Walleyes at First Ice: Clinging to the Current



The where and how of a great early ice walleye spot!

You can take this one of two ways. Because I’m a fishing guide, you might think I’m all talk and keeping the good stuff to myself. Or, you might trust my experience and assume that you’re getting my A-game. Well, it’s some of both. I’ll be up front and offer honest, time-tested advice for catching walleyes. But forget about me leaking spots. Finding fish is up to you. I duck hunt like a madman, but quickly concede the season once there’s a whiff of walleyes in the air. Early ice is a special time. The bite can be high-strung and action packed, but only as long as you know where to look and what to throw at them. Finding fish is the first order of business.

Walleyes can inhabit a variety of areas, taking to points, reefs, and shoreline breaks. But there’s a certain setting, regardless of the lake, that is basically foolproof. Walleyes are fans of moving water. They’re also partial to weeds. Combine the two and you have the perfect brew. I begin by locating the water source. It can take the form of a feeder creek, river inlet, or spring. The common denominator is that fresh incoming water supports life. And often you’ll find thriving weeds near these sources.

My favorite scenario, by a long shot, is when a river tributary opens up into a flat that eventually breaks into the main lake – pigs in a blanket to me, and the fish. And conditions improve that much more when green weeds are involved.

A typical flat opens at the mouth of the tributary in a fan shape and features a hard bottom, gravel or rocks. From there it tapers deeper until hitting the break. Breaks can be gradual or abrupt; the steeper the better.

But wait, there’s more. The key to the kingdom is finding a shelf somewhere along the main break. Let’s say the flat begins at the mouth and works itself down to 8-feet, where it drops hard to 25 or 30-feet. Midway down the slope a shelf protrudes, call it a ledge. Walleyes will stack on it like books. That’s a key contact point.

Not every flat breaks wildly, though. My favorite lakes at first ice are relatively shallow, murky, and weedy. A break on those bodies of water might only mean a few feet. That’s where the weeds come in. Weeds can compensate for lack of physical structure. Walleyes follow edges, and thick green weeds give them something to track along. Green whorls of coontail hold lots of forage, too, but they’re the first to wither. Broad-leaved cabbage is the next best thing.

So that’s where I kickoff the season: mouths of tributaries with breaks and the deepest green weeds available. The next order of business is selecting a lure assortment. And early ice walleyes want it big and lively.
Spoons get the job done. Something with a wide profile and eye-catching colors is preferred. I’ve had particularly good luck with the Northland Fishing Tackle Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon. For me, the Super-Glo Firetiger pattern has been especially deadly. Besides its brilliant appearance, the addition of rattles makes it easier to find in stained water.

Early in the season, it’s nothing for me to hang a whole minnow from the hook. Shiners are preferred, but a fathead will do. Hook the minnow through the lower jaw and up behind the back of its head with a single barb. The minnow will hang vertically. The spoon combined with the minnow makes for a massive and mouthwatering profile.

The basic jigging motion is a series of hard pounds off the bottom, kicking up debris, and drawing the attention of aggressive walleyes. If they aren’t wolfing it down, though, I drop to the bottom, lift just the weight of the spoon, and quiver the minnow on the lake floor. That technique has changed more than one walleye’s mind.

Not always, however, do they welcome a whole minnow, especially as the season goes along. Next, I’ll go to a three-quarter minnow, pinching off the tale and letting the guts do their thing. I might downsize to a half minnow if things are really tough.

The minnow tipped Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon is my search lure as well as primary jigging apparatus. But once fish have been exposed, it’s time to build in a battalion of tip-ups. In Wisconsin, where three lines are legal ice fishing, I jig one; make the second a tip-up; and work a deadstick with the third. Frabil ProThermal TipupThe Frabill Pro-Thermal tip-up is the crème de la crème for walleye fishing. Its discus-shaped base covers the hole completely and blocks light – early ice walleyes are skittish to abnormal beams of light. Additionally, the Pro-Thermal insulates the hole, keeping skim ice from forming. Tip-ups are stationary, but that doesn’t mean your bait has to be. I combine the best features of live bait and dead bait. On a single hook, or treble where legal, lip hook a half minnow followed by a similarly rigged whole minnow. The live minnow gives your presentation motion. The half minnow gives it flavor and scent.

Sounds ugly, but it’s effective. But so am I… Now that’s funny.