by Jeff Samsel

If you’re an ice junkie and spend the fall anticipating the hard-water season, it probably doesn’t take much to coax you onto the ice once it reaches a safe thickness. If you do need persuasion, good reasons aren’t difficult to find, especially if you enjoy catching walleyes.

The first part of the ice-fishing season offers some of winter’s best walleyes action, with the fish shallower than they’ll be until the very end of ice season and typically more aggressive than they’ll be all year. In many places the fish will have received little to no pressure for weeks.

The early approach differs from your later season tactics, so it’s important to consider normal conditions and walleye behavior for early winter and plan your strategy accordingly.
darter walleye
Early Ice Locations
First ice is often little more than a final extension of fall fishing, so the fish might be right were you left them the last time you had a boat in the water. If you have waypoints for rockpiles, reefs or edges of weeds that remained green late in the fall, those are excellent places to begin looking for fish.

Lacking that sort of a head start, study a lake map and look for rockpiles or reefs just off a lake’s main basin or long points that have deep water beside them. Weedy edges that drop into deeper water can also be very productive as long as the weeds remain green. Hard features like points and reefs can be especially good because they are often utilized by fall-spawning baitfish, meaning walleyes find plenty of food in those areas.

Lindy ice expert and Fish Ed television host Jon Thelen likes isolated rockpiles that provide the walleyes cover and therefore concentrate the fish. However, he has found that the fish won’t necessarily be right on the rocks, so he’ll often drill a few holes on the fringes of the structure and a few directly over it, and move around a bit initially to figure out how the walleyes are relating to the structure that day.

Something nice about early ice is that minimal snow cover and clear ice commonly allows you to use a flasher through the ice to find specific key features and even schools of fish without having to drill as many holes. Additionally, weather conditions are apt to be less extreme than they will be through mid-winter, often allowing you to fish outside of a shelter and making it far easier to move from hole to hole in search of actively feeding walleyes.

Baits & Presentations
Early in the ice season walleyes typically have plenty of baitfish around them, which means they relate to fairly large menu items and therefore fairly large baits. They also tend to be more aggressive, so they’ll react to a lure that moves quite a bit or makes a lot of sound.

A Lindy Darter, a hard-bodied jigging/swimming lure with a baitfish profile, covers a big area and makes a lot of noise. The Darter is among the best lures for calling in early-season walleyes. Thelen likes to work a Darter for early season walleyes, but he normally drills a second hole beside his jigging hole and to deadstick a live minnow on a Frostee Jig, using a slip float to suspend that offering just off the bottom.
If the fish don’t respond to a Darter, a Rattl’N Flyer Spoon tipped with a minnow head also works well for calling in fish. Thelen often attracts walleyes by pounding a spoon on the bottom to kick up a bit of sediment and mimic a baitfish foraging on the lake floor. He then raises the bait and works it gently to coax fish into biting.

Modest ice thickness, a normal lack of significant snowpack and walleyes already relating to shallow structure all contribute to better-than-normal visibility for the walleyes early in the season. Colors, therefore, generally should match the hatch. Choose natural color patterns that closely imitate