Early winter offers walleye anglers who travel light and fish smart a chance to savor some of the season’s finest fishing.
Using common sense about ice safety is step one. My general rule is 5 to 6 inches of good clear ice to start walking, and I test the ice every few feet with a chisel or spud bar to avoid any unpleasant—and potentially tragic—surprises.
The first ice period is magical on all types of walleye fisheries, from natural lakes in the Canadian Shield to prairie potholes, large reservoirs and the Great Lakes. However, focusing on lakes (and areas of lakes) that freeze up first will allow you to enjoy the action faster than waiting for late-freezing spots to ice up.
Top early ice fishing locations include a variety of hotspots that held walleyes in late fall. To avoid marathon hikes, I limit myself to sweet spots on structure situated a short walk from shore—half a mile, tops.
My favorite areas include humps and points offering the fish easy access to the lake or bay’s main basin. Key depths vary by lake. To pinpoint the strike zone, drill a series of holes over differing depths and contours—then move quickly through them searching for fish.
The fastest action typically occurs during a short flurry of activity around sunset. A modest assortment of lures will serve you well when the bite is on, without bogging you down as you move from hole to hole on the hunt for the next fish.
I pack a pocket-sized tackle box with a selection of heavy, fast-dropping jigging spoons like Northland Fishing Tackle’s Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon, along with a few lighter, slower falling options like the Northland Glo-Shot Spoon, Forage Minnow Spoon or Buck-Shot Flutter Spoon.
I fish fast-dropping spoons first, followed by the fluttering options. Both types of spoons are typically tipped with some type of plastic such as an IMPULSE Perch Eye or Minnow Head. Northland’s iconic Puppet Minnow is another standout right now that’s perfect for both aggressive and subtle maneuvers.
Avoid the temptation to hover too long in one spot, especially during prime time. Give each hole a few minutes to produce before pulling the plug and moving on to the next. The idea is to keep moving and catch as many active fish per trip as possible, because the first-ice flurry won’t last forever. All too soon, the hot bite will cool off—and it won’t heat back up until late winter.
Based in Walker, Minnesota, noted fishing authority and outdoor communicator Chip Leer operates Fishing the WildSide, an outdoor sports marketing and communications company. For more information look to www.fishingthewildside.net.