LOCATING EARLY ICE WALLEYES
Top early ice fishing locations include a variety of hotspots that held walleyes in late fall. To avoid marathon hikes, I limit myself to sweet spots on structure situated a short walk from shore—half a mile, tops.
Drill A Series Of Holes To Pinpoint Strike Zone My favorite areas include humps and points offering the fish easy access to the lake or bay’s main basin. Key depths vary by lake. To pinpoint the strike zone, drill a series of holes over differing depths and contours—then move quickly through them searching for fish.
The fastest action typically occurs during a short flurry of activity around sunset. A modest assortment of lures will serve you well when the bite is on, without bogging you down as you move from hole to hole on the hunt for the next fish. I pack a pocket-sized tackle box with a selection of heavy, fast-dropping jigging spoons like Northland Fishing Tackle’s Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, along with a few lighter, slower falling options like the Northland Glo-Shot Spoon, Forage Minnow Spoon or Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon.
I fish fast-dropping spoons first, followed by the fluttering options. Both types of spoons are typically tipped with some type of plastic such as an IMPULSE Perch Eye or Minnow Head. Northland’s iconic Puppet Minnow is another standout right now that’s perfect for both aggressive and subtle maneuvers.
UNDERWATER CAMERA FOR ICE FISHING
Avoid the hassle of drilling multiple holes to see if there are fish. Use your sonar to locate schools of fish before drilling. By searching the lake electronically you’re able to focus more time on fishing where the fish are. A great way to get a good view below is to splash a little water from your bait bucket onto the ice. Then set your transducer on top of the wet ice. This will help the signal to get through the ice and pick up those early ice walleyes. Once fish are located have a little fun with an underwater camera like the Aqua-Vu AV715c.
Underwater cameras have become a vital part of serious ice anglers’ tackle. Not only does the underwater camera show the fish as they devour your presentation. They also show the angler the attitude and reactions to different presentations. This helps the angler eliminate baits and colors fine-tuning their presentation to what the fish like that day. This can make all the difference in the success you have with early ice walleyes and other species.
ON THE MOVE FOR EARLY ICE WALLEYES
Avoid the temptation to hover too long in one spot, especially during prime time. Give each hole a few minutes to produce before pulling the plug and moving on to the next. The idea is to keep moving and catch as many active fish per trip as possible. The first-ice flurry won’t last forever. All too soon, the hot bite will cool off. It won’t heat back up until late winter.
Early winter offers walleye anglers who travel light and fish smart a chance to savor some of the season’s finest fishing and a chance at early ice walleyes.
Catching Early Season Walleye
Think early-season walleyes, and what else comes immediately to mind? Jigs, of course! Specifically, jig-and-minnow combinations you can make dance to whatever tune is playing that day, or even that hour.
I say this because jig fishing is a lot like dancing; you’re trying to make a personal one-on-one connection, only the ballroom is underwater. Because its lead head and hook are one, you can place the lure and the attached minnow exactly where they need to be—and drop, drag, hop or swim them in whatever manner required to entice a big walleye to follow your lead.
In the early post-spawn season from New York to the Dakotas and beyond, high-percentage target areas are typically rocky or gravel shorelines, adjacent sand flats, and hard-bottom zones in general. Walleyes can be scattered throughout these areas, usually in water 12 feet deep or shallower—which makes long-line wind-drifting or slow-trolling a perfect approach for early-season walleyes.
My preferred set-up for this is a Northland Fire-Ball Jig because its short shank creates a seamless transition between “artificial” and “live” when you hook a shiner or fathead in the mouth and out the top of the head. Any fairly aggressive walleye interested enough in picking up the minnow is sure to get the barb, too.
Sometimes you need only to drag the bait across the bottom to elicit strikes. Often, however, adding a subtle twitch, stronger hop, or even a hard rip to the forward motion is necessary. The quick acceleration followed by a free-fall with the minnow streaming naturally behind the jig head can trigger a reaction strike from a lethargic walleye, or call in a more aggressive one from farther away.
Frustration sets in, though, when walleyes are less committed. When you can feel a fish pick up the shiner by its tail, but won’t go as far as the
hook point. You make the set and reel up a minnow head hanging in the bend—or maybe a jig that’s stripped clean. And, yes, it can even happen during the spring flush.
