BY GORD ELLIS
Last week I wrote about the possible dangers of ice, especially first ice. So, hopefully, we have all the safety information covered. But one of the great things about first ice is just how good the fishing can be. This is especially true if you like to fish for walleye.
For starters, walleye at first ice experience relative calm after a month of cold and chaos. Fall is not a stable time for fish, and walleye are no exception. Lakes go through a number of changes related to temperature, and this is compounded by relentless wind. The water is cold, turbid and full of dying vegetation. Feeding in this kind of world is a complicated deal for the sluggish walleye. However, the first skim of ice creates a calm. The water clears, rotting vegetation drifts to the bottom and the remaining bait fish become exposed to predators. This creates a great scenario for both the walleye, and the enterprising ice angler.
Yet a more serene aquatic world does not guarantee you’ll catch a walleye wherever you drop a line. The key at first ice is to fish classic spots, particularly shore-line structure such as main lake points, reefs or rocky flats that drop into deep water. Classic walleye structure will almost always hold fish, at least initially. The walleye will also generally be out of the deeper water they tend to migrate to in the fall. It’s not uncommon to catch first ice walleye in less than 10 feet of water.
While fall walleye tend to be most active on bankers’ hours – 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. – this completely changes at first ice. It becomes a dawn, dusk and night bite for reasons only the fish know for sure. Overcast days can also be good, but expect a pronounced bite when the light gets low.
The set up for first ice walleye is simple. You should have at least one set line with a sucker minnow that’s from 3 to 5 inches long. That’s a big bait, but if you want to attract really large walleye, that’s the size to use. A couple winters back, I watched my friend Tom Armstrong drop a submarine sandwich sized sucker down his ice fishing hole during a first ice adventure. I gave Tom a bit of grief about this, at least until he set the hook on a walleye with eyeballs the size of Toonies. Then I was looking for the biggest bait in the bag! Make sure you use a treble with a hook gap that’s wide enough to actually hook a fish if one decides to bite your big sucker. You’ll also need enough weight to keep a lively sucker from swimming away from an approaching walleye. Suckers on a set line find the approach of a walleye disturbing.
As for rigging, I like to use a short ice fishing rod on a balance so I can play the fish with a rod and reel. Keep your bail loose and watch the tip of the rod. When the tip drops to the hole tighten the drag and set the hook. Hand lines are ok, but I’ve seen a lot of fish busted off on these over the years. Tip ups are also handy, especially in shallow water, but they make hands cold. Invest in a portable heater and bring it along.
You should also have a jigging line on the go, especially in the hour or so before it gets dark. A quarter ounce Northland Fireball jig with a glow head of some kind is a great presentation. Use a minnow 3 inches or so and add a stinger treble hook. This set up can catch a lot of fish when the bite is on. Dig a number of holes and walk around to different ones until you find some fish. If that water is clear, you may actually be able to look down the hole and watch fish come in. That can be both fun and frustrating.
First ice walleye fishing isn’t for everyone. Yet if the proper care and safety measures are taken, the fishing can be truly great. Winter goes a lot faster if you embrace it early and get outdoors.