By Jason Mitchell
Early ice offers a prime window of opportunity for targeting walleyes, and classic early-ice locations typically are the same as prominent fall locations. As a rule of thumb, good fishing in the fall often means good fishing at first ice.
Conversely, tough fishing in the fall can translate to tough fishing at first ice.
Finding and catching walleyes early in the ice-fishing season is often a matter of targeting locations where we put the fish to bed while still in our boats. Fall fishing intel is some of the best for trying to find first-ice walleyes. Of course, there are traditional early-ice hot spots, too, on lakes such as Mille Lacs and Upper Red.
Most prominent destination fisheries provide good early-ice fishing, and perhaps the single most important reason is simply the rest these fish have had. There hasn’t been a boat or auger above them sometimes for a month or more.
Generally, some of the first anglers to land on many of these fish experience good fishing, and the fishing generally goes downhill or gets tougher as more people show up. By the time the ice can support a full-size pickup, these early ice bites are history.
Here are a few observations that really seem to be prominent each winter. It’s pretty universal stuff that has produced walleyes on several different fisheries across the Midwest.
• Thin ice and shallow water often mean spooky walleyes. Drill your holes ahead of time and let the spot settle down. The first anglers on a location often do the best, and the bite typically falls off as a crowd gathers.
• Shallow shoreline structure seems to produce walleyes on most fisheries at early ice. That’s a good thing, because the structure that is close to shore is what we can first reach by either foot or with an ATV. Large, prominent pieces of structure that are connected to the shoreline often load up with walleyes at first ice.
My favorite locations are shallow reef complexes that are connected to the shoreline. Shallow might be 5 feet or 15 feet depending on the water body. Good bottom might be sand, gravel, or rock.
Shoreline points and flats that have decent access to deeper water can be good, too. If given the choice, I prefer to target the larger spots if I can get there first. These types of spots often fire up at sunrise, sunset, or after dark and are done by the time a crowd gathers.
• Aggressive lures and cadences trigger fresh fish. Much has been said about reaction baits or “call” baits that are used to trigger aggressive strikes and bring fish in from a distance.
However, you can fish a ¼-ounce lead-head jig aggressively and trigger fish. Early-ice walleyes can often be extremely aggressive and respond well to aggressive presentations. Use this to your advantage – not just for triggering fish but also in breaking down water and eliminating dead areas.
If you are fishing through fresh ice, be confident that if there are any fish around, some will meet you halfway and find you. More so now than any other time of the year except for late ice, you can eliminate fishless water quickly. Loud rattle baits are deadly for ringing the bell. High-action glide baits or vibration baits are great for finding and triggering aggressive walleyes.
• The noise factor can be a big one at early ice. Noise can kill a bite at any time of the year, but the effects of noise seem heightened at early ice when you’re dealing with a lot less ice on what is often over shallow water.
Walking with ice cleats spooked fish away. There have been times when dragging a sled or portable fish house on the ice shut down the spot. Obviously, you must make some noise to set up on a spot, but be conscious of noise and try to keep it to a minimum.
If you can, drill a lot of holes where you plan on fishing at least an hour or so before the anticipated prime time. Get set up off the structure with your ATV and gear and walk in with just your auger. Walk softly and try not to drag or drop anything on the ice.
Use a head lamp and be careful with bright light when fishing after dark. When fishing at locations where there is thin ice that’s clear enough to see through, slow down and let the spot settle down as you fish. Spooked fish that are fleeing because of your presence often need five to 20 minutes to come back, so it can be easy at times to miss fish by moving too soon in shallow water on top of thin ice.
• Remote lines such as tip-ups should play a role for shallow walleyes at early ice. It doesn’t necessarily have to be a tip-up, but a tip-up is deadly as a remote set line.
When fish are spooking and not letting you get over the top of them, tip-ups can save the night.
A situation where I have seen this become prominent are fisheries with less than 8 inches of clear ice over crystal-clear water. If you can see through the ice and see bottom in 8 feet of water as you are walking out on early ice, set out as many tip-ups as you legally can.
Large creek chubs and sucker minnows are ideal for tip-up fishing, especially after dark or when you’re targeting big fish. Don’t be afraid to get up higher than halfway in the water column in shallow water after dark.
• Avoid wind turbidity. Wind is often associated with walleye fishing during the open-water season, but really strong winds right at freeze-up can disrupt some fisheries at first ice – on small, shallow dish bowl-type lakes as well as much larger fisheries.
There are a couple of indicators of this high-wind effect: jagged, broken-up ice that is stacked up and extremely dirty and turbid water. When you can’t see the bottom of the ice when fishing on 4 to 6 inches of ice, you’re going to have really tough fishing, and the best bet is to simply pick a different lake. Forty mile per hour winds can churn up a lake at any time of year, but normally that stirred-up sediment clears up in a handful of days. When the water gets colder and denser, however, that sediment hangs in the water column much longer and can take several weeks to clear up.
Prioritize ice safety and always have a flotation device, rope, and an ice bar or ice chisel for checking the ice thickness as you walk.
There’s no doubt there are few things as rewarding as landing the first big walleyes of the winter through 4 inches of clear ice, where you can see the fish fighting through the ice several feet to the side of you.
For more, visit jasonmitchelloutdoors.com