By Joel Nelson
I’ve always been a fan of full-moon fall trolling on big lakes. What thermocline may have kept baitfish and walleyes in deep water all summer gives way to incredible shallow-water fishing come late October and November.
What surprises me, however, is just how many anglers have that full-moon fever bite going and never reconnect with it come first ice. Those same fish didn’t make vast moves or change their feeding patterns too much since those fall evenings. They’re now just under a few inches of ice.
It’s that mentality you need to take with you to the lake come first-ice walleye fishing, especially from a location perspective. You’ll have plenty of time to pound off-shore reefs, deep mud, gravel bars, and rock piles. Early ice is the time for fishing right off of shore, just below or on the first break.
By that I mean simply that you should look for the first appreciable steep drop from shore, which could bottom out anywhere from 5 to 15 feet of water. First-ice walleyes love to cruise the bottoms of these edges in search of food, and when you’ve got some weed cover, substrate change, or other features to target, the spot is all that much better.
Large, main-lake points are places, no matter where you go, to focus attention on hungry, feeding ‘eyes. Those locations also angler magnets, so if you’re fishing pressured bodies of water, understand that you don’t always need to be on a prominent piece of structure to get it done.
More and more, I’m looking for small areas of interest. A living room-sized patch of rock that doesn’t show up on the contour map, a quality weedbed that’s more dense than the surrounding area, or even some hard-pan sand with nearby mud or muck. Often, that’s all it takes to gather some near-shore walleyes once lakes freeze over.
Some anglers miss out on the shallow-water walleye bite because they fish it the way they would midwinter walleyes in deeper parts of the lake. They “ice troll” across the shallow flats, scaring the very fish they seek.
During fall trolling, we learned that there were nights during which hundreds of feet of line behind the boat was what it took to get a bite. The same walleyes that don’t love hanging tight in your main-motor wash don’t appreciate lots of hole drilling and overhead traffic.
For that reason, it’s best to have a few dead-set options. While there are a few ways to skin a fish, the two I employ are tip-ups and dead-stick rods. Tip-ups for early-ice walleyes are a mainstay and have been around forever, so there’s not much new under the sun here.
Select some quality fluorocarbon line in or around 10-pound test, select a good light-wire live-bait hook, and rig up a small sucker or preferably a shiner pegged with a sinker above the hook just a few inches. Put that sinker closer to the bait if a lively sucker, or farther away for less-lively minnow species. Set your tip-up on a light-trip setting – preferably not under the notch unless needed because of wind. Then you wait.
Tip-ups are great, but they do have their challenges – including fighting a fish hand over hand, especially if it’s a trophy specimen.
Dead-stick rods on simple rod holders have been a great solution to that problem, while offering several other advantages over the standard tip-up.
Why a specialized rod for this type of fishing? Mostly because a dead-stick is unlike any other ice rod. The action should be extremely slow for half or more of the length of the rod, offering bite-detection and minnow-monitoring convenience. Then, a hard wall on the blank that goes straight to stiff backbone is perfect for setting the hook.
While dead-stick rods may tangle, any issues are usually seen quickly and above ice, rather than the below-water snarls that can happen on a tip-up without you knowing about it. More importantly, a quality dead stick will telegraph every movement of the minnow, all while offering you immediate clues during and after the bite. Set the rod in the holder, then watch your bait or several baits go to work.
Sometimes a fish will grab the bait and sit right below the hole, which is easily seen on a dead stick as it very slowly loads. That’s far less visible and it’s harder to manage a hookset when that happens on a tip-up.
I highly recommend bait-feeder reel designs for these rods, because with the flip of a switch, free-spool is offered to running walleyes. These quick runs are easy to detect for either tip-ups or dead sticks, but the hookset and fight are usually superior on a dead-stick-setup.
Usually, I’ll either jig on the deeper side of a break and watch a dead stick rod right on it, or, many times, I’ll simply put out the max number of lines I’m allowed in dead sticks and wait.
As with most things in walleye fishing, the bite is best early and late in the day, but cloudy days can offer spurts of great fishing throughout. It’s a really fun way to fish if you’ve got a group of friends, because you can cover a long section of break, all while enjoying each other’s company until a rod goes off.
Just make sure to tend the dead-stick set, just as you would a tip-up. Extreme cold weather doesn’t bode well for this type of fishing, but the good news is that with first ice usually comes pretty mild weather after that first blast of cold that locks everything up.
Check your baits, make sure the hole isn’t icing up too badly, and, more than anything, resist the urge to drill too many holes and stomp around throughout the day. These fish are sensitive to noise, and you may be only targeting them in as little as 5 to 8 feet of water.
Especially when your panfish lakes aren’t iced up well, or you’ve got good, walkable ice near shore but not the whole way out, this is the way to go. Set up a few hours before dark, stake out your spot, and wait until some rods start bending or flags start flying.