Northland unveiled a brand new version of the Fire-Ball for this year; the Long Shank Fire-Ball designed to turn short-biters into walleyes in the
net. Push the point into the minnow’s mouth and out the gill, then slide the baitfish forward until its lips touch the jig head. Turn the hook and push the point up from underneath so it exits near the dorsal fin. Now the barb is back where those picky eaters tend to grab the minnow.
Over rocks and rubble, I use the round-head version. I let out just enough line so the jig bumps a rock every now and again. Depending on drift speed, you may have to go light or heavy; just so it maintains random bottom contact without falling down into the rocks.
Where vegetation has emerged from the bottom, tie on the new Stand-Up Long Shank Fire-Ball. It slides through the weeds cleanly and holds the minnow more vertically where it’s more visible to the fish.
Absolutely, I am more than eager to fish the Long Shank Fire-Balls this spring. But you know what? This scenario isn’t just for early season walleyes, it will occur again in the fall when the big girls move shallow and you need a big red tail or sucker to tempt them. Oh yeah! It’s going to be a great season.
Getting Down For Walleyes
Few feelings in ice fishing are as frustrating as the disappointment of spotting fish on sonar—then watching them swim away before your lure reaches the strike zone.
Thankfully, you can put an end to these missed opportunities. The key is choosing lures that fall straight down—fast.
While there are times for fishing a flutter spoon, swimming jig, gliding spoon, super-sized tube or jig-and-minnow combination, this isn’t one of them. All of these presentations tend to fall slightly off to the side on the drop. The greater the depth and horizontal drift, the farther away they land from your target.
In fact, a bent-bodied spoon that strays just six inches sideways for every five feet of descent will land three feet from the fish in 30 feet of water. In low-vis conditions or when inactive fish won’t swim that far to eat, even a near miss is as good as a mile.
My favorite fast droppers for walleyes include the Northland Fishing Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, Macho Minnow, Sliver Spoon, and Glo-Shot Jig.
DON’T OVERSIZE FOR ICE WALLEYES
While it’s tempting to fish heavier lures to reach deep fish fast, be careful not to turn fish off by over-sizing your presentation. In typical walleye depths, 1/8-ounce spoons are my first choice, though I do beef up to ¼-ounce options if necessary. When fishing a relatively small spoon in deep water, upgrading the treble for a larger, stouter option can boost your hookups.
Also keep in mind heavy, kinky lines are like underwater brakes that slow your lure’s fall. I favor a smooth operator like Northland’s Bionic Ice Fluorosilk. Its nylon copolymer core and slick fluorocarbon coating combine to help spoons and other lures fall faster and straighter, yet still provides the muscle for solid hooksets.
On the tipping front, I like plastic trailers. They hang on for the ride better than natural baits. They are also perfect for triggering reaction strikes at the end of a fast drop. Naturally, smaller tippings produce less water resistance and thus fall faster than larger plastics.
Collectively, these tips can help you fine-tune your game to put fast-dropping lures in front of your quarry’s face. Before the fish swims off into oblivion. Use them anytime a slow fall prevents you from getting to the strike zone on time.
Early Ice Success With Livetarget Lures
Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON (November 12, 2019) – There’s frost on the ground, ponds are beginning to freeze and deer hunting is here. The next step in nature’s calendar? Fishable ice on larger bodies of water. It’s an exciting time for anglers because the early-ice period often offers the most epic bites of the entire season that leads to early ice success.
For Brewer and Agre, first ice is a favorite time to capitalize on walleye, perch, and crappie bites. The LIVETARGET pros agree the most beneficial thing you can do to locate early-ice fish is to begin in the same locations where you fished in the fall. Pull GPS waypoints from boat electronics and put together a plan based on those spots. Walleyes, crappies, and perch should be close to the same locations as they were found during the last month or so of open water.
“I’m thinking about the last places I found walleyes and other species the last few times I was in the boat during late fall,” Agre says. “If it’s on a big lake like Winnipeg or Lake of the Woods, it’s going to be near rivers. This adds an added level of safety concern. Current can play a significant role in how safe the ice is. On your local lakes, it might be some of the steep breaks that transition into shallow flats. During first ice, fish might be right on that break, close to the top side of the break, or on the bottom side of the break. The walleyes are going to be around that structure. It just takes some experimentation to find out exactly where.”
The edges of decayed weed beds and drop-offs are always high-probability walleye areas on most lakes. “During early ice, there are still a lot of walleyes that are hanging out on the most pronounced drop-offs in the lake – the ones that go from 40 to 20 feet or 30 to 10 or 20,” says Agre.
