleyes. Essential elements include flats with easy access to deep-water migratory routes; sheltered bays lined with seepage areas that provide late season runoff; and irregular depths and distinct transitions in bottom content. Vegetation or small creeks that attract and retain baitfish are beneficial. These factors offer the ideal combination of food, shelter, and spawning grounds for prespawn walleyes.
Once Alexander finds a likely walleye holding area, he devises a plan to intercept as many fish as possible. Shallow fish can be easily spooked, so he gets an early start each morning. More than an hour before first light, he fires up his 10-inch Jiffy Pro 4 auger and drills from a couple dozen to nearly a hundred holes. “The Jiffy Pro 4 has a powerful 49cc 4-stroke engine that runs on a small propane tank,” he says. “That means easy starts in the dark without mixing gas, priming, or choking. Plus, it runs quieter and cleaner than gasoline engines.”
Holes are spaced from 15 to 30 feet apart, depending on the size of the area to be covered. Successive straight lines of holes are drilled parallel to the shoreline to cover multiple depths and to increase the odds of locating areas that funnel walleyes.
After drilling holes, the area is allowed to “rest” for 20 to 30 minutes before an assortment of jigging techniques are employed. During this time, holes are scooped and Frabill Arctic Fire tip-ups and Automatic Fisherman units are baited with emerald shiners or golden shiners and set in holes not reserved for jigging. He drills a second hole close to each of these holes, occasionally jigging a large flashy spoon or lipless rattlebait in these open holes. This approach triggers bites from walleyes that were already drawn in by the livebait and also attracts walleyes to the livebait, even though they may refuse the lure being jigged.
Catching shallow ‘eyes requires stealth. “When targeting these late-season walleyes, you have to figure that the fish are holding under the ice in shallow water all night long, becoming active at prime feeding times,” Alexander says. “As the sun gets high in the sky, walleyes pull out to deep water, returning shallow that evening. We are literally walking over them on the way out each morning and anything you can do to not disturb them during this pre-dawn period is essential. So I drill and prep holes in complete darkness. Once first light comes, we avoid running our Ranger ATVs through the area and advise customers against walking around with ice creepers. Any extra noise or vibration on the ice can make these already wary fish much more difficult to catch.”
In clear-water settings, Alexander prefers subtle jigging techniques with a mix of Rapala Jigging Raps, Salmo Chubby Darters, and jigging spoons. He favors lures that kick out to the side and provide a swinging action under the hole. “When fishing in water 3 to 6 feet deep, walleyes are rarely cruising more than a foot off the bottom, so we keep presentations 10 to 12 inches above the bottom,” he says. “I typically start with a Jigging Rap and give it a quick snap, followed by a long pause, then another snap and pause, with a slight quiver of the rod tip. This quivering action gets the minnow head on the bottom treble hook to bounce and give off more scent. I repeat this process, varying the height of the snaps and the length of the pauses until fish tell us what they want.”
During low light, Alexander uses Vexilar sonar units to spot fish approaching the bait. When he sees a fish move in, he jigs slightly more aggressively. Shallow walleyes typically are feeding fish, so don’t give up on them if they move off sonar. They often come back within a few minutes to again inspect or take the bait. If a fish doesn’t commit on its second visit, change your lure to a different color or to a different style of bait.
He says color preferences of walleyes can be dramatic at times. “It’s not uncommon to have groups of 12 to 20 anglers for a morning trip and I try to have at least two rods rigged for every angler with a variety of lure styles and colors. My favorites are #5 and #7 Jigging Raps in firetiger, chartreuse, white, and glow. At certain times, one color produces more fish than all others, and we change everyone’s lure to that color. Other days, the flash of a spoon or the natural rise and fall of a minnow on a jig is what they want.”
Alexander uses medium-heavy jigging rods in the 28- to 32-inch range, his favorites being Frabill’s 32-inch Ice Hunter and 30-inch Bro series rods. In shallow water, you typically only get one chance to stick fish when they bite, and these jig rods deliver more power and control than longer and slower-action rods. Alexander suggests 20-pound-test braided line and a 12-inch leader of 14-pound-test fluorocarbon. When landing big fish, the heavier line and abrasion resistance of the fluorocarbon leader help to lead “green” fish up the hole.
Larger diameter 10-inch holes are handy for turning fish up the hole in shallow water and for seeing fish as they move in on a bait. Sight-fishing can allow you to observe if a fish reacts positively or negatively to your jigging presentation. It also requires patience and minimal movement on the top of the ice.
As the morning progresses, brighter skies and light penetration can spook fish from the shallows. Alexander suggests covering holes with slush ice and reverting back to electronic “eyes.” An underwater camera can be helpful for spotting fish and locating clearings in weeds and patches of rocks, gravel, or bottom depressions that concentrate fish. He’s seen it happen many times—a handful of holes are drilled in a small area but one hole produces far better than the others. Slight changes in bottom content or surrounding cover are usually the reason, and an underwater camera is the best way to find these variations. Once located, these prime spots can be entered into a GPS unit for future trips.
Fehr on the Flats
Guide Luke Fehr of Manitoba takes a more active approach on his favorite big walleye fishery, Lake Winnipeg, which he considers one of the hottest waters in North America for shallow walleyes. “Most of our ice fishing takes place on the southern portion of Lake Winnipeg, which has a featureless basin with minimal structure,” he says. We primarily fish in 3 to 12 feet of water where the bottom content is mostly sand with a bit of rock or channel structure carved by current and waves.”
“Fish aren’t relating to specific structure. They roam, feeding on the constantly moving baitfish schools. We have to be mobile, efficient, and tactical in our approach to finding and staying on fish. I rely heavily on electronics, as well as quads and snowmobiles to get off the main ice road and explore away from the pack. Pressured fish in skinny water can be difficult to catch, so we try to find new fish daily.”
Fehr uses a Humminbird Ice 55 and 597 ci HD ICE to locate and catch fish. “I rely on the 597 ICE for its mapping and GPS capabilities. It gets me out to prime spots. Once there, I turn to the 55 to locate and work individual fish. We have plenty of water to cover so we fish aggressively with rattlebaits, spoons, and flashy jigs. My go-to lure is a Savage Gear Vibra Prey lipless crankbait. They now offer the Fat Vibe. I can use it to fish the entire water column quickly and efficiently. If we don’t get bit in a hole within 15 minutes, we move to another hole in that location, and if no one has a fish within an hour or so, we change locations. On shallow flats, it’s more effective to be mobile and pursue fish than to wait for them to come to you.”
Fehr uses 20-pound-test braid mainline and a 3-foot fluorocarbon leader. He prefers a 12- to 15-pound-test leader for larger spoons and rattlebaits, and 8-pound for smaller jigs. “The fluorocarbon leader adds stealth in the shallow water,” he says. “It’s slight stretch provides forgiveness when a hooked fish surges.”
For his shallow walleye system, he prefers 36- to 42-inch medium-power rods. “Longer rods are more comfortable and practical for hole-hopping,” he says. “You can fish standing up and not hunched over the hole sitting on a bucket. Plus, if you see the occasional fish come in high on sonar, the long rod allows you to instantly raise the lure into the strike zone without reeling in line.”
“To entice fish, I like to show them something that they haven’t previously seen,” he says. “Often, this means finding custom colors. Don’t overlook bright color combos that might seem gaudy to you but can be eye candy to big walleyes. This approach has added value late in the season when fish have been pressured and are more accustomed to the standard mix of lures and colors. Downsizing lures, as well as going with a funky color combination, can be killer.”
Alexander and Fehr’s shallow tactics are adaptable to waters of any size. Large featureless fisheries provide opportunities to spread out and use an active approach to targetiwalleyes that relate to shallow baitfish schools. On smaller systems, or those with deep-water basins, focus on the late-ice period when fish push shallow in preparation for spawning. Find areas that provide food, cover, and spawning grounds and be stealthy in your approach.