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
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
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
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.
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
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.
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
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
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.