Early Ice Walleyes
The walleye’s fall feeding spree doesn’t end when the ice first sets up. They continue chasing baitfish under the ice and in the same places they did before you could walk on water.
Now’s your chance to make hay before the walleyes scatter and slide into deeper water for the remainder of the winter. Since the early-ice bonanza lasts only a few weeks, Lindy Pro Staff angler Jon Thelen starts drilling holes as soon as the ice is thick enough for safe angling.
Rather than chance driving on new ice with a snow machine, Thelen goes afoot. He carries a 5-gallon bucket that doubles as a seat and as a means for carrying his catch. He also brings a small rod bag that holds six short ice fishing rods. A few small utility boxes stuffed with Lindy ice fishing lures fit in his pockets.
Early-ice walleyes typically prowl weed edges, flats and points in less than 10 feet of water. Many of these places are a short walk from the bank. If you marked sweet spots with a GPS while fishing from a boat before ice-up, you can use the same waypoints as starting places for drilling holes.
“Sometimes you can see walleyes through the ice moving around in the last dying weeds,” Thelen says.
Given the shallow water and the clarity of the ice, you must take precautions to avoid spooking the walleyes. When fishing, move slowly and tread lightly.
Of course, there’s no getting around the commotion of drilling holes with an auger. Thelen drills about 20 holes over a given structure or weed bed before he breaks out his rods. Then he shuts the auger off so the walleyes can settle down while he’s fishing.
Thin, early ice also allows greater light penetration than the thick, snow-cover ice that forms later in the winter. This means that the peak fishing happens during low-light periods early and late in the day, the same as when the water is open.
However, you can still catch walleyes throughout the day if you turn them on with Lindy’s 1 3/4- and 2-inch Darters, as Thelen does. This tiny, lipless crankbait has two treble hooks and loud rattles that call walleyes in from a distance.
“The great thing about the rattles is that you don’t have to drill as many holes,” Thelen says. “The Darter brings the walleyes to you.”
The Darter was designed specifically for ice fishing. The Darter rolls on its side at the top of a high jigging action. Then it glides briefly and then swims back down. Walleyes usually engulf the Darter at the top of the lift or as it drops.
Thelen favors the 1 3/4-inch darter when fishing through the early ice. The strong light penetration allows walleyes to see the Darter from greater distances. The high visibility also makes natural baitfish colors more effective, such as Lindy’s holographic Perch, Tullibee, Golden Shiner and Fathead patterns.
When fishing deeper, darker water later in the ice fishing season, Thelen steps up to the 2-inch Darter in brighter colors. These include Chartreuse Glow and Chartreuse Perch.
“I try different actions throughout the day,” Thelen says. “You miss out if you always fish the Darter the same way.”
His basic presentation is to jig the Darter with long, high snaps. This makes the rattles sound off and forces the lure to turn on its side before swimming down.
Thelen also stirs up the walleyes by standing up and lifting the rod as high as he can over his head. This jumps the Darter from just above the bottom nearly to the ice. Then he lets the Darter fall back down on a slack line. The strikes often come halfway down.
These aggressive jigging strokes attract walleyes, but they don’t always trigger bites. That’s why Thelen alternates with a short jigging action--just enough to make the rattles sound off--between pauses.
“The Darter looks like a struggling, dying minnow that suddenly stops moving,” Thelen says. “A walleye strikes then because it thinks the minnow is vulnerable.”
Although Thelen uses a flasher depthfinder to look for walleyes later in the winter, he doesn’t bother with it during the early ice phase. He reasons that the walleyes are stacked in shallow water in predictable places, and they are active enough to come to a rattling Darter.
“I fish every hole I drill,” Thelen says. “The Darter brings the walleyes to me,”
Thelen switches to Lindy 1/8- and 3/16-ounce Rattl’N Flyer Spoons during the prime early morning and late evening hours. Since the walleyes move in and feed at these times, they’re not far from Thelen’s lure.
The Rattl’N Flyer Spoon does have rattles to attract walleyes, but Thelen doesn’t jig it as aggressively as the Darter. He dresses the red Bleeding Bait Treble Hook with the head of a minnow to add the allure of scent and taste.
There are infinite ways to work the Rattl’N Flyer Spoon. A steady, short jigging action often does the trick for Thelen. The small wings on the spoon make it flutter and prevent line twist.
As with the Darter, natural colors fare best with the Rattl’N Flyer Spoon for early ice walleyes. The Tullibee and Purple Smelt patterns are deadly on lakes that support tullibee.
Whether he is fishing the Rattl’N Flyer Spoon or the Darter, Thelen opts for 6-pound Lindy Ice Line. He always rigs a Lindy No-Snagg Swivel 2-feet above the Darter to prevent this lively lure from twisting the line.
Lindy Ice Line has all the attributes you need for fishing in subfreezing temperatures. It is thin to avoid the eyes of wary walleyes and limp for maximum lure action. Its low stretch transmits the lightest bites.
Add to that high abrasion resistance to prevent a big walleye from breaking off when it runs to the side and rubs the line against the ice. Top it off with the fact that the copolymer line has a coating to prevent it from absorbing water.
“Lindy Ice Line will not freeze up like so many other lines,” Thelen says. “That’s a huge ice fishing advantage.”
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