The early ice period is well-known for producing some of winter’s finest fishing for a variety of species. But those first sweet weeks of hardwater could also be the best time ever to ice a trophy walleye.

“Big walleyes are still in full-blown feeding mode from late fall,” said veteran guide Jon Thelen. “Plus, the fish are gathered in easy-to-find locations and active at predictable times.”

In search of the big bite, Thelen targets shallow structure and cover on a variety of Midwestern lakes, including Lake of the Woods, Mille Lacs and a number of smaller waters.

“Many areas that held fish in fall are still hot now,” he offered, explaining that perennial sweet spots include rock piles, bottom transitions, reefs, weed edges, and shoreline points flanked by deep water. In general, he sticks to strike zones in less than 10 feet of water. He also looks for areas with little or no fishing pressure, as the clamor of cleats, augers, spuds, tracks and wheels quickly sends supersize eyes packing. 

Before deep snow and thick ice darken the walleye’s world, Thelen focuses on peak low-light feeding periods around sunrise and sunset. He sets up early, typically drilling a hole at the top of the structure, one midway down, and a third at the base of the break. “Less is more when it comes to punching holes in the ice for trophy fish,” he said.

To give sag-bellied walleyes a meal worth inhaling, Thelen upsizes his lure choices. “A ¼-ounce Lindy Rattl’n Flyer Spoon tipped with half a minnow is a perfect example,” he said, noting that a 2-inch Lindy Darter is another great pick for piquing trophy walleyes’ interest.

The presentation is likewise up-tempo. “This is the time to be aggressive,” said Thelen. Sharp lifts, swim-downs, pauses and jiggles all play a role in the performance. He advises experimenting with the cadence until you figure out what’s tripping trophies trigger at that particular moment.

Spoon Savvy

For more timely ice fishing tips, tune in to Lindy’s Fish Ed TV this Saturday morning at 8:30 on Fox Sports North and Fox Sports Wisconsin. Jon shares detailed spoon strategies you can use to jig up aggressive bluegills and tough-bite walleyes on a lake near you.