Time of day also makes a difference during early ice. A lot of anglers go out and cash in on aggressive fish in the morning and evening hours. Don’t discount that middle-of-the-day period. Even if it’s just to locate fish in deeper water. “A lot of walleyes might be sitting tight to the bottom. You have to get them to move in order to confirm their location on your electronics,” Brewer says. “Using the right baits, you can raise some of those fish off the bottom and catch some. Or at least get a reaction so you know they are there. Then you can come back to them later.
From there, if you’re in deep water you might want to move into the top of the break for the sundown bite. This time of year, early ice, you can get those fish to show themselves during the day, which will help you maximize that opportunity when the sun starts to go down.”
Keep in mind that early-ice walleyes are still in their fall patterns, and that’s why the fishing can be so good. Crappies will also still be close to those depths and locations found during late fall.
“Crappies are headed toward holes,” Brewer says. “If you can find a hole on a flat somewhere – a 10- or 15-foot flat that’s got a 20- or 25-foot hole, those crappies are going to be there already during early ice and are likely to remain there a good portion of the winter. Same thing with the weedlines; they’ll be hanging around there, too.”
When it comes to choosing a rod, Agre recommends a medium-light power rod for the smaller rattlebaits and spoons, but is quick to point out a medium is more appropriate when fishing those bigger bodies of water with trophy-sized fish. In those situations, a little extra backbone is important. For ripping larger rattlebaits, a medium-power rod should be on the heavier and stiffer side for controlling the bait, while maintaining a sensitive tip.
With regards to line type, Agre believes anglers should stick to what fish during the open-water season. “If you’re a guy who fishes mono, fish mono; if you’re a guy who fishes superline, fish superline. In terms of one’s going to catch fish and the other isn’t, I don’t believe that. What I believe is that if you’re fishing all summer with mono and switch over to superline once first ice hits, it’s a different feel; it’s a different action. All the properties are different – the shock absorption, how you’re going to fight the fish, etc. And so, in my mind, stay with what you know and are experienced with.”
For Agre, what he knows is superline with a fluorocarbon leader. “On some of the bigger bodies of water guys will tie direct. However, I prefer a quality barrel swivel and a foot-to-foot-and-a-half fluorocarbon leader to prevent line twist,” he says. “On my local lakes, I’m probably using the six-pound test. If I’m going to Lake of the Woods or Lake Winnipeg, I’m going to bump that up to ten pound. And I usually use the same weights for the fluoro leaders – six with six-pound and eight or ten with the ten-pound superline. I can’t emphasize enough, you might think that a barrel swivel is nothing but if you hook up with the fish of a lifetime you don’t want some cheap piece of terminal tackle. Pay the extra 28 cents and get good terminal tackle.”
Brewer, on the other hand, is a monofilament guy, generally fishing six-pound mono. Even when he visits Lake Winnipeg and Lake of the Woods for large walleyes, he’s fishing light. “I never use anything above eight-pound mono. A lot of anglers use superline and there are good reasons for both, but I’m fishing six- and eight-pound mono. It’s what I’m used to and comfortable with,” he says.
Brewer likes longer rods, especially when fishing outside during early ice. “I like a 38” or 42” rod because it helps minimize mistakes. When you have the room to go with a longer rod, it gives you the added benefits of more backbone and forgiveness,” he says. “And with the longer tip, the line doesn’t go slack so you can fight the fish a little more efficiently. Having that longer tip also allows you to drop your line size one size. This helps you fight the fish more efficiently and get by with a lighter line. And that might put a couple of extra fish on the ice.
Every little thing you can do can like that will add to your success and if you can do two, three, or four things like that, it’s going to make a noticeable difference in your day. Line size is just one of those factors,” says Brewer.
In terms of favorite rattle bait colors, Agre and Brewer differ a bit, too. “When we fish Winnipeg we use a combination of the two bigger sizes of the Golden Shiner Rattlebait and the Yellow Perch Rattlebait,” Agre says. “Personally, I caught more fish on the perch and glow white patterns than I did the silver and black or silver and blue. Part of that is when you start getting confidence in a bait, you obviously use it more.”
