How To Ice Fish For Walleye With Success: Beginner’s Guide

by Julie | Last Updated:   January 20th, 2022
How To Ice Fish For Walleye With Success: Beginner’s Guide


Not everyone looks forward to the winter season, but regardless of the cold and snow, there are still things to do during this quiet time of year. There are many winter sports that you can participate in, so you can stay active and entertained. One such wintry sport is ice fishing. There are many fishermen who look forward to the time of year when the ice comes in.

That’s because it’s one of the best times to go fishing, and when certain kinds of fish will be at their peak in size and taste. There is nothing quite like pulling up a fish through the ice, it is such a different experience. It requires different skills, different gear, and more in-depth knowledge of fish.

This may not sound appealing to some, but ice fishing is amazing and it’s a lot of fun. You aren’t just sitting out on a frozen lake with a tiny jigging rod, ice auger, and bucket (though you will see some of those minimalists out there). No, you can get yourself an ice shanty for shelter, a sled, a little propane heater, and some tip-ups so you don’t have to sit outside exposed to the elements.

With ice fishing season approaching fast, this is the perfect time to give you some tips on catching one of the most sought-after fish: Walleye. In this article, we will give you some techniques and the basic knowledge you’ll need to get out on the ice to catch walleye.

Ice Fishing Equipment

Before diving headfirst, let’s go over the basics like the gear you are going to need in order to go ice fishing for walleye. Ice fishing is a totally different kind of sport and experience than your regular spring and summertime fishing. The equipment is specially designed and you won’t use it for anything else. Provided below is the gear list we have put together that covers all the basics of what you need to get started.

There are things you can opt-out of getting if you won’t be ice fishing often or if you’re someone who is old-fashioned and don’t need much to get it done.

Basic necessities:

  1. First and foremost: get your fishing license if you don’t have it already!
  2. 5-gallon pail: can function as both your seat and place to store your catch.
  3. Ice auger: this is how you drill holes into the ice. You can find manual ones or motorized ones.
  4. Bait bucket: does what it sounds like, it holds the live bait you’re bringing out.
  5. Small tackle box: this should hold a combination of jig heads, jigs, and other small lures you can use as bait, spare hooks, weights, and lines.
  6. Tip-ups or jigging rod(s): this is how you’ll be fishing.
  7. Chart or map of the water you are fishing: this will detail depth and structure.
  8. Ice cleats: these are immensely helpful if there isn’t snow on top of the ice or if there is a little water. Putting ice cleats on the bottoms of your boots will allow you to have traction and not slip and slide all over the place.

Quality of life items (can opt-out, but they help a lot!):

  1. Ice fishing sled: This is super convenient because you can put all your larger equipment in it like the ice auger, bait bucket, 5-gallon pail, seats, and much more. Then just drag it across the ice to your spot.
  2. Ice ladle (or that’s what I like to call it): quite literally a huge ladle that you use to scoop the excess ice out of your freshly drilled holes. This will prevent your hole from freezing over faster, and so you won’t cut your line on any of the ice life in the hole.
  3. Seats or chairs: you can just sit on your pail, but doing that for several hours isn’t the most comfortable. If you’re going to be out there for a while then you might as well be comfortable. Folding chairs are easy and convenient to bring and they offer you back support.
  4. Ice shanty: the perfect shelter for you to stay dry and protected from the elements. It is always windy when you’re out on the ice and that wind brings a biting chill. Being able to get out of it and stay warm in an ice shanty will ensure you can stay out fishing as long as you want.
  5. Propane heater: using this in combination with your ice shanty is amazing. You’ll stay nice and toasty and be able to warm up things like your hands and feet quickly which is pretty critical. Your hands especially will be more exposed to the elements and in contact with the water every time you set a tip-up, handle your live bait, or your catches. So, having a way to warm them up fast will help.

For more information on a different kind of gear, you’ll need to get started click here.

How To Ice Fish For Walleye: Walleye Basics

If you’re going to ice fish walleye, then you’re going to need to know a bit about the fish itself. They are aggressive fish that is kind of like a cross between a perch and a pike. Walleye and perch are actually in the same family and look extremely similar. Walleye are just much bigger and feature rows of incredibly sharp teeth, much like a pike.

