Here in the North Country, four to five months of ice cover is common, and early ice walleyes is a way of life, complete with its own unique clothing, equipment and strategies. Some years present early ice fishing opportunities, while others leave us waiting well into December for sufficiently solidify ice conditions.
The general rule is to wait for 5 inches of firm new ice to form before you head out on foot. If you prefer mechanized transportation, 8 inches of ice is recommended by the Minnesota DNR for supporting the weight of snowmobiles and four-wheelers.
Treading lightly on foot across 5 inches of clear ice has major advantages, however. First and foremost, you’re the first ones on the prime spots, and early birds definitely get in on the best bite. During the last few weeks of open water, blustery winds, cold weather, and a rim of ice along shorelines makes it darn near impossible to get your boat out to deep midlake structures. The fish enjoy a two- or three-week reprieve from fishing pressure, and become ripe for the plucking for the first few lures dangling below an ice hole.
How to Prepare
Toss a modest amount of equipment on a lightweight plastic sled: a Styrofoam minnow bucket with a few dozen minnows; a portable depth finder; an ice scoop; a spud bar (5-foot-long chisel) or 8-inch diameter hand auger; a couple of jigging rods and reels spooled with 8- to 10-pound test thin flexible monofilament; a small 5- x 8-inch tackle box with an assortment of tackle; pliers and nail clipper; a thermos of coffee; a pocket-sized GPS, flashlight and a Coleman lantern for night fishing; a couple of granola bars in your pocket; a cell phone, rope and ice picks for emergencies—and not much else. With air temperatures still mild—30Fs during the day, teens at night–insulated boots, gloves, hat or hood, and a moderate-weight snowsuit or jacket and bibs combo should be sufficient.
Towing your gear on a lightweight sled across clean, smooth ice isn’t difficult, and the first brave souls go in light and savvy with just the right amount of gear. A few weeks later, once the ice thickens, you’ll see a parade of folks with portable shacks, gas augers, portable heaters, and a vehicle to ride on and tow it all with. In the meantime, however, you’ve been jerking jaws in relative solitude.
Where to Find Early Ice Walleyes
For walleyes, the best spots are usually located well out into the basin, as opposed to pike and panfish spots, which may be more bay-oriented and offer earlier safe ice. Start fishing in the same areas you last contacted walleyes in late open water: namely prominent mainlake structures with steep drops to the basin. Major points, deep humps–somewhere that deep water swings up tight against a sharp dropoff, within modest walking distance (a mile or so) of shore.
Tip-toe your way out to a potential area, tap-tap-tapping the end of your spud bar atop the ice as you walk along, probing and testing the worthiness of the ice surface. If the bar pokes through, slowly back up, and reconsider your plan of attack. Wait a day or two and try again. Or switch to an area with firmer and safer footing.
With 5 inches of clear, safe ice, though, you should be able to creep out to nearby spots. When you get close, use familiar rifle sights on shore–lining up a tree and a house over this way, or perhaps a flag pole and a big tree over there—the same way you relocate your spots in open water. If you have a portable GPS, even better. The same waypoints you stored in your unit during late-fall fishing forays should be good places to start ice fishing now. If you don’t have prelocated, pre-programmed hot spots, use a GPS mapping screen to walk out to potential areas indicated on a lake map.
Don’t bother trying to locate little secret spots at first ice. Stick to big, prominent, obvious, classic spots that attract numbers of early ice walleyes due to their sheer size. Then look for walleyes along concentration points along their edges.
Splash a little water from your minnow bucket atop the ice, rest your transducer atop the surface, and see if you can send a signal through to get a good depth reading of the bottom. Brush away light snow cover if necessary. Repeat the process in 20-foot increments in all directions, reading the depths to establish the contour below. Then drill some holes in likely places and get ready to fish.
If you can’t get a good bottom reading through the ice, start drilling or chopping holes in a swiss-cheese pattern. Scoop the remnant ice out of the holes and lower the transducer into the water to establish a depth reading. If there’s a little light snow cover atop the ice, reach down with your gloved finger and simply draw the depth in feet in the snow crust: 23, 18, 21, 37—hey, there’s the dropoff. Now drill more adjacent holes to establish the contour, and prepare for action.
The Right Tackle and Equipment
For fishing out in the open without a portable shelter like a Fish Trap or Clam, or perhaps an HT or Frabill portable windbreak, use a fairly long, 32- to 40-inch ice spinning rod, medium action. If you’re inside the confines of a lightweight portable shelter, a shorter 28- to 32-incher will be more feasible. (When you lift to set the hook, you won’t bash the ceiling.) A small, light or ultralight spinning reel spooled with limp 8- or 10-pound-test mono is on the money.