For Brewer, he’s a fan of the off-shelf shiner color in the LIVETARGET Golden Shiner Rattlebait. “It matches the hatch extremely well. You go up to Lake Winnipeg or Lake of the Woods and they’re eating emerald shiners so the silver and black have been really good for me. From there, you may want to tweak it a bit if the fish are coming in but not hitting it. That’s when changing to the blue silver or the glowing white makes a difference. And the perch pattern Yellow Perch Rattlebait works really well on lakes where perch are the main forage,” says Brewer.
How to Work ‘Em
“Generally, if I’m using one of the LIVETARGET rattle baits as a search tool, I’m not going to put any live bait on them. From there, it depends on what you’re seeing. If they come in and they’re not hitting it, you might want to tip it with a minnow head on that bottom treble,” says Brewer. “The beauty of these baits is being able to call fish in and get a reaction. It might not always be a feeding reaction but it’s going to be a curious reaction. I like to fish them aggressively. I’ll drill a hole, jig it for five minutes, and if I don’t see anything, then move on to the next hole,” continues Brewer.
“I’m ripping them pretty hard. If I’m in a muddy or a hard bottom I’ll generally let them drop all the way to the bottom and you get a little puff of silt out of them and then rip them up two to four feet and do that three or four times and let it sit for 10 or 15 seconds and then rip it again,” Brewer explains. “I want to be able to hear that bait above the ice when I rip it, which is not very difficult.”
Early ice means early ice success and a great time to capitalize on some of the season’s best fishing. This happens before the heart of the winter sets in and fish go neutral or negative. Always make safety your first priority, then work on increasing your efficiency. Target the areas where you caught fish during the late fall. Use your electronics to locate fish that may be glued to the bottom. Determining the mood of the fish is important. The one-two punch of a larger, searching LIVETARGET rattle bait followed – if necessary – with a smaller LIVETARGET Flutter Shad spoon can provide a great way to enjoy success on early-ice walleye, crappie, and perch, no matter where you fish.
Since its launch in 2008, LIVETARGET has grown into a full family of life-like fishing lures. They Match-the-Hatch® to specific game fish forage. With an expansive library of lure styles and colors for both fresh and saltwater fishing. The lures feature industry-leading designs in realism and workmanship that closely mimic nature’s different prey species. Headquartered in Ontario, Canada, LIVETARGET won ICAST Best of Show awards in the hard and soft lure categories in 2010, 2011, 2012, 2013, 2015, 2017, 2018, and 2019.
SAFETY ON EARLY ICE
Using common-sense about ice safety is step one. My general rule is 5 to 6 inches of good clear ice to start walking, and I test the ice every few feet with a chisel or spud bar to avoid any unpleasant—and potentially tragic—surprises. The first ice period is magical on all types of walleye fisheries. From natural lakes in the Canadian Shield to prairie potholes, large reservoirs, and the Great Lakes. However, focusing on lakes (and areas of lakes) that freeze up first will allow you to enjoy the action faster than waiting for late-freezing spots to ice up.
The first consideration for fishing early ice is safety. Always err on the side of caution. It’s a good idea to wait until there are five inches of ice for fishing on foot. Eight inches for ATVs and snowmobiles. For the first few trips on foot, carry a spud bar to test the ice ahead of you. Ice picks are also a must-have for this time of year and should be worn around the neck during each outing.
Don’t forget that each angler should also carry a good length of rope. Apparel manufacturers also now offer ice suits with flotation technology for an extra level of safety on early ice. The advantage of a float suit may seem obvious, but the bibs are especially key, as they keep your legs buoyant should you breakthrough. This lower-body buoyancy makes it much easier to crawl back onto the ice.
“If you don’t have a float suit, it’s a good idea to wear an inflatable PFD or life vest,” says LIVETARGET ice pro Scott Brewer of North Dakota-based Brewer-Agre Outdoors. They’re so small and comfortable now you can wear them underneath your outer gear. It could save your life should you breakthrough.”
LIVETARGET ice pro Kyle Agre, the other half of Brewer-Agre Outdoors, says it’s important to fish in a group. “When we talk early-ice safety, we strongly recommend that trips be in pairs of anglers or larger groups,” he says. “If you have a buddy or buddies you can fish with, that’s strongly recommended. Also, always let someone know where you’re going and when you’re going to be back.”
Based in Walker, Minnesota, noted fishing authority and outdoor communicator Chip Leer operates Fishing the WildSide, an outdoor sports marketing, and communications company. For more information look to www.fishingthewildside.net
Check Out Fishing After Ice Melts