Harshbarger: Winter walleyes - Tips for success
Winter walleye fishing can be physically grueling due to colder temperatures, but the chances of landing a trophy increase exponentially during this time of the year. From late October into March, as water temperatures plummet, the walleye start chowing down at an increased rate. With limited options for outdoor activities during the winter months, and with cabin fever kicking in, I like to climb back into my heavy hunting suit and hit the shoreline for hungry ‘eyes. Growing up an avid Juniata River Angler, I am aware that this species of fish sometimes seem like ghosts during the summer months- so take advantage of conditions favorable to them. There are a number of basic tips and factors to consider that will increase your chances for success, and possibly result in landing the walleye of a lifetime.
Prepare for the conditions- Dress heavy. I recommend similar gear that you would wear for a long December sit in a tree-stand. Be prepared to spend a number of hours along the river, from evening into night. Pack some coffee or hot chocolate, and some snacks, and be ready to get your hands wet. You will thank me later. Do not go out there in a hoodie and jeans. Dress for multiple hours in the cold.
Catch live bait- If you have kick-nets and available time, catch minnows. Shiners and chubs will be your best friend, and a walleye’s favorite meal.
Time of day- Your best chances to land not only numerous fish, but also bigger fish, will be from late evening into dark, and beyond. These are primetime feeding hours for walleye during cold-water months. Walleye do not particularly prefer bright light, so avoid fishing during peak daylight hours, unless weather conditions are enticing.
Check the weather and moon phases- As a spin-off of the latter statement above, when considering optimal weather for daylight fishing during the winter months, overcast days will likely have better results. Keep your eye on any type of pressure system moving in. Whether it is a snowstorm or a rainstorm, try to get out before the storm moves in. Also, keep your eye on moon phases. The first three days before and the following three days after a full moon can be a winter walleye angler’s dream.
Consider leaving the boat at home- In bodies of water like the Juniata River, your chances of catching lunkers and walleye in greater numbers are good, and probably better off the shore. You can be versatile and save yourself the time of getting the boat ready, equaling more time along the river with a wet and tight line. Higher water levels will bring walleye in toward the shore to feed. As many of us know- the river level drops significantly in the summer months and the water temperature rises- so you will have to be fishing deeper, cooler holes to find walleyes. Take advantage of the winter conditions.
Tackle/Bait/Presentation- Consider using light tackle with light line- somewhat of a finesse approach. Consider that a walleye’s mouth is soft- so using a soft approach will avoid tearing a hook or lure through a walleye’s mouth before landing it. Of course, use gear sufficient enough to fight against the current, but don’t go overboard. Again, using live-bait during almost all conditions is probably your best bet. You can float a shiner or use a bottom approach with a sinker. Throwing hard baits such as a husky jerk or a Rapala, jointed or not, can be effective, as well as a simple twister on a 1/4 oz jig head. Whatever you’re fishing- USE A VERY SLOW RETRIEVE. The fish are sluggish this time of year. Your retrieve will need to be slow and you should expect bump-like strikes. Nothing overly aggressive. Few fish will be willing to chase.
Explore different color tackle during different water conditions- color and/or clarity. There is no end-all be-all approach to finding a color that works best so do not be afraid to make numerous changes throughout the evening.
Water characteristics- A river consists of a wide variance in current, depth, structure, etc. Keep an eye out for a couple things.
Look for tributaries- areas where creeks or cool water springs spill into the river and where baitfish may do the same. Look for areas where calmer water and riffles coexist and meet one another. It provides faster water for feeding and calmer water where a fish can conserve energy. You’ll likely find fish in these hot spots.
Be persistent- When you are getting bites, stick it out. Work that area hard. Consider, again, that the fish are slower and sluggish and it may take numerous casts and retrievals before the fish fully commits and successfully takes the bait. In addition, walleye often school up this time of the year. When you find one, there may very well be more. It may take multiple changes in color or bait/lure but persistence will pay off when you find hungry winter walleyes. Even if you are not getting immediate strikes, but the conditions are right, make the changes and put the time in. You may be pleasantly surprised with the outcome.
As winter draws toward an end, consider some of these basic tips and get out there as soon as possible. You are likely to still experience success into March, but as the water starts to warm up, success rates likely decrease. Take advantage of the opportunity to land more and bigger walleyes before spring takes hold. Good luck!