The first ice period can produce some of the best ice fishing opportunities of the entire season. Some of the biggest fish of the season, and some of the greatest numbers show up at this time. I believe that there are a couple of different reasons for this activity. One being that these fish are at the tail end of their “Fall Feeding Period”, when everything’s bulking up for the upcoming winter. Also, most bodies of water see a 2-4 week window, depending on weather, of zero fishing pressure. This happens when anglers are making the switch from open water to ice, and ice conditions have not yet become safe.
With so many different species of fish, and techniques to talk about. Let’s narrow it down to my favorite technique and species, jigging and walleye’s. We will try to keep everything fairly simple. In my eyes, there are very few things that excite me in the winter more than having my Marcum in one hand and my favorite jigging rod in the other, moving hole to hole, looking for the next taker. While growing up in Wisconsin, I have found that most days you need to be aggressive and mobile to be successful a top the hard water. It seems as if the abundance of anglers and pressure on a lot of our waters keeps these wary creatures on the move. Let’s quickly break everything down to help make your next ice season one of the best.
The first key to success is MOBILITY! If you are not able to move to locate fish, odds are you will not catch any either. Depending on ice thickness this means, pack light while heading out on foot, or using an atv, snowmobile, or other vehicle. My choice is a snowmobile. Having all of my gear attached to the snowmobile in some way allows me to move quick and easy, with the least amount of effort. If you can get away with less effort in the cold, you will be more apt to keep moving, and be more successful.
Second, you need the proper tools out on the ice. Your ice auger and locator are your two best friends! On a typical day, I will drill anywhere from 50-300 holes. The Strikemaster LMP-8 suites me the best, due to being lightweight and fast. After you drill a series of holes it is important to check for signs of life (fish and/or baitfish). I will only fish a hole for 1-2 minutes tops. If I don’t see what I thinks is a walleye in this amount of time, I am on to the next hole. We will talk about this more when we get to the technique portion of this article. The whole point here is to keep moving until you make contact with the target species.
Location is all dependent on the body of water you are fishing. Generally, early in the season these fish are set up on or very close to shallow structure. We are going to use points as an example, since they usually always hold fish, and most lakes have a few of them. Most points also have many different depth changes, and small structures with in them. Late evening, night, and early morning darkness will position feeding fish up on the shallow, flat portions of these points. As the sun comes up and skies become a little brighter, walleyes will start to head toward deeper breaks where they will hang out for the remainder of the day. Before I start drilling holes I use a contour map/gps to locate the “little” differences on these structures. Sharp breaks, slow tapering breaks, weeds, rocks, wood, transition lines, etc.
Now that we have drilled out these little areas it is time to get down to the fun part of hooking up. As we talked about earlier, jigging is one of the most fun and effective techniques out there. When choosing a rod and reel I like to look for something with a soft tip, good backbone, and a sensitive blank. The 33.5M Whiteout and 28M Widow Maker from 13 Fishing are two of my favorites. As far as line goes I spool up with 6lb Suffix 832 braid and attach an 8lb fluorocarbon leader. The braided line offers more sensitivity and a direct response to my bait. Next, we need a lure. Spoons and Jigging Raps are staples for this. There are many different types of spoons out on the market. I will usually begin with a VMC Tingler Spoon or a VMC Rattle Spoon. As for Jigging Raps, a size 3 or 5 will do the job most days. I prefer to fish all of these without bait on them, unless the water is extremely dirty. Adding a minnow head or other bait to these lures will hinder the true action of them. When I start jigging, I will give my lure an aggressive lift of 1 to 2 feet at a time, pausing for just a few seconds in between. This is a good way to call them in. Once you see a fish show up on your locator, you will want to switch up shorter and faster jigging strokes, moving your bait erratically through the water column. It basically turns into a game of “cat and mouse”. Walleyes have what I like to call a “comfort zone”. This is how far they are willing to chase a bait vertically in the water column. Sometimes this will change day by day, or even hour by hour. I find the end of this zone while jigging. Say I am jigging in 15 feet of water, I have a mark show up on my screen 1 foot off the bottom, and have him interested. Now I am going to keep pulling my bait away from it, getting it to chase. When I get him to 12 feet for example, he goes back to his 1 foot off bottom. I now know that the top of his comfort zone is at 12 feet. Now I am going to get him to play “cat and mouse”, killing my bait at the 12’ level. Stopping your lure at the top end of this comfort zone is a trigger, and will result in more fish caught each day.
As a full time guide on Wisconsin’s lakes I’ve learned that the aggressive approach isn’t limited just to walleye fishing. It works on all species. See you on the water.