There are many truths regarding fishing that are hammered into our heads. Much of this age-old wisdom is right much of the time but a problem arises when this wisdom is wrong for a specific day or application. There are no absolutes with fishing. Case in point… How often have we read or heard that walleyes have eyes on the top of their head and we should always fish above the fish? Most of the time, you can’t go wrong erroring on the side of fishing above the fish. Fish can see the presentation from much further away and if you can get a fish to commit by rising in the water column, that fish will often eat. When we are working walleye with our electronics, the tried and true move is to slowly rise the fish in the water column by working up.
There are days however especially mid to late winter when working down is the absolute trigger the fish want. If you are marking walleye and you are pulling your hair out trying to figure out what the fish want, a game changing adjustment is working down instead of up. Why is that? I can only speculate but there are many situations where walleye are tuned into using the bottom to trap prey and in some cases, fish are tuned into finding the prey in or next to the bottom. Blood worms, larvae and leopard frogs all basically live in the mud yet walleye have no issues finding this prey even though their eyes are on top of their head. Walleyes also get accustomed to using the bottom to pin prey.
As a result, there are days when dropping into the bottom is a very powerful trigger that seems to flip a switch. There are days when walleyes seemingly want to tip down and suck food out of the bottom. Consider this, how often during the open water season is your jig cadence essentially finding bottom and lifting to find bottom again in some fashion? How often is the strike distinguished when you find bottom and lift up to feel a fish? Same thing occurs when using glide baits like Tikka Minos or Jigging Raps… you let the glide bait barrel into the bottom and when you snap the rod tip again, the fish is just on. These fish are triggered by the bait crashing into the bottom. The fish than pin the bait into the bottom. This is one of the most powerful overall triggers we have during the open water season and is unfortunately left out of the ice angling playbook by many anglers.
There is a time and place to fish in the bottom. There is also a time and place to jig into the bottom and there is a difference between the two strategies. I find that fishing in the bottom where you keep your jig stroke within six inches of the bottom and pound the bottom works really well over soft bottoms where fish are keying on some type of invertebrate or hibernating frogs. When walleye are spending a lot of time in the mud, you will often notice that the bottoms of the gill plate and lower jaw get a rosy pink color. These are situations where jigging in the bottom can shine. These fish are orientated and looking to eat stuff they find in the mud.
Jigging into the bottom more resembles the cadences we might use with jigs and glide baits during the open water period. We might lift the lure a few feet or more up off the bottom and chase the lure with the rod tip on slack line into the bottom. You still get the advantage of getting the lure up off the bottom where fish can see the lure from greater distances but the trigger is going down instead of up. These fish will chase the lure and the trigger is when the lure hits the bottom. When you can let the lure hit the bottom hard, there is also a visual and noise trigger. This basic move is perhaps the most overall overlooked move for triggering winter walleye. When you lift up, the fish is just on. With both fishing styles, the actual bites are often distinguished when you lift up. The bite will feel different compared to when you are lifting the lure up in the water column.
The truth is… walleye have a range of vision that is much broader than what we might imagine. For example, just from watching walleye in spear holes… fish don’t have very good vision if you are directly above the fish and not out in front of the fish. Walleye also seem to struggle to see you if you get behind them. You can actually watch them back up, tilt up or tilt down to keep the lure in their line of sight. Fish also use their lateral line much more acutely than what many anglers would imagine. There have been so many times for example where I have watched walleye accelerate and miss a lure where the lure was behind the fish and the fish could no longer see the lure. By pounding or shaking the lure hard, you could turn the fish around… that is because of the lateral line. A walleye can pinpoint a lure with the lateral line like a turkey can pinpoint sound if you displace water or have some type of sound component.
This fishing down strategy simply compliments fishing up. Many days, fishing in a way to bring fish into your electronics and slowing down the cadence when fish close the distance is the move and the move is fishing up. A game of cat and mouse where you attempt to figure out what the fish want, perhaps a keep away short hop and quiver or a steady slow raise with a quiver. What I have found however is that many tough bites can be turned on like a light switch if you are willing to go the other direction with your presentation. See what happens when you start working down and don’t be afraid to work down aggressively. Let the lure free fall a few feet into the bottom and let it lay in the bottom momentarily before ripping the lure up again and free falling again. Try hitting the bottom with short fast taps and keeping the jig right in the bottom. I am confident that if you add these additional presentation arrows into your angling quiver, you will have more options to shoot at the fish and some of these options are the very best options when more conventional jigging cadences are falling short.