BEMIDJI, Minn. – Temperatures have dropped significantly, and upper Ice Belt lakes should start making ice any day. Bays and channels are already freezing. But will there be fishable ice by Thanksgiving? Probably not, but it shouldn’t be long…
With great anticipation to chase hardwater ‘eyes, we recently talked with Grand Rapids, Minnesota-based veteran guide and Northland pro, Tom Neustrom, to get the skinny on early-ice walleye destinations.
Neustrom uses a Humminbird Helix 7 Portable Ice Pack and a LakeMaster Minnesota VX card, which allows quick identification of high-probability areas with features like Depth Highlight and improved color palettes.
With Minnesota fishing regulations allowing two-lines per angler on ice, Neustrom says he always fishes a jigging rod and a deadstick. “My deadstick rig is pretty simple—a plain hook and a split-shot—and sometimes I’ll use a Northland Forage Minnow Jig and hook the minnow in the tail, keeping it as close to the bottom as I can.”
Neustrom says that too many anglers use bobbers with deadsticks, something he never does.
“Today’s ice rods allow fishing without a float. 32- to 36-inches with a soft tip is perfect. I really like the medium-power, moderate action 32-inch St. Croix CCI “Dead Eye” rod. For reels, I fish Daiwa QR 750 reels, which I helped in the design. A Daiwa Tatula 1000 is also a good choice for more line pick-up. It’s super light and has 11 pounds of drag pressure,” offers Neustrom.
When he’s using braid, Neustrom opts for lighter, thin-diameter Sufix 832 in 6-pound test with 2-pound mono diameter terminated to a similar test fluorocarbon leader. As far as mono goes, Neustrom likes 6-pound Sufix Elite, the same line he uses to jig the rest of the calendar year.
Neustrom’s longtime go-to spoon is a Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon. While it produces year-after-year, Neustrom admits he’s constantly experimenting with other baits when the bite slows down.
“Generally speaking,” says Neustrom, “sound, flash, and color can all make a difference in catch rates, so it’s good to experiment with different spoons. When you’re shopping ice tackle, get three or four different styles of spoons. It can make a difference.”
For large natural lakes, like Minnesota’s Winnibigoshish, Neustrom fishes 1/8- and ¼-ounce spoons. “I don’t go any bigger than that. You must be patient with a lighter spoon—just take your time and let it fall down into the zone. A lot of guys use heavier spoons because they want to get down faster. But my experience is that often turns walleyes off.”
“Winnie is probably one of the top three Minnesota lakes for early-ice walleyes,” says Neustrom. “It’s full of the 2017-2018 walleye year classes, so the majority of the fish are running 14- to 18-inches, perfect ‘eaters’. There are plenty of larger fish in the mix, too. It’s a super healthy fishery.”
“For early-ice on Winnie, concentrate on the first break. Late-fall fish were on the shoreline breaks in 9- to 14-feet. It’s not to say that the offshore structures—the humps and bars—aren’t going to contain fish, but for early-ice, I would go to the first break,” offers Neustrom.
“The Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon has also been a producer. It’s got a little different shape, wobbles on the drop, and you don’t have to raise it high off the bottom to let it flutter back down,” notes Neustrom.
“When you drop a bait down there, it’s dark, even on clear-water lakes. So, bang the spoon on the bottom and create some commotion, stirring up bottom sediment, and then bring the bait up six inches. And when it comes to hard-bottom, banging rocks produces a sound that draws fish in from afar. With the new Glass Buck-Shot Spoon, the sound is higher-pitched and travels farther.”
But no matter which spoon Neustrom is fishing, he dresses the dangling treble with a minnow head. “I don’t cut the minnow head off evenly; I pinch it with my fingers. I want entrails hanging off, which produces more scent,” shares Neustrom.
Other Early-Ice Walleye Gems: Northern MN
“Leech Lake is going to be good this year,” says Neustrom, “it has a lot of forage in it right now.”
In terms of general locations, Neustrom recommends the humps in Walker Bay, Sucker and Portage Bay, and other offshore spots like areas off of Bear Island on the southeast side.
“You’ve got a lot of little finger bars that extend off Bear Island. Walleyes will use them as ‘travel tracks’. These are good spots to hunker down in a portable shack and wait for the fish to cruise through,” shares Neustrom.
For anglers looking for a classic late-afternoon and after-dark bite, Cass Lake is perfect.
“Cass is gin-clear and the fish tend to be on the deep side—but It can be really good. Cass has some good year classes in it right now,” offers Neustrom.
He says Bowstring is another good choice, but it fishes differently than Winnie. “On Bowstring you want to fish the offshore humps and bars. The fish migrate out there in the fall and pretty much stay all winter. It’s not an early-ice breakline bite like Winnie,” offers Neustrom.
Where to Get Live Bait
Thousand Lakes Sports in Grand Rapids has excellent live bait and a great ice tackle selection. Plus, the employees really have their finger on the pulse of what the bite is at any given time. Fred’s Bait in Deer River and Winnie One-Stop up by Lake Winnie also offer quality live bait.
ABOUT Northland® Fishing Tackle
In 1975, a young Northwoods fishing guide named John Peterson started pouring jigs and tying tackle for his clients in a small remote cabin in northern Minnesota. The lures were innovative, made with high quality components, and most importantly, were catching fish when no other baits were working! Word spread like wildfire, the phone started ringing… and the Northland Fishing Tackle® brand was in hot demand! For 40 years now, John and the Northland® team have been designing, testing and perfecting an exclusive line of products that catch fish like no other brand on the market today. Manufactured in the heart of Minnesota’s finest fishing waters, Northland® is one of the country’s leading producers of premium quality jigs, live bait rigs, spinnerbaits and spoons for crappies, bluegills, perch, walleyes, bass, trout, northern pike and muskies.