Anticipation would be a great word to describe what every ice fisherman is feeling this time of year! Chances are the walleyes still have their fall feed bag on, which means they will be fairly aggressive. This can make for a really fun bite at first and last light, all the way up to at least an hour after dark. In tannic water, it can make for a great bite all day long!
Of course, in order to hook into one of these fish, you first have to find them. So, when it comes to location, we like to look for basin areas that are from 15 to 30-feet deep. The best place to target walleyes is close to drop-offs and within a few hundred feet of the base of them. As winter rolls on, they will become harder to catch since they will begin to roam the basin, making it a little more difficult to pinpoint where they are. However, during early ice, they will still be found closer to the drop-offs.
It is important to note that this isn’t the only early season pattern, as shallow weeds and weed edges can produce in some lakes, but the shallow basin areas can usually hold good populations of fish. The best spots to locate them is off points, inside cups and areas between drop-offs that are close together, such as in between two sunken islands that are close together.
Now that you know where to find the fish, it is time to catch them. This means it is Hot Box time. When we say Hot Box, we are referring to the JT Outdoors Hot Box, which is a heated aluminum box keeps holes open up to 20 degrees below zero!
We like to use it with a dead stick (snare rod), although at this time of year some prefer the more conventional tip-up flag option. The 36” Snare Rod, also from JT Outdoors, has an integral Nitinol (an alloy blend of nickel and titanium) spring bobber that is virtually indestructible and kink resistant. It also contains a highly visible indicator bead at the end to let you know when you have a strike. The rod itself is a high-grade fiberglass with a super slow action. This provides a parabolic action, which allows the rod to load ultra-subtly.
Once the fish grabs the bait, the spring bobber and rod loads the fish. When the fish begin to feel this tension, they react by trying to swim away, which in turn puts further load on the rod and the fish end up setting the hook themselves.
The length and long bend of the rod give plenty of time for anglers to get to the hole and land the fish. Not only can no other method or set-up match the sensitivity of this system, but it gives anglers the ability to spread out lines as they would tip-ups, yet be able to fight the fish with a rod instead of pulling it up hand over hand.
While you can also jig, it is important to remain mobile. It is imperative to spread lines from the base of the drop-off and into the basin to get bites. We like to give our Hot Boxes about 45 minutes in one location before moving. We move more while jigging, as we rely on our Lowrance Ti2 to mark fish to be sure we’re on them.
When it comes to bait; suckers, shiners or larger fatheads work well with the Hot Boxes. Set the depth of the bait anywhere from 6-inches to 3-feet off bottom, depending on the water clarity. If the fish will come up for the bait, you’ll get more aggressive bites and catch more fish, so always experiment with your set-ups until the fish tell you what they want. Jig set-ups can be spoons, Moonshine Shiver Minnows and plain jigs with minnows. We use many of the Clam, Moonshine and Sidewinder spoons, and most of the time we have a minnow head on the spoon too.
While it may be hard to avoid the itch to get out on the ice, we can’t stress enough the importance of waiting until the ice is safe enough to do so! Always take along and wear a float suit such as the IceArmor by Clam Rise and Ascent suits. It is also important to wear ice picks this time of year so if you do break through you have the means to crawl out.
Be sure you are constantly using a spud to check the depth of the ice as you make your way out. If it becomes unsafe turn around and come back another day. If there is enough ice to take a four-wheeler or sled out, be sure to pack a Nebulus Emergency Floatation Device. This product could save your life if you break through the ice on your machine.
While early ice is very productive and a great way to get your Next Bite, it can also be treacherous. So, have fun, but always remember to be careful!