Walleye prefer deep water and are designed to thrive in darker, cooler water. They have large eyes that absorb any filtering light which allows them to see in the darkness. You’ll notice that when you catch walleye and you bring them to the surface, their eyes will actually turn white because they aren’t used to the sudden change in light levels.

During winter walleye season you will find them in shallower depths and can expect to be setting your tip-ups or jigging at depths ranging from 6-12 feet in murkier waters, and in clear big lakes, 10-20 feet is ideal.

Because walleye are aggressive predators, walleye anglers like to use highly visible baits and baits that mimic struggling fish to attract them. Live bait is always an excellent choice, but if you jig aggressively with artificial bait it can produce similar results.

Also, know that you will likely catch other species too while ice fishing!

Using Live Bait

We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: using live baitfish is the best bait you can use. It’s the best way to fool finicky fish into biting the hook. Using live minnow ice fishing is a good technique because it is even more of a waiting game. You are pretty much stationary with one spot jigging with one rod or waiting for one of your several tip-ups to fling a flag up. Ice fishing is a test of patience, endurance, knowledge, and luck.

You can set up your baitfish in different ways. You can just use a minnow head or tail, or keep it alive and hook it with a treble hook through the dorsal fin or tail fin. Also, since smaller minnows are quite light and you may have a hard time getting them down to deeper water, you can attach a split shot to your line for more weight.

Live minnows provide the ideal struggling action which will naturally attract other fish and hopefully some walleyes. Some walleye anglers may know that golden shiners are a favorite for catching walleye.

Artificial Lures

There are many anglers that prefer the use of jigs and other lures for fishing for walleye. You’ll virtually never use artificial baits on tip-ups because it’s just not an effective way to fish, so you’ll only be using a jigging rod if this is the way you want to go.

You can only fish one hole at a time like this, but it is a good idea to drill a few holes so that you can rotate until you find some fish and hopefully find walleyes.

Always try different lures too like using jig heads with different soft plastic tubs, crayfish, worms, etc. Also, you can try fishing spoons and other lures that have a flashing and throbbing action that you can jig aggressively to attract fish.

Locating Walleye Under the Ice

The first thing is first: if you want to start fishing for walleye through the ice then you’ll need to know where they are going to be. Going in blind and hoping for some luck isn’t always the best way to do it. So, how do you locate walleye? What depth are they at? What structures do they prefer? These are all things you need to know in order to optimize your success in finding walleye and catching them.

Now, there are a couple of different ways to do this, with one being much less expensive than the other.

Maps

This may be the old-fashioned way of doing it, but it is very reliable. A map will give you all the knowledge you need to be able to pick an appropriate spot to ice fish. They’re able to tell you the average depths so you can see spots that will have steep drop-offs or a more gradual slope down. They may detail different structures and show the different streams that may also be feeding into a lake or pond.

Maps and charts are easily obtainable at various locations like the local bait shop, regular stores that have a sporting section, or online through a Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) site or similar website.

You can also rely on your own knowledge too if you know the body of water you will be ice fishing very well. You can use that to your advantage along with the maps.

Fish Finders

Using a fish finder will be a more expensive route, but it will provide you with not only detailed imaging of the structures beneath the ice and water but can locate the fish for you too. There are super high-quality fish finders that can capture a vast amount of details and information beneath the water if not just full-on camera footage for you to watch and search for your desired habitat, structure, and depth.

This convenient piece of equipment uses sonar that locates all these things and schools of fish within that immediate area and displays it on a screen. Just send the transducer down the ice hole and it will do the rest. It also tells you the depth and temperature of the water.

As great as this sounds, remember these fish finders can be quite pricey and if you are just starting out, or don’t go out ice fishing that often, this may not be the best use of your money.

Structure

The structure is important for all kinds of fishing, and ice fishing is no different. When it comes to walleye tips for ice fishing then it will come down to structure and water depth. An avid angler will know what kinds of things to look for when in search of the perfect walleye hole, but if you’re new then let’s go over the kind of habitat and structure you want.

