BEMIDJI, Minn. – Ice fishing is just around the corner. There’s frost on the ground, ponds are beginning to freeze, deer hunting is here, and the next step in nature’s calendar—fishable ice on larger bodies of water. Along those lines, it’s time to get gear in order for ice—not only augers tuned and sharpened, shacks pulled out of storage, rattle reels and ice sticks spooled, but tackle organized for what can be one of the most epic bites of the entire season—early ice walleyes.
To get you ready, we talked with Northland Fishing Tackle pros and ice aficionados Joel Nelson and Brian “Bro” Brosdahl. Their knowledge of this distinct point on the ice fishing calendar is time-proven and should get you on track.
The first consideration for fishing early ice, though, is safety. For anglers fishing on foot, it’s a good idea to wait until there’s five inches of ice and eight inches for ATVs and snowmobiles. For the first few trips on foot, it’s recommended that you carry a spud bar to test the ice ahead of you as you walk out. Ice picks worn around the neck are also a must-have for this time of year and should be worn diligently each outing. Additionally, apparel manufacturers now offer ice suits with float technology for an extra level of safety on early ice. The advantage of a float suit, especially the bibs, is your legs will be buoyant should you break through. Instead of having to pull your entire body out of the ice you’re essentially just needing to crawl or roll out. And don’t forget that each angler should also carry a good length of rope. Besides that, a portable sled should house all the gear you need and is typically easy to pull out by hand during first-ice conditions.
“I like five inches of ice before I start fishing. What people forget is ice can be so variable and you might have five inches in a back bay and you get out toward the main lake and you have one or two or nothing. Five inches helps buffer the effect of that variability. I diligently chisel and like to use my spud bar to define the safe zone around where I’m fishing,” says Nelson.
He continues: “I wear a float suit and I picks early-season. Another thing I always have with me is a throw rope. I’ve gone through twice in my life, and I’ve been out with other anglers who have gone through. Fortunately, each time we’ve had a throw rope. I don’t leave home without it.”
For Minnesota-based Northland Fishing Tackle ice pros Brian “Bro” Brosdahl and Joel Nelson of Joel Nelson Outdoors, first ice is one of their favorite times to capitalize on walleyes.
Both Brosdahl and Nelson agree that the most beneficial thing you can do for strategizing early-ice locations is to start where you fished in the fall. Pull GPS waypoints from boat electronics and put together a plan. Walleyes should be close to the same locations as they were found during the last month or so of open water—and generally, that’s shallower close to the first break.
“For first-ice walleyes, I think about fish that were up shallow chasing shiners in the fall,” said Nelson. “Some of that bait hasn’t left and a lot of walleyes haven’t left either, so there’s a lot of first break and weed edge action to be had. I focus on the first break. It’s safer to fish the first break and I feel strongly that a lot of the fish you’re going to find first-ice will be as shallow as six feet of water and as deep as 12 to 15 feet. I like to set up tip-ups on the shallow end and jig the deeper edge. Sometimes, if your tip-ups keep tripping don’t fight it, get up there and jig the shallower water inside the tip-ups.”
Nelson continued: “I fish lakes like Minnesota’s Mille Lacs, Leech and Red on that first-ice routine. It can be really simple. Wander offshore until you hit some edges where weeds were or are still standing. Then you fish quiet. It’s a totally different approach to deep water stuff. Buzz a couple of holes and take it slow. Don’t race around the ice and drag stuff all over. You have to ease into it and wait it out. If you’re gonna hole hop in shallow, clear water you probably aren’t going to have many bites. The fish are there—you just can’t be spooking them.”
Again, go to spots where you caught fish during the fall. A lot of anglers will go out and concentrate on where they want to be in the morning and evening but don’t discount that middle of the day period to see if you can raise some of those fish off the bottom and get a reaction.
“First-ice is a continuation of fall patterns,” cited Bro. “As weeds die off, minnows start dumping over the edge. As the minnows are following the edge, other types of fish are coming up to the surviving weeds after those minnows. So, there’s mixing of walleyes and bait in these areas—that first-break or weed edge becomes a virtual buffet for anything with teeth. Any kind of saddle bottom or bottleneck or river bottom that comes around a weed bed or inside turn that dumps into the main lake on a weed edge can be a fantastic area for early-ice.”
