If you are fortunate enough to live in a state with rivers that freeze up nice and firm in the winter you may have a unique opportunity to try, ice fishing for river walleyes. I live on the North Branch of the Susquehanna River and have managed to get on the frozen “Susky” nearly every season for the last thirty years. River ice fishing is not for the faint-of-heart, but if you have some experience on lake ice, the transition shouldn’t be too difficult.
When it comes to ice fishing for river walleyes your first task will be finding locations that hold fish and have ice that is safe for you to stand on and move about. You will be seeking out river eddies. As water temperatures drop with the approach of winter, bait fish begin to accumulate in the slower moving waters in eddies. Fish being cold blooded are not as active in winter. They survive by expending less energy and staying out ot the main force of the river’s current. Once bait have moved into the eddies the larger predatory species follow. To begin, get out a map of better yet get on your computer and use Google Maps. Find your river of choice and look for spots where feeder streams enter the river. Zoom in to see it the outwash from the stream has caused an eddy to form downstream from its entry point. Not every stream will produce and eddy of sufficient size to make it worth ice fishing but in my experience the odds are in your favor, many do.
Feeder streams are not the only features that will produce eddies. any sizable structure that impedes the river’s flow can cause a slack water eddy to form. The relatively slow moving current allows for the build up of ice safe for ice fishing. Islands can and do support the formation of nice ice fishing spots on rivers. Many islands will have one side where the main flow passes. Frequently the water on the other side of the island will go dry up on the upstream end. During the winter the lower end of this cut off river channel can easily freeze and make for some very good ice fishing. Wing dams, and sharp bends in the river can also create conditions which allow a nice thick layer of ice for form. One other circumstance I have just discovered but have to wait for this winter to test are pipelines. I have found a spot where a storm drain pipe crosses the river bed. Along one shore the pipe is acting just like a low wing dam and has allowed the river current to carve out a nice deep. I will be keeping a close watch this winter as the temperatures drop to see if it too develops any fishable ice.
So now that you have located some spots to fish on your river it/s tome to have some fun. Icy winter walleyes behave much the same as late fall eyes. Early morning and late afternoon are prime time to target them. Getting on position early and setting up will allow the water you are fishing to settle down. Remember you will be fishing in shallow water sometimes just 3 or 4 feet deep, move around quietly, dropping your ice scoop or running around with noisy cleats on can spook fish. Cut extra holes early on so you can concentrate on fishing when the bite gets going. I like to set up tip-ups while there is light enough to see. As the light dims I will pull the tip-ups as they are tripped and begin to jig the holes I have predrilled.
My biggest walleyes have always come off tip-ups. When fishing tip-ups I generally use and 18 inch leader with a small treble hook. If the fish are biting shyly I will switch to a 3 or 4 foot leader of 8 pound test fluorocarbon line with a #8 or #10 treble hook attached. for my tip-p bait I like to use wild trapped shiners and chubs, small 3 to 4 inch baits are fine. If I am using larger baits I up size the treble hooks accordingly, using #6 or #4 trebles. Don’t be surprised if you catch a northern pike of a musky they will be working the same patch of ice as the walleyes.
When it comes to jigging for ices on the river I will ofter use the same bait that accounts for most of my late fall walleye catches. That is , a white 1/8 to 1 /4 oz. leadhead jig with a chartreuse or chartreuse combination, Power Bait twistertail. This gets tipped with a small 2 to 3 inch fathead, shiner, or chub minnow. Try to keep your presentation as small as possible so the fish can easily inhale the whole thing. The number of hookups will be high and you win’t miss as many tail biters. I’m looking forward to better river ice conditions this winter last years warm temperatures kept me off the river all season. I plan on trying out PK Lures highly recommended walleye lures the Flutterfish and the PK Spoon. I also use Swedish Pimples and Kastmasters tipped with small minnows or minnow heads. after it is fully dark the fishing can continue by lantern light just remember to stay quite and pay attention to where you are walking and what you are walking on. It is best to be with a pal in case of trouble.
Ice fishing on rivers for walleyes can be exciting and very productive. Do some homework and play it safe and you can enjoy a new take on hardwater angling.