Walleye may be a deeper water fish, but during feeding hours and during the winter season they will swim up to shallower water. They prefer areas that have:

  • steep rocky drop-offs
  • gravel bars
  • edges of weed beds
  • mid-lake humps or mudflats
  • transitioning bottoms like rocky areas changing to silty bottoms

These are the kinds of structures and habitats that most walleye prefer and can be found in.

You can find all of these kinds of areas on charts or maps of the lake, or using a fish finder. Once in one of these locations, it is best to drill multiple holes and set out tip-ups so that you’ll have a better chance of finding which spot the fish will be in. You can drill your holes either in a line getting steadily deeper or in a circle or half-circle around the base you’ll set up at.

Fishing before sunrise and after sunset can be the most productive hours for these fish since they are sensitive to light levels. As the lighting changes, they will move to different depths.

Find The Prey, Find The Walleye

A great way to find walleyes is to locate their prey. They will be feeding on species like lake herring, panfish, shiners, and perch. They are fish eaters and that is what their dagger-like teeth are made for. So, if you get to a spot and find you are catching small fish, don’t give up on it just yet. All the activity going on there will attract larger predatory fish and hopefully some hungry walleye.

This is why many ice anglers like to use live minnows. They attract all kinds of different fish with their struggle, and once you catch a few fish, it will start to draw in more and more. Fish pick up on these kinds of signals through their lateral line and will come in to investigate.

Walleye fishing takes patience and a lot of trial and error, but with a little luck, you’ll start to figure them out little by little. Here’s a short video to help you out with ice fishing for walleye:

Ice Fishing Strategies for Walleye

Fishing Early Ice

If you’re going to ice fish walleye then as some ice anglers will tell you, fishing the early ice will be one of the most productive times. There are many who consider this to be the best time to catch walleye through the ice when the first freeze really happens and you get enough solid ice to walk on. If you’re planning to head out you should check to make sure the ice is between 4-5 inches thick so you know it is safe to support your weight.

At this time, targeting shallow water closer to the shoreline is effective. Look for structure in these shallow areas like weed beds, rocky drop-offs, and the like because this is where you’ll find walleye during early ice. This is also the time to jig aggressively and use lures that produce aggressive action. Doing so will incite equally aggressive strikes from hungry walleye.

Another tip for fishing at this time is to reduce noise as much as possible. They are sensitive to sound when it’s first ice, and that could make the difference of whether you are able to catch any fish at all.

Fishing for Walleye on Tip-Ups

Tip-ups are a very common method of ice fishing and you will see many ice anglers using them. With good reason too! Tip-ups allow you to cover a lot of ground, especially when you’re fishing on large lakes it can be harder to pinpoint the best spots where the fish will be.

Using tip-ups you can start drilling holes in different locations around where you’ll have you’re little fishing base. Being able to fish multiple holes at varying depths gives you an advantage because you’ll increase your odds of finding the hot spot. If you have one or two tip-ups that seem to be producing fish more than your other ones then you can move them closer to that spot to see if your luck will further increase.

Typically you’ll see tip-ups set up in a full or half circle. Usually starting in shallow waters and arcing out to deeper. Yet, the structure is everything, especially with walleye, and you’ll notice some ice fishermen way out in the middle of the lake as winter progresses and the ice gets thicker. That’s because they know something is there, there could be gravel or sand bar out there that creates a sudden shallow area and has steep drop-offs.

That could be where small fish are schooling and as such walleye would be close by their prey.

When fishing with tip-ups you’ll mostly be using live minnows, dead minnow heads or tails, wax worms. Any live bait you have really. When setting up your tip-ups for walleye keep in mind the kind of water it is. If this is a dirtier or siltier lake that has low visibility and low light penetration, then you’ll want to be in 6-12 feet of water and have your bait set at 4-6 inches off of the bottom.

Clearer waters you’ll want to be in a little bit deeper water at 10-20 feet and you can get away with setting your bait 8-15 inches off the bottom. Once set, you leave your live minnow do the rest of the work and wait until you see a flag up!