Brosdahl continued: “Lakes like Red Lake, which is the quintessential early-ice destination because it freezes before other bodies of water, offers a perfect example of this close-to-shore routine. On Red Lake the walleyes flush toward shore. There’s lots of bait on that first break. The shoreline break on Red can be fantastic—where the depth changes from three or four feet to six. You don’t have to go way out there. Ice that’s on time and early, say around Thanksgiving, is pretty much a calendar that’s spot on for first-ice, first break walleyes. As December rolls around the walleyes will push deeper but there’s a few weeks right away when the walleyes will relate to the first break. And I’m a fan of weeds. On some lakes the walleyes will be deeper, but the problem is you won’t be able to access them. So, for me early ice is all about finding structure close to shore.”
In terms of presentations, Nelson’s a fan of Northland’s Buck-Shot® Rattle Spoon and the new Buck-Shot® Coffin Spoon. “Especially shallow, a lot of times you need to call in fish from the sides. In shallower water walleyes can’t watch the bait fall from a long distance. A lot of times you’re targeting fish working down a break or a weed edge so a little bit of noise can go a long way.”
He’s also a big proponent of tip-ups in his early-ice arsenal. Along those lines, Nelson employs Northland’s unweighted Mini Predator Rig dressed with a small- to medium-sized sucker minnow. “A great way to target trophy walleyes at first-ice is to rig suckers on tip-ups and work ‘em on the shallow end of the break. Especially in stained waters walleyes are pretty tuned up and this tactic works well.”
Nelson continued: “The Rattlin’ Puppet Minnow is another bait I like early-ice. It’s a little more aggressive approach that I fish a bit deeper. If I’m out in that 12- to 15-foot zone watching tip-ups shallower the Rattlin’ Puppet Minnow is a nice bait to really explore with. It searches to the sides of the holes—not just below you—so you feel like you’re getting more bang for the buck for every hole you fish.”
But in clear waters like Mille Lacs, Winnie, and Leech lakes Nelson goes a bit simpler. “I sometimes feel like on those water bodies too much rattle doesn’t produce as well as a flash-style spoon. This is where the Northland Macho Minnow or the Forage Spoon works. I’ll even downsize them at times.”
An early-ice favorite for Bro is the new Bro-Bug Spoon in the colors Sneeze and Red-Glow tipped with a minnow head. In terms of design, the Bro-Bug Spoon has a nice gap to the treble hook with a body that thins out toward the bottom. Walleyes see it as a bloodworm or mayfly larvae or young-of-the-year perch. Along the same lines, Bro packs tungsten Gill-Getters and Mud Bugs. “Early-ice walleyes don’t always eat big meals,” said Brosdahl. “There are times when smaller spoons or jigs loaded with larvae simply produce.”
But like Nelson, Bro often seals the deal on first-ice ‘eyes with the Buck-Shot® Coffin Spoon. “The Coffin Spoon has an ever-changing, quivering action that’s amazing. I tested it throughout last year’s ice season and it was solid producer. Dress it with a minnow head and rip it. Each time the bait falls it does something different and calls in fish to eat. I’ve watched it on the underwater camera and like how it tumbles towards the fish, summoning them to absolutely kill it. You’ll want to pack a lot of different colors because I’ve seen different colors work depending on the weather for the particular day. You’ll want options for clouds and sun and clear water or dark water. Loading up on jigging spoons is the cheapest part of any fishing trip, so don’t skimp.”
Bro also divulges a little secret he employs during first-ice, something overlooked by all-too-many anglers. “Don’t forget to stop at your bait shop and load up on different-sized minnows to dress your spoons. Sometimes a big fathead head is the ticket, but I’ve seen success in the nuance of using a smaller fathead or crappie minnow head to dress up my spoons. Sometimes it’s really a finesse deal.”
“My approach to first-ice walleyes is pretty simple,” said Nelson. “I think a lot of anglers get all worked up and they drill up and down a break and start hole-hopping—and there’s a time for that, especially over deeper water later. But first-ice walleyes for me is an evening game. It’s a couple hours at a time. It’s learning as you go—it’s getting yourself tuned in and knocking off the rust. You’re going to be green behind the ears with those first few fish. It’s nice to ease into first-ice walleyes. Get a couple of evening trips in. The walleyes will have moved down the first break and get active or they won’t. And that’s great information, too. The next night try some place different. Inside turns on the bases of points have always been good to me. Points themselves have been really good, but because I’m fishing first break stuff. I’m typically looking for irregular shorelines anyways.”
But remember, when it comes to early ice, safety has to be number one. Nothing comes before that. Early ice is a great time to be out and capitalize on some great fishing opportunities before the heart of the winter sets in and fish go neutral to negative, but you must do it safely and then work on efficiency. Once you know the ice is good, walk out with a buddy or buddies, be mobile, and be ready to capitalize on the opportunities the lake is going to give you that day.