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How to Find Winter Walleye on Lake Erie

How to Find Winter Walleye on Lake Erie

A walleye caught in the winter on Lake Erie

Use these tips and tactics while ice fishing lake Erie to find more walleye success

If you grew up in the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin—really anywhere in the Upper Midwest—winter fishing on Lake Erie might shock you. Erie almost never freezes completely, and some winters bring very little ice. About 10 to 20% of the lake freezes in good years, with most of the ice concentrated in one area. 

Erie consists of three different basins, each with unique weather and freeze cycles. The Western Basin, especially around the famed Bass Islands, gets the first ice and often the only fishable ice. This is convenient because that’s also where the majority of Lake Erie’s walleye migrate in preparation for spawning come ice out.

The Bass Islands form a 10-mile chain extending from Catawba on the south shore all the way to the Canadian border. These islands act like a backstop, preventing ice from drifting into the deeper and typically ice-free Central and Eastern basins. When you decide to make a winter pilgrimage to Erie (which you should when we have good ice), start at the Bass Islands and work further west towards the Camp Perry reef complexes.

Now that you have a general idea of where to begin the hunt, this article will help narrow down your search. Just make sure you’re staying safe out on the ice.

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Identify and Fish Pressure Ridges

When two sheets of ice meet, they push against one another, kind of like tectonic plates on the earth’s crust. These heaves can be powerful enough to jack up a 30-foot wall of ice. While you need to exercise extreme caution when approaching them and never fish right on top of pressure ridges, some excellent fishing can be found in their general vicinity. Pressure ridges occur in almost the exact same spots year after year because they are usually caused by underwater topography. Fish follow pressure ridges like highways: In addition to being naturally correlated with subsurface structure, the extra thickness of ice and snow also provides shade and cover, much like a dock would in the summer. Long story short, being in close proximity to pressure ridges helps make a large lake feel smaller.

Set up on Bottlenecks

The half dozen or so islands that make up the Bass Island Chain are surrounded by an immense complex of structures. These cuts, reefs, and underwater points create numerous bottlenecks that concentrate both baitfish and walleyes as they migrate. Look for natural ambush points where narrow gaps in topography focus the current. Walleyes will both migrate through these areas and set up in them to feed. If you have a good bottleneck scoped out, it often pays to set up and wait for the fish to show, even if they’re not there right away. 

Don’t get too close to the points themselves, though, and generally avoid getting right on top of the shallow structures. When the topography pushes the current upward, it undermines the quality and stability of the ice.  

Identify and Fish Subtle Cuts

Whereas big points and reefs create obvious holding water and migration passages, you should also focus on more subtle structures. On a large, seemingly featureless mud flat, a 6-inch rise or drop can be a great ice fishing spot. To find these subtle gems, I rely on the same cartography programs I use in my boat during open water to quickly navigate large flats. Humminbird Lakemaster maps make seeing these slight depressions, cuts and bends much easier.

These aren’t places to set up and wait—either the fish will be there or they won’t. If you’re not marking anything, move on to the next one. While bottlenecks reward patience, the mud flats are all about running and gunning. Generally, moving a couple of hundred yards at a time and doing your best to avoid other angler traffic is your best plan. Not fishing where you don’t see fish may seem like common sense, but most ice anglers spend far too long dangling lines in dead water.

Use Ice Fishing Technology to Catch More Walleye

In the past, we used the old-school wheel-style flasher. Then came LCD screens. These offer more features and information but still show you colored lines on a screen. But, in the last few years, the bar raised a couple of thousand notches with the invention of live sonar.

If you’ve never seen live sonar, think underwater, real-time, 3-D radar. You can see where the fish are in relation to your lure and view a much larger window. Older sonar units only display information in the narrow cone directly below, whereas live sonar can show you precisely what’s going on in a full 40-foot diameter. You’ll be amazed at how many fish are just out of reach of your traditional sonar unit. You’ll also see exactly how fish react to your presentations—and realize how easily and often they spook before getting close to the range of flashers. I’m not saying you have to drop a bunch of coin on a live sonar set up to catch fish—we caught plenty of fish before that technology came along—but it will make you more effective.

If you were hoping for a list of GPS coordinates, too bad, that’s not how I roll. The truth is that even if I did give up the juice, every person who reads this article would be in that same spot so it wouldn’t do you any good anyway. Giving you the essential tools to find your own spots will serve you much better in the long run. 

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