North Country fishing: The aura of first ice

I’m not like some of the hardcore ice anglers out there who pine for three inches of ice on their favorite lake so they can fire up the drill and bore some holes in hard water. I run from the cold when I can, chasing down trout, jacks and redfish on the flats in Florida and searching for reef fish from the lava banks of Hawaii. But I’ll readily admit, I enjoy that first ice bite.

The first ice bite is synonymous with big pike, slab crappies after dark, and weed-edge walleyes. It’s a time when the big fish are active and willing to bite. It’s a short period lasting only a few weeks at most, so one must react quickly once the ice forms to a level that is safe.

The beauty of first ice on many lakes is you don’t have to travel far from shore. Crappies are meandering around in the weedy flats that extend out from the shoreline. The pike are there, too. Walleyes will come out after dark and search for food where there is a bottom transition like a drop-off or a change in bottom composition like a sand edge that bumps up against a weed edge or cobblestone transformation.

First ice means big spoons, large minnows, and an uneasy feeling when you’re hearing the ice cracking around you and you know you’re standing on a few inches of hardness with many feet of soft water underneath. But we brave the uncertainty because we know there are big rewards and we’re cautious enough to never test the limitations of the ice that supports us. Safety always comes first.

First ice means long days on the lake, and that is a tremendous benefit for those limited by their schedules. One can start out in the morning drilling right in the middle of a big weedy flat and setting some tip-ups rigged with sucker minnows. There will be plenty of bluegills or perch meandering through the stalks of the vegetation while the sun is shining and they are great targets, too.

Once the sun begins to cling to the horizon, it’s time to find the ultra-light rods, tie on a glow-in-the-dark jig, and tip it with a tiny minnow. The crappies will be moving and they will eat right into the night. Tip-ups should be brought closer to the base of operations so you can view and react when the walleyes start hitting them. The smart anglers use fluorocarbon leaders on all their tip-ups these days so they can do double-duty for both pike and walleyes without changing a lot of tackle. Just a circle hook and a sucker minnow is all that is necessary.

First ice is no secret. Even anglers in the southern reaches of the United States know of its productivity. I have met people on the early ice from Florida, Georgia, Texas and many other states that never see ice on their lakes. It’s just another case of anglers in the know chasing the hot bite.

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