Walleye On First Ice

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As the mercury drops, ice anglers get excited – they know it won’t be long until the lakes freeze over. Once the ice is safe enough to venture onto, it’s time to search for first ice walleye and experience some of the best, hard water walleye fishing of the year!

As soon as a lake freezes over, a magical, underwater phenomenon begins to occur. The underwater environment is suddenly sealed off from the above-water environment and the wind is no longer able to whip and churn the lake water. The lake water quits turning over and mixing, causing water temperature and oxygen levels to stabilize throughout the entire lake.

With such stable conditions, walleye congregate and feed aggressively near classic structure such as points, ledges, rock piles, drop offs, sand flats, transitional zones between hard and soft bottom and the edges of old weed beds. Unfortunately, you cannot mark on your calendar when first ice walleye fishing will begin or predict just how long the prime fishing action will last.

When a lake freezes over, it’s time to get fishing, as the prime action will only be temporary. Once heavy snow starts building up on the ice, oxygen levels will start breaking down, with declining levels occurring from the top of the lake to the bottom. Even if it doesn’t snow much, cold weather above the ice will eventually impact the water below ice level, causing temperature changes with the water under the ice being colder than the water at deeper depths.

If you were able to do some walleye fishing just prior to freeze up, start your ice fishing at the locations where you caught those fall walleye. If you put away your rod and reel at the end of summer, don’t panic as you can easily locate prime, first ice areas by doing a little homework. Talk with local anglers and tackle shop owners and ask them where the walleye are biting. As well, before heading onto the lake, take some time checking out a hydrographic map to determine where classic walleye structure can be found.

First ice walleye tend to be quite aggressive and will feed heavily on minnows, perch and ciscoes. Lures in those color patterns are a great starting point. As well, white glow, chartreuse, yellow, silver, gold and green lures are also good colors to try. To further entice walleye, try tipping your lures with minnows, mealworms, walleye and perch eyes, beef scraps or maggots.

While first ice is one of the most dependable times of the winter to catch walleye, it’s not just a matter of tossing a lure down the hole and pulling out fish after fish. To be successful, you must use a presentation that attracts and triggers walleye to strike. In many instances, the level of angling pressure will determine what presentation should be used.

During periods of limited to light pressure, such as when there are only a handful of anglers on the lake, a fast, continuous jigging motion with larger-sized Rapala Jigging Raps, PK Lures Spoons or Swedish Pimples works wonders. When using this presentation, use a steady rhythm of lift and drop to keep the lure moving. The combination of flash and action really seems to energize the walleye, so hold on tight and set the hook the moment you feel any resistance. To further draw fish and get their attention, periodically bang your lure on the bottom of the lake.

As the pressure increases, you may find that fast jigging doesn’t always work and that you may have to refine your presentation by slowing down your jigging motion. When doing so, try using a presentation where you lift your lure up, let it slowly drop back down and then pause before lifting it back up again. When using this method, try using flutter spoons like Blue Fox Tinglers, PK Lures Flutter Fish or Luhr-Jensen Crippled Herring.

When word gets out that the walleye are biting and the ice surface has so many holes in it that it starts to look like Swiss cheese, you may need to throw the walleye a change up: try using a very slow jigging presentation, in conjunction with small lures such as one-eighth or one-sixteenth-ounce jigs. During peak pressure times, you could also try using deadline tactics. A minnow-tipped, teardrop jig under slip bobber will also work wonders.

Don’t get caught up in always using the same presentation for certain conditions. If you aren’t catching walleye, be prepared to experiment with techniques. For example, if lightly pressured walleye are refusing to inhale rapidly jigged lures, slow things down. In the same token, if heavily pressured walleye stop taking your deadlines, try to speed up your presentation until you find something that works. As well, don’t be afraid to change lures or colours and, if things get really tough, go against the grain and hang a jigging spoon from a dead stick or rapidly jig a slow action lure.

Being mobile is essential to successful first ice walleye fishing. Just like in open water fishing situations, if the fish aren’t present or are inactive, you should search out active fish by changing locations. Start by drilling some additional holes close by to where you began fishing. When making your moves, do so in a planned fashion. During the morning period, start fishing in shallow water and keep moving into deeper water until you start finding walleye. If you begin fishing in the afternoon, start fishing in deeper water areas and keep moving into shallower water until you start catching walleye.

If you’re fishing with a buddy or two, instead of everyone fishing in a small circle, spread out and cover more water. By doing so, you greatly increase your group’s chances of finding aggressive fish.

If, after several smaller moves, you still haven’t located any walleye, start to expand your search. Pack up and move to a different piece of structure or several hundred yards over if fishing a flat or transitional line.

Another trick for quickly finding active walleye is to keep an eye on distant anglers to see if they’re catching fish. If you see those anglers catching walleye, move into the same general area they’re fishing. However, when doing so, remember to respect their space and not get too close to them as they found the fish first.

When you do find actively feeding walleye, keep in mind that they are continually on the move while feeding and will not hold in the same spot, waiting for a meal to swim by. Instead, they will move throughout the area as they feed. If you don’t adjust or move with the fish, your success may be limited to one or two fish. However, if you pick up and move to different holes when the action stops, you’ll probably be rewarded for your efforts. While I don’t like to fish a dry hole for more than five minutes, I know other successful walleye anglers who won’t stay in the same hole for more than two minutes if they’re not catching fish.

Once you find feeding walleye, a good approach is to drill a series of holes spaced three or four feet apart in either a figure eight or rectangular pattern. When the action stops in one hole, move over to the next one. In many outings, you’ll find yourself moving around the pattern and catching a fish or two from every hole. Keep moving through the pattern until you no longer catch any fish. Once you stop catching walleye, you’ll have to move again to locate the feeding school of fish.

In terms of ice fishing rods, a 24 to 36-inch graphite rod, balanced off with an open-faced spinning reel, works great. When selecting an ice fishing rod, look for one that has a sensitive tip, for detecting bites, yet firm enough for jigging. The rod should also have a stiff spine and handle for battling the walleye. As for line, my go-to line is Berkley’s Fluorocarbon Vanish in six-pound test, as I find the line ultra sensitive, yet very durable around jagged ice holes.

Be careful when heading out onto the ice. Don’t just go pounding out onto the lake in search of walleye. Instead, please take the time to ensure that the ice is thick enough to safely support you and your equipment. As you progress on the ice, punch a few test holes and measure the ice thickness. I’ve always gone by the guideline that six inches of ice is required to support an adult and gear, eight inches of ice is needed to safely support a snowmobile or ATV and rider and 12 inches of ice is the minimum amount of ice that will keep a vehicle from sinking. Even when the ice seems thick enough, remember that ice over deeper water, towards the middle of the lake, will be thinner than ice over shallow water, closer to shore. As well, always remember that the ice near springs and creek mouths and high current areas such as sand bars will also be thinner.

Fishing for first ice walleye can be a lot of fun. Most years, Ol’ Man Winter co-operates long enough for the prime walleye action to last for several weeks. So get out there and give first ice walleye a try. You’ll be glad you did.

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