Jigging for Walleye

Tip-ups are extremely popular and a common sight, but when it comes to ice fishing for walleye jigging is one of the best-proven techniques. It may come as a surprise, but if you know where the walleye are, then jigging will prove to be very productive. You can use a wide variety of lures that throb, rattle, and flash are excellent for attracting walleye and other fish.

Walleye are predatory fish and as such will strike in an aggressive manner. They may strike as soon as they see it and hit hard and fast. Sometimes they will approach cautiously and watch your lure before deciding to strike or swim away. That is why it is best to jerk your rod up and down and reel with fast action to entice a strike.

You’ll want to be jigging in the same depths as we previously described above and the same shallow areas that offer the right structure.

Key Insights & Takeaways

Ice fishing for walleye is an incredible experience and one that you should try out. Winter is here now and before long the snow will start to fly and the ice will soon start freezing over the lakes and rivers. Don’t let the cold weather keep you cooped up inside! If you love fishing and bass fishing during the summer, then you’ll definitely want to get out to try and ice fish!

Why should you ice fish for walleye? Because it is incredible, a notoriously elusive deepwater fish coming up into shallower waters, and being in some of their most vibrant colors is just something you don’t want to miss out on. Finding walleye can be tricky, but it’s not as bad in the winter season. Not to mention these are some of the tastiest eating fish you can catch.

A couple of nice walleye will fill your freezer faster than a few perch can!

Early winter may offer you the best opportunities, but don’t be afraid to go out mid-winter and during late ice. Keep an eye on the water you plan to fish because you’ll soon find that ice fishing is very popular. So, the fishing pressure as the season goes on may affect how successful you are.

Frequently Asked Questions

What depth should I ice fish for walleye?

The depth you should ice fish at may vary depending on the kind of water you are fishing. Walleye rely on their sight and are accustomed to low light conditions. If you are fishing a lake, pond, or river that is known to have murkier water then you’ll want to be fishing in approximately 6-12 feet of water. Whereas if you are fishing a cool and clear body of water, you’ll want to be fishing in 10-20 feet of water for walleye.

What do you use to ice fish for walleye?

You can use a variety of both live and artificial baits for walleye. Often you’ll find people using a live minnow or a golden shiner is a known walleye favorite. You can follow the logic of the bigger the bait the bigger the fish, but it’s always good to have a variety of sizes.

When it comes to lures you can use things like soft plastics and jig heads, spoons, a jigging rap that Rapala makes, or a Swedish pimple are all excellent lures for jigging walleye through the ice.

How do you target walleye ice fishing?

Finding walleye may seem like a difficult task, but it’s not really if you know the kinds of places they prefer to occupy. By using a fish finder or a map and charts of the lake or pond you want to fish, you’ll find all the information you need. Walleye prefer structures like gravel bars, weed edges, drop-offs, mudflats, and transitioning bottoms like rock turning to silt.

By locating these kinds of spots with any of these structures you automatically increase your chance of finding walleyes. If you start fishing and are only catching small fish, don’t give up because walleye are fish eaters so they are likely in the area. They will be attracted by the activity.

The best times to fish for walleye are in low light conditions so before sunrise and after sunset are ideal.

How do you catch walleye during the day ice fishing?

By doing all the things we have listed in the article above! To briefly go over some of our walleye tips: you’ll want to locate the habitat they prefer. Low light conditions with underwater structures like weed edges, drop-offs, and gravel beds. These things can be detailed in maps, charts, or seen on a fish finder.

You’ll want to set up and fish in a spot with one or more of these structures and at a depth ranging from 6 to 12 feet or 10 to 20 feet. Have your bait from 6 to 10 inches off of the bottom. You can use tip-ups to cover a larger area, or jigging in different holes. Live or artificial bait are both great to use.

By doing all of these things you should start catching fish and catching walleye too. When you have it down, you’ll be able to fish all day and catch walleye at any time!

I was fishing before I could walk and it's been a family tradition for centuries. Fishing is my life, or at least as long as I can remember. In the Lake Champlain International Fathers Day Fishing Derby, not only have I won first place twice but also third place! Also, in addition to majoring in Wilderness Recreation Leadership, I also happen to be a licensed camping, hiking, and hunting guide for NY.