Ice Fishing Safety
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In North Dakota the daily limit on perch, crappie and sunfish is 35.


Early Ice Walleye- Tom Herman

A few years ago, a friend and I decided to hit some early ice up around Bemidji. We used a chisel to check ice thickness as we walked out, chipping a hole every 10 yards or so toward the edge of the break line. Normally, 4 inches of good clear ice is safe for walking, but what we did not realize was that numerous snowmobiles had been zooming up and down that particular shore for the last few days, cracking and ultimately weakening the ice.

About 100 yards from the access, I looked down at the freshly snow-dusted ice where to my horror, water bubbled from a crack five feet from my position. Before I could utter a sound, sickening crackles of ice shot panic up our spines. Whether it was instinct or luck, we both scattered, rolling across the ice to disperse our weight. Luckily, we didn’t take the polar plunge that day, but it felt awfully close.

Veteran anglers deal with the perils of early ice in stride. We often consult those official charts that display the minimum “safe” thicknesses for foot or vehicle travel, but deep down, most of us realize the reality hardwater fishing: ice is NEVER 100% safe. Ever. Lots of tricky factors contribute to ice strength, including snow depth, air temperature, freezing-refreezing, current and ice traffic.

So why do we ice fishing fanatics risk becoming a human popsicle? Simple. There’s real potential for an all-out fishing bonanza. At no other time during the ice fishing season do the fish bite so well. Of course, maybe it’s because we’ve been chomping at the bit to get out and try all of the new gadgets we have acquired during the year. For whatever reason, we just can’t wait to get on the ice, and the species we hunt the hardest during this time: the walleye.

Where, when and how remain key questions when it comes to early ice walleye. When I say “early ice,” I’m talking the period between first safe freeze for walking and roughly, the time when ice is safe to drive a car or truck. Depending on temperatures, this can last anywhere from a few weeks to a month. Generally in Minnesota, this means somewhere around Thanksgiving to just before Christmas. Also depends on whether you live in the Northern or Southern parts of the state, but normally, unless we get a strong cold spell, this is the hot early ice phase.

Where to Look

The places I look for early walleye fall into three categories.

1) Points

2) Humps

3) Break lines

1) Points- Points are underwater structure that either extends from the topography of the land above the water, or from structure that is below the surface. During early ice, I tend to focus on the points that extend from the above water topography. The fish at this time of the year are generally shallow and a protruding point of rock, sand, rubble or mud acts as a travel route from one bay or basin to the next. It’s like a fence. The fish need to follow this as they chase the bait. The tip of the point is generally the best spot to start. If you can find the spot where two points intersect with depths of 4 feet deep or more between them, this can also be very productive.

Another type of point is actually an interior cut or valley. Think of a point that is reversed underwater to form a trough. These are great fish holding areas. Walleye can chase baitfish into the point of the trough and feast. Setting up on one of these spots can be dynamite.

2) Humps- There are two types of humps that I will target during early ice. The first kind are humps that lie very close to shoreline breaks or better yet, points. These will generally hold fish year around, but during early ice, you can target them before they become shanty towns. If you can be the first to fish these before they get pounded, you could be in for a very action-packed outing.

The other type of hump that I fish are mid-lake humps. Once the ice is good enough for foot travel, I will try to get out to these for much of the same reason as stated above. It’s nice to have these spots all to yourself before the crowd arrives.

3) The final type of structure I target is the primary break line. I fish the top, the side or the bottom, moving around until I find where the fish position. The best breaklines start at 5-10 feet and drop into 25-30. Early season I will mainly target the base of the break or the middle. Breaks act as natural travel routes as well as bait holding areas where the walleye come to feed. Try to be on either the inside or outside edge of the weed line when you fish the middle portions of a break. The top of the break can also be good at times. I will sometimes set a tip-up along the top of the break just to see if it is holding fish. If I get one there, I’ll move the tip up to either the middle of the base and fish the hole that the tip-up was in.

Topnotch Presentations

Early ice presentations can vary from day to day, but depending on the activity level of the fish, I will select a lure with an aggressive jigging action, or if the fish are negative, to a plain hook rigged on a deadstick set up.

The basic jigging type lures I use can be classified into two groups: spoons and minnow-type baits. Examples of spoons are the Do-Jigger or the Swedish Pimple by Bay De Noc, Hali spoons, Kastmasters and the Angel Eye or the Glow Devil by Scenic Tackle.

I prefer either a spoon that glows, has some white on it, or another color depending on the lake that I am fishing. I will then tip the spoon with a minnow head. Fatheads work well for this since they are inexpensive and their heads are the perfect size to fit on the hook.

To fish a spoon I will raise my rod tip quickly and drop it quickly, pause, wiggle the rod tip a little to cause the spoon to flash slightly, pause for a few seconds, then repeat the process. Oftentimes walleyes hit during the pause, as you will feel them hanging on when you begin your upward motion. It is very important that you not only feel for the bite, but watch your line closely for any movement or changes such as the line moving to the side or the line going limp. If you notice anything out of the ordinary, set the hook!

Minnow type baits hang horizontal and are shaped like a minnow. Some minnow baits include the Jigging Rapala, the new Jigging Shad Rap, the Nils Master Jigging Shad and the Chubby Darter by Salmo.

These baits glide in a circular motion when jigged, an action that will trigger an aggressively feeding walleye. Hits on these baits will also come when at rest while pausing between jigs. Tip these with a minnow head in order to give off scent and taste.

Deadsticking is one of my favorite ways to fish early ice walleye. This technique involves placing a rod in a rod holder, positioning the rod tip above the hole without a bobber, presenting a lively minnow. Although you can use a spoon, jigging minnow or a plain jig, I prefer using a plain hook and a single split shot with a nice lively minnow hooked behind the dorsal fin. I use a 36-45 inch rod. The longer rod allows for not only more visible strike indication, but the extra rod the length also acts as a shock absorber. In addition the longer rod is harder to tip over and into the hole if a larger fish grabs your bait.

Rod holders come in many models by many manufacturers, but I rely on the Rock-N-Reel made by T-Bone. Set the drag loose, place the rod in the holder, set your depth, wait for the rod to bend, set the hook, and the fight is on! That’s what deadsticking is all about.

Early Ice Safety

As stated earlier, ice is never 100% safe. Given this fact I follow a few simple procedures, and bring gear that may one day save my or someone else’s life.

Always test the ice. Bring a chisel and check the ice thickness every 10 yards or less. If you can break through with 3 hits or less with a sharp chisel, you probably should not be out there. Some believe in using a chisel to check thickness. Some say this weakens the ice because of the sharp impact that occurs while punching through. After punching thousands of holes with a spud bar, however, I’ve never seen this occur. Along a similar vein, I would avoid using a power auger to check thickness when dealing with ice that is less than 4 inches. It’s just added weight that you do not need. Hand augers can be used to check thickness, too, but when you are dealing with early ice, it may not be wise to place so much pressure on such a small area. I’ll stick with the spud.

Bringing a pair of ice picks, either homemade or store-bought is a very good idea. Trying to pull yourself out of a hole in the ice is practically impossible without some sort of device. The picks will grab the ice and allow you to pull yourself out. Hopefully you will never fall through, but if you do you’ll be glad you have them.

Finally, always tell someone where you are going and what time you will return. I know it’s hard to nail down a specific time where fishing is concerned, but an approximate time could be the difference if you happen to run into trouble.

Yes, we ice fishing fanatics are a crazy bunch, but by being safe and not taking risks, early ice often yields the best fishing of the season.

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