Early Ice Walleyes

February 9, 2009 by  

By Jason Mitchell

Big walleyes can be found early

Big walleyes can be found early

If there is a mistake that many anglers make, including myself during the first ice period, we are guilty of fishing too deep when targeting walleye. Granted, there are a lot of options at first ice with some of these options being both shallow and deep but if anything, I tend to overlook water much of the time that is less than four feet. Over the years, I have had some great fishing on ice just thick enough to walk on in water that was less than waist deep. I remember several years ago when I was perhaps in early high school, some friends and I walked out onto a newly frozen lake with a hand auger. We were under dressed and walked out with minimal gear. After we had walked out a little ways from shore, I leaned on the hand auger and punched the first hole. After grinding through a little bit of ice, I hit sand as I punched through. We figured that we would have to walk out a little further. Unprepared for the night as we were, our big ambitions of checking a few different spots out in the bay were replaced by the notion that we would sit right where we were.

The wind started to blow across the slick ice and out light was the only light you could see on the lake. Misery usually loves company but not that night. My friends walked out a bit further and punched a few more holes and we were soon fishing. I didn’t really plan on catching anything in the one shallowest hole I drilled. There was about a foot of water under roughly four inches of ice. I remember watching my spoon come up to the hole when I jigged. Needless to say, the first fish that whacked that spoon surprised the heck out of me. Four fish later, people actually wanted to fish out of the accidental hole. I was the only one out of our crew that caught fish that night. Catching fish in that shallow of water was pretty cool I thought but the night still felt like a fluke, almost an accident. Boy was I wrong. Boy has this lesson been a hard lesson to learn for me but it is a lesson I keep relearning every season.

First ice is one of the best times to target walleyes

First ice is one of the best times to target walleyes

Make no doubt about it, come the cover of darkness and even during the twilight of morning and evening, heck sometimes right in the middle of the day, walleye are cruising through water that can be measured in inches eating everything that gets in their way. Shallow fish are different from fish found in much deeper patterns in the sense that they are moving and usually eating. In a blink of an eye, they show up and in a blink they can also be gone. In really shallow water, electronics like sonar and camera become less useful.

Between three and six feet, however a Vexilar will actually show a fish pretty good if you know what to look for. In really shallow water, the whole water column will fill in with choppy marks, instead of just one solid mark appearing from the bottom like what happens in deeper water. Don’t bother with the camera as this is usually a low light affair and the lights on the camera will mess up your walleye fishing. Setting the camera up will also slow you down.

Perhaps the most important factor to realize when targeting this real shallow bite is that the window of opportunity comes during a short and intense period of time on most lakes that traditionally have a strong morning and evening bite. Some lakes with a strong bite after dark will also seem to show windows in the middle of the night. Realistically, only some time on the water is going to give you an indication of what these prime windows are on the lake you fish. Generally however, there is almost always some kind of window that can range anywhere from two hours before sunset to two hours after sunset on most lakes. That three to four hour window that revolves around the sun setting is almost a universal prime time amongst winter walleye anglers.

Shallow fish patterns can be found on rocks, sand, or mud with or without green vegetation. There have been some years where fish were coming right up on top of shore to find fathead minnows. In some cases, lethargic and hibernating leopard frogs are the main table fare. Insects and nymphs can also contribute to the walleyes being extremely shallow. From my own experiences, this shallow bite has usually been shoreline related. Other times, we would find fish in extremely shallow water on structure like sandbars but again, this structure either protruded from shore or from an island that was relatively large. Not to say other options don’t exist but just giving examples of scenarios where we have found this pattern to exist.

Slow falling, thin diameter jigging spoons tipped with a minnow head are by far my favorite lure combination when targeting walleye in less than three feet of water under the ice. One extremely effective lure option that fits this bill is the Lindy Frostee Jigging Spoon. Another new lure that has been getting some serious game time from myself and several other pretty serious walleye anglers I know is the Salmo Chubby Darter. The Chubby Darter is a more aggressive presentation and the hits especially from walleye in shallow water can be arm wrenching and explosive. One factor to consider when jigging is the simple fact that you are working in a fairly small window. You might only have a foot or two under the ice. Keep the lure under the bottom of the ice. This might seem like common sense but you would be surprised how many times I have caught myself jigging to the top of the hole. When you do stick a fish, don’t be too overly anxious to get the fish started up the hole right away if they don’t come up easy and swim right to the top of the hole. Let the fish dig awhile and wear them down or you will loose many fish right after the hook set right on the bottom of the hole.At first ice, there are usually a few options available to target walleye in extremely shallow water on many walleye fisheries. These options can be a legitimate and enjoyable pattern to partake because of the simple fact that fish running shorelines during the prime low light windows are eating. Eating fish are never too bad of an option to consider.


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