Saturday, February 4th, 2023
Saturday, February 4th, 2023

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Sleeper strategies for first-ice walleyes

Three focus zones during the early season

By Glen Schmitt
Staff Writer

Bold statement: First ice is the best time to consistently catch walleyes during the entire winter fishing season.

Right now, walleyes are piled up, usually shallow, and continuing that feeding binge that existed when you put the boat away in the fall.

Lake characteristics vary, and conditions in your neck of the ice belt ultimately dictate where you can fish. But there are key spots and factors to consider that’ll produce walleyes during the front end of the ice-fishing season.

Midday/low-light connection

By nature, walleyes like structure. They use specific pieces of it to forage. It’s the old “find the baitfish, find the game fish” scenario.

Walleyes usually are most active during low-light periods. They’re built to feed after the sun sets, which is also why we’re all better walleye anglers when the sun dives below the treetops each evening.

But it’s possible to catch winter walleyes during the day, especially at first ice. Again, they’re as aggressive as they were in late fall, which means daytime feeding activity.

So, be mobile during the day and cover ice to pick off those aggressive midday feeders. During the process, you’ve set yourself up for a fine evening of walleye fishing, too.

Monitor which areas produced fish during the day – depth, structure, location, and even specific holes. If you caught some fish there at midday, you’ll likely catch good numbers at the same spot in the evening.   

Small water, big rewards

Consider small water bodies for first-ice walleyes. These lakes tend to have an abundance of shallow water – at least more shallow water than a larger, traditional walleye lake. 

They also cap sooner and develop ice thick enough to walk on faster. Large, deep lakes often have pockets of open water because of wind manipulating ice conditions. But once those skinny-water fisheries lock up, they usually stay that way and provide solid ice conditions.

Small lakes also tend to have less walleye-holding structure, so what’s available usually has fish on it. There just isn’t much guesswork needed to find walleyes on small fisheries. 

It may be a shoreline or underwater point, a gradual break or turn, a deeper pocket of water, or a weedline. But these lakes are usually short on expansive slices of structure. Walleyes will relate to what they’re given.

You may not mark huge numbers of fish, but they will be concentrated and aggressive at early ice. Hit these small lakes now, because they’ll dry up fast once the noisy masses arrive and/or pluck most fish from the system.

Vegetation and
shallow water

No matter what lake you fish, weeds and shallow water hold plenty of first-ice walleyes. People overlook both.

Find the most green, established weedline, weed flat, (or pockets within them) that remain. That last green vegetation holds oxygen and an abundance of forage, which means walleyes will be on it, using the cover and ambushing food sources.

In some lakes, weedlines or weed flats might be the only available structure. As a result, they become natural first-ice walleye-holding locations, and it won’t matter if they’re deep or shallow – as long as they have some life left in them. 

Even more ignored is shallow water, mainly 10 feet or less. Generally, these are spots that held fish during the end of the open-water season.

This is especially the case if there’s a quick transition from open water to walkable ice. Not every fall, shallow-water walleyes exit their spots or changes their feeding habits simply because a thin layer of ice has formed over their heads. 

The food will hang in there for a few weeks and the walleyes will stay, too. It could be a shoreline break, flat, rock pile, or any structure that produced fish late in the fall.

For those precious few weeks at the front end of the ice-fishing season, do not overlook weeds and shallow water!

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