First-ice fish

For some awesome action, take advantage of the unique early-season conditions

4Mike Hungle

It was early December, and we’d driven our ATVs out to a set of GPS co-ordinates in the middle of Saskatchewan’s Last Mountain Lake. After drilling a series of holes over a submerged rock pile, I dropped a small jigging spoon down the first hole and watched the blip on my flasher as the lure descended. When the fluttering spoon was about five feet from the bottom, the flasher showed a solid red line starting to rise toward it.

Sensing what was going to happen, I let the lure drop a couple more feet, tightened my grip on the rod and waited for the strike. I wasn’t disappointed—a fish hammered the spoon so hard I didn’t even have to set the hook. After a quick battle, a chubby walleye flopped onto the ice, making a great start to my hardwater season. Here’s how you can also get in on the action for early-season winter walleye.

3Mike Hungle

Conditions

First ice is a special time for walleye anglers, bringing some of the best hardwater action of the season. And this action is a direct result of the stable conditions created by ice-up. Once a layer of ice seals off the underwater realm, wind no longer churns up the lake. And without waves mixing the water, the lake stops turning over, and temperature and oxygen levels stabilize throughout the entire water column. This stable environment, combined with the walleye’s urge to bulk up for winter, leads the fish to stack up and aggressively feed.

Every winter unfolds differently, and depending on the weather, these early-season conditions can last between three and eight weeks. The end comes when cold fronts and storms start affecting conditions under the ice, and the water just under the surface starts to cool. Snow accumulating on the ice will cut off oxygen to the lake, meanwhile, causing oxygen levels to fluctuate and decline from the top of the water column down to the bottom. Once the stable first-ice conditions finally break down, the walleye will disperse to different locations around the lake. But before that happens, you can enjoy some of the season’s best action.

1Mike Hungle

Location

When lakes ice over, walleye generally don’t move too far from where they were prior to freeze-up. So, your best starting points are the spots where the walleye were biting during the final days of open water. These include sandbars, rock piles, sand flats, transitional zones between hard and soft bottoms, ridge lines next to deep-water drop-offs and the edges of old weedbeds. Once you find fish-producing areas, mark the locations—they’ll often prove productive year after year.

The best bites normally occur early in the morning and late in the afternoon, but if conditions are stable, the bite can last all day long. In general, though, feeding fish seem to move from deeper water to shallow-water structure to feed, then back out to deeper water to rest after each meal.

To fish a promising area, drill several parallel series of holes from deep water to shallower water. I like to drill my holes four to five feet apart, and space parallel rows about six feet apart. When fishing in a group, I like to allow two rows of holes for each angler, making sure there are plenty of holes over the prime structure. This lets you fish the structure at different depths, following the fish as they move on and off it.

6Mike Hungle

Gear

You need several important items to work this first-ice system, starting with a gas- or battery-powered auger. Avoid hand augers; even though first ice is relatively thin, expect to drill 50 or more holes on a single outing. A 10-inch blade is best because it cuts a perfectly sized hole for turning a walleye’s head skyward. Plus, 10 inches offers plenty of room to land a double-digit fish without it getting stuck in the hole.

A flasher unit is essential to view real-time images of the lake bottom, your lures and any fish in the immediate vicinity. Even more importantly, it shows you how the fish react to various jigging motions, allowing you to adjust your presentation accordingly. For the best results, place the transducer right in the hole you’re fishing.

For walleye, select an ice rod with a fast-action tip and a stiff backbone. The sensitive tip lets you jig small lures with finesse and detect even the lightest of bites. The strong backbone serves well when fighting fish, especially the bigger ones. And use a rod that’s 26 to 36 inches long. This allows for big, sweeping hooksets and helps you control the fish as you battle it up from the lake bottom and onto the ice.

I like a mid-sized spinning reel with an instant anti-reverse handle for immediate and powerful hooksets. The wider spool lets the line out smoother and helps reduce line twist in the cold. Fluorocarbon in four- to eight-pound test is ideal, as it’s near-invisible, extremely sensitive and abrasion resistant, with just the right amount of stretch for hooksets. I use fluorocarbon line as my mainline, but if you’re running braided line, you can simply add a fluorocarbon leader.

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Baits

First-ice walleye are generally aggressive, so baits with lots of action, flash and sound make great choices. My favourites include jigging spoons such as PK Lures’ Flutter Fish, Northland’s Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon (above left) and HT Enterprises’ Jig a Whopper Hawger Spoon. Vertical jigging lures such as Rapala’s Jigging Rap and Shad Rap, along with Moonshine Lures’ Shiver Minnow (above right) , also work well.

I like silver-, brass- and gold-coloured lures that give off lots of flash, especially on sunny days. On cloudy days or in stained water, I try natural-coloured lures that match the local baitfish, such as perch and cisco. And on days when the traditional colours aren’t working, I’ll try something different, such as glow white-, pink- or chartreuse-coloured lures.

Over the years, I’ve learned that mid-sized ¼- to ½-ounce lures seem to trigger the most strikes. That said, I still carry a selection of bigger and smaller lures. Heavier spoons fall faster than lighter ones and hit the bottom with a more solid thud. Lighter spoons drop more slowly and, depending on their shape, move more erratically and with more flash. Having a selection of different lures enables you to experiment and find just the right lure for the conditions of the day.

You can also use bait to add both scent and visual appeal to your lures. However, too much bait can weigh down a lure and impede its fish-attracting action. For the best results, tip your lures with something small, such as mealworms, tiny minnows, the heads of larger minnows or, where legal, the eyes of perch or small walleye.

7Mike Hungle

Technique

While deadsticking and tip-ups will produce some first-ice walleye, jigging is the most productive way to catch these fish. Unfortunately, there isn’t a guaranteed jigging rhythm that will trigger walleye to strike on every outing. Sometimes, long sweeping motions with slow, fluttering drops attract the fish. On other occasions, the constant pounding of a lure banging on the bottom draws them in. And sometimes, one particular motion may bring the fish in for a look, while a second, completely different motion is needed to make them strike.

While experimenting with jigging styles, constantly watch your flasher to see how the fish are reacting. If they’re coming in, but not committing, it’s time to try different lure sizes, colours and baits. Once you uncover the right combination of motion, lure and bait, keep working it until it no longer produces.

At the same time, be proactive and use all the holes you drilled. If one doesn’t produce a walleye within five minutes or your flasher doesn’t show any fish coming to investigate your jigging, move to another hole. Stay on the move and keep experimenting. When you put the pieces together and start catching fish, you’ll see there's nothing like a first-ice walleye blitz.

 

Regina’s Mike Hungle hits the hardwater for walleye as soon as the ice is safe enough.

 

Every Friday this winter we’ll be sharing Outdoor Canada’s top ice fishing tips for 2017. Check back regularly to learn about the latest tackle, tips and techniques for icing more walleye, perch, northern pike, lake trout, crappies and whitefish.