Move to the first hole, insert your transducer into the water, and rest your depth finder atop the ice. Floating transducers get a good bottom reading, and establish the presence and depth of baitfish and early ice walleyes.
Lure choices are simple according to their levels of jigging aggressiveness. A simple 1/8- to ¼-ounce jighead tipped with a 2 ½- to 3 ½-inch minnow is a subtle presentation. Try colors ranging from subtle like white or yellow, to bright like fluorescent orange or chartreuse. Either hook the minnow up through the lips, or insert the hook through the tail, midway between the dorsal and tail fins. Tail-hooking usually increases minnow activity. Nose-hooking restrains it.
Lower your lure to bottom, engage the reel, and slowly lift it up and down a few inches. Then pause. Watch your depth finder to reveal the lure’s distance off bottom, and for the approach of any fish into the area. If a fish comes in to examine the offering, indicated by the sudden appearance of a prominent mark on your screen, lift-drop a couple more times, then pause, suspending your lure in place. Motion tends to attract fish, but lack of motion tends to trigger strikes—an important element of ice fishing.
Switch to a small ¼- to 1/3-ounce ice jigging spoon (nearly 2 inches long) for a more aggressive approach. Tip a minnow head (pinch it off between thumb and forefinger) on one tine of the treble hook. Lower the lure to bottom, watching for the line to stop or jump if a fish strikes during the fall. Upon reaching bottom, engage the reel, take up slack, and give the rod tip a more aggressive, foot-long upward surge. Then let the spoon flutter back downward, following it down with the rod tip to retain a taut line without stifling lure action. Repeat a few times, then instill that all-important pause to turn a looker into a biter. Suspend the lure a couple inches off bottom, allowing any twist in the line to slowly spin it before the fish’s eyes, giving it the illusion of life.
If that doesn’t work, try using a whole live 2-inch minnow, nicked lightly under the dorsal fin, to provide a bigger target and a struggling action when the spoon hangs at rest, just off bottom. For really deep water, upsize to a ½-ounce spoon, maybe 2 ¼ inches in length. Silver, silver blue-back, chartreuse, pink, orange, perch pattern, and anything with phosphorescent glow paint are good options Charge the paint by exposing it for a few seconds to a small Lindy Tazer light to make it glow brightly amidst the deep murk.
For a more aggressive presentation, switch to jigging a swimming minnow like a Puppet Minnow or a Jigging Rap, and add a minnow head to the bottom treble hook. Lower it as with the other lures, and when it reaches bottom, lift if up a few inches. Then give it an upward pump, followed by lowering your rod tip at the same speed the lure descends. The lure will shoot out to the side and descend in a circular swimming pattern, ever-decreasing in diameter until it comes to rest. Added or stronger pumps increase the side-to-side coverage and swimming activity. Smaller pumps decrease the motion.
Utilize an Underwater Camera
Underwater cameras like the Marcum or Aqua-Vu have revolutionized ice fishing, since they not only reveal the presence and depth of fish, but also their attitude. You can literally watch fish come in and study your lure, and see how they react to changes in lure motion, style, color, pauses, etc. Fine-tuning presentations can really make a huge difference between catching and not. When you’re hunkered down in a good spot, drill another hole 3 or 4 feet from your fishing hole, and lower a camera lens. Twist the cable between forefinger and thumb to rotate it for a 360-degree view and evaluation of the surroundings, and then let it settle, pointing at your lure.
Seeing what goes on below provides a huge advantage in locating and triggering fish to bite. And when it comes to fishing with a camera, angling from a still platform atop the ice is by far the easiest way to fish and view at the same time. It will revolutionize the way you fish through the ice, and likely spur you to explore the use of an underwater camera in open water as well.
Fishing for early ice walleyes is focused on probing, testing, moving and scouting, rather than sitting in one spot for hours on end in the comfort of a permanent fish house. Rather, drop your lure for a minute or two in one hole, work it, and if nothing bites, move on to the next. You may have to scout several areas in order to locate active biters. Try to be in really prime areas shortly before sundown, with your holes predrilled rather than making noise, when walleyes tend to become most active. Just like fishing in open water, changing light levels usually activate early ice walleyes, and you want to be in place fishing, rather than spooking them with a drill, as the sun dips below the horizon.