Winter Walleye Fishing: Adapting to Changes With Simple Strategies

Last updated on September 29th, 2021

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For those who may not know, the walleye is an aggressive predatory fish with a reputation for putting up a great fight but being more elusive than other species such as trout. The walleye has a slight behavior change that can be attributed to the season and learning this change is important to successfully fish them year-round.

In the summer, walleye, and many fish species, are trying to beat the heat. Therefore, you find them in deeper water during the summer heat and returning to the shallows when the sun falls below the horizon.

This behavior is great for planning your trip around the fish’s schedule if you will. Winter is a different story because the water temperature is more consistent. Walleyes follow feeding patterns during summer and winter, but they are different for each.

There are many factors to consider when fishing winter walleye such as temperature, time of day, lake fishing versus river fishing, and feeding patterns. It can seem overwhelming, but really it is simply learning the science of the species.

I remember when I was still in college and we had to go into the field to net for walleye to tag them and take specimens for study. I was amazed at the population difference between winter and summer fieldwork.

We learned that the walleye is more lethargic during cold seasons and only motivates for food or to flee a predator. We were able to pick a pool and scoop walleye out using the element of surprise and we caught much more walleye.

Knowing that the fish tend to be less motivated in the winter months, we really must entice them to bite. We will discuss a few strategies that I use here in Montana that may help you get on them but, first, we should understand their environment.

What Changes When the Temperature Drops?

winter walleye fishing tips

When the temperature drops, the entire environment of the waterbody changes. Plants enter hibernation, some species procreate and pass on, and the fish start entering “survival mode”.

The food supply tends to slowly retreat as the cold sets in and you will find fish species eating what they can to get by. Generally, this consists of invertebrates and other, smaller fish. Here are a few things you can expect to see when the cold sets in that will help you prepare for your trip.

Water Clarity

Looking at a lake in the winter, you make think it looks murky, but it is the clearest that lake will ever be year-round. In colder temperatures, algae and aquatic plant life cannot bloom and cause murky conditions.

Because of this, opt for clear lines rather than colors. From the fish’s perspective, even a brown line stands out. Even though the water is clear, there is not very much light so try something that has some glow like a Swedish Pimple or any jig head that gives off a glow or really catches the light well.

This clear water is great for seeing and identifying what you are reeling in as well, especially during the day when the sun is out. The water clarity and the lack of aquatic plant life means generally no weeds as well. I really enjoy winter fishing for this reason.

Fish also have fewer contaminants when water is this clear. Mercury levels in freshwater fish will always exist in small amounts but other parasites and blemishes on the fish are minimal in the winter making for some extremely healthy walleye.

On my journey to become a biologist, I met a fisheries manager in Great Falls, Montana. He told me that every species in Montana has a favorite season to live in and only a few can say they “thrive” year-round.

Deer are a winter animal believe it or not, whereas most birds are summer animals, but fish are quite good at thriving through heat and cold. That is because fish can change their bodies drastically to accommodate the colder weather which we will talk about in the next section.

Physiology of the Walleye

Walleye change in the winter, but they still put up a great for the fight – and they are also good for the dinner table. If you are like me, you are not afraid to take a walleye or two home. They are one of the best-eating fish here in Montana.

I have always found that they tend to be a bit fattier when caught in the winter and in fish, more fat Is good. Physiology and behavior change drastically when the temperature drops, and you can expect to have a strong fight.

They will fight well because they are conserving resources and will fight like mad to getaway. If you are fishing with the intention to release, please do not play them too much to prevent over-exhaustion.

The fish needs the energy to survive and if it is extremely exhausted when you get it to your boat, you may as well keep it because it may not survive once released. You may consider keeping it however, they are good eating.

As we discussed above, fish change in many ways when the weather gets cold and one of them is their fat content. Depending on what part of winter you catch the fish, they can either have good fat content or a low-fat content.

Like most animals, fish stock up on fats and other nutrients that they will need to get through the bitter cold of winter. When fishing in late winter, I have always believed that they are desperate to eat and the fishing is better during that time.

Feeding Patterns

During the summer, most predatory fish work the waterbody in some sort of pattern. Therefore, the fishing is good for about fifteen minutes and it is dead for an hour before they start biting again. It is almost like they make runs.

Walleyes maintain similar feeding patterns to their summer behavior, but they typically do not tend to be picky as they are about depth in the winter due to temperature. In the summer, fish of any species will run deeper when the heat is on whereas in the winter this factor does not apply as often.

