Ice fishing 201: Does early hard-water panfish and walleye action equal best ice?

Terry TumaEvery angler accepts it as gospel: True hard-water anglers regard first ice as best ice.

Well, I don’t necessarily consider early ice better than mid-winter or late ice, but early ice does provide some excellent timing and fine fishing opportunities. Bottom line, I love early ice angling, and I’m out there as early as safely possible. Here’s why.

For starters, the fish recently have seen a minimal amount of angling pressure. Fall open water fishing provides great angling, but quite often, I’m the only boat on some of my favorite waters in late October and early November. That means the fish right now haven’t seen many lines and lures in weeks or even months, so they’re fresh and relatively naive. There’s still lots of oxygen in the water, especially in the shallows, but natural food sources are becoming slightly more scarce.

That equation means fish are feeding, but they’re working harder for forage. So it’s a great time to drop a lure in front of their faces in shallow water. The general rule is during early ice and late ice, fish shallow. During mid ice, fish deep.

Now, too much pressure – noise, chatter, and walking – quickly will push those fish deeper, so don’t be brainwashed into thinking shallow, shallow, shallow. Sunnies are eating zooplankton rising through the water columns, and crappies have small minnows, blood worms, zooplankton, and nymphs on their minds. Green weeds, edge of green weeds, hard-bottomed bays, points, and shallow breaklines are logical locations to pursue these fish over first ice.

That said, take a variety of live bait with you: minnows. waxworms, and silver wigglers. One of my secret weapons over early ice are goldenrods grubs. The birds often beat us to them, but occasionally out walking, I’ll find a patch of goldenrod with grubs still imbedded in the stem. Impaled on a No. 14 hook, they’re killer for bluegills.

Now, you need to hit early ice before the sun is up! Cut your hole before the sun hits the horizon. I start seeing a good bite 15 to 20 minutes before sunrise, and from then until an hour to 90 minutes after sunrise is prime time!

This rule varies with water clarity. Lakes are fairly clear right now, but there are waterways like Lake of the Woods, with its stained water which has a good daytime bite.

With the short days over early ice, you can still enjoy a decent night’s sleep, then be on the water at daybreak. I preach this a lot, but I had a guy at a seminar scolded me for telling everyone to fish at daybreak. It was his little secret before, and it works!

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