I have always been a believer in the fact that the walleye is content during early winter due to the nutrients it has packed on in preparation for winter but will become a more aggressive hunter as winter wears on.

As far as what they feed on during the winter, I have always found that the lures and bait that stand out have the best results. Due to the low light of winter skies, try something that rattles or vibrates as well as glows for best results.

Because this article is written for all types of winter fishing, I will say that any fishing done through the ice will be entirely dependent on the walleye’s feeding pattern rather than having the mobility of other types of fishing.

Because of this, you will likely need to utilize these bright, loud, and even scented lures to attract them in low-light situations. The “they really have to want it” mindset is a good strategy for this situation.

Simple but Effective Strategies for Winter Walleye

walleye caught on plastic glow lure

Now that we have an understanding of the winter environment and the winter walleye, how do you catch them? What has always worked for me are the simple methods of getting their attention. You must tailor your fishing strategy to the part of winter you are in.

Early winter walleye are going to be pickier, so you are going to be dressing up your lures to suit this whereas in the winter you can catch them with less fuss. Let us look at a few different strategies I use for a few different situations to hopefully help you with your next trip.

Glow Lures Get the Attention 

Glow lures are great for getting a walleye’s attention in any low-light situations like the depths of a winter lake. There are a few different brands to mention that work great, but I am a die-hard Swedish Pimple man.

Other lures that glow that work very well are any jig head that glows paired with a marabou jig or a good glowing plastic. Work this jig across winter rivers during the darker part of the day to get on the walleye that are watching upstream for a meal.

For those who ice fish, you know that maggots work great but not everyone wants to bait them. Most sporting goods retailers sell a little plastic the size and shape of a maggot that glows. Grab a few of these and a bottle of any scent that has some garlic scent in it.

Glow lures are great, but they may not be as bright as the job requires. I have a high-power flashlight, but any flashlight will do. Place the lure in your hand and cup the lure while hitting it directly with the flashlight for about 30 seconds.

This strategy will make that glow lure pop and the visibility will be greatly increased. The extra glow lasts about fifteen minutes give or take.

Scent Fishing – Smelly Enticers

Scent fishing is something that we touched on above, but I think it needs a little more attention. In the winter, fishing for anything is about getting the fish’s attention and that includes scent and taste.

There are many brands out there for the scent but, honestly, the best results I have ever had were a little garlic and a little corn. Buy a can of corn kernels and a small jar of minced garlic and take those with you. Dip your lure or jig in the garlic jar (you do not need chunks of the garlic, just the liquid) and then attach a corn kernel.

There are other methods that create scent in the water that I know work here in the fall such as miniature marshmallows that are flavored in place of fishing marshmallows. However, the miniature marshmallows work great for walleye from a boat but not so much from shore.

Now, one thing that I do that may seem ridiculous is to carry a box of latex or nitrile gloves and there are a few reasons for this. Fish love garlic, cheese, marshmallow, and other flavors, but they do not like the smell of you.

Wearing gloves prevents your scent from getting on the lure but it serves other purposes as well. I do not know anyone that wants to smell like a garlic supreme nacho cheese cherry Cheeto after fishing. Try using them for the nastier bait that we all know you do not want to touch.

Why We Love Winter Walleye Fishing

Fishing winter walleye present a new challenge and if you are a believer in the fair chase mentality like I am, you enjoy the difficulty of fishing as well as the simplicity. One thing that I love about winter fishing, in general, is the fact that the method for catching walleye is nearly the same for any species.

I cannot even tell you how many perch I have caught while fishing for walleye, and they make for good eating too by the way. I catch more fish in warmer conditions, but the most fish in each day belongs to winter.

As far as edibility is concerned, nearly every angler will tell you that the best tasting walleye are medium-sized caught in the winter season. Because of this, winter fishing is a big deal here in Montana because the walleye and the ling are the two most sought-after species.

If you are a seasoned angler, I hope that this short read will help you understand more or maybe show you a few ways we winter fish in my neck of the woods. Strategies are different everywhere you fish and sure, if you come to Montana in the winter, these strategies will probably work but they will not work everywhere.

Always learn from word of mouth when you can. Call a sporting goods store or bait shop and ask the fishing department for a fishing report as well. In most cases they will be more than happy to share information and advice on where, when, how, and with what for your trip.

I love winter fishing for all species, but my favorite is walleye. It has the attitude of a perch,  but with the size and strength to give you a run for your money. When you are on them,  you can oftentimes hit your daily bag limit in no time at all and I sincerely hope that you get out there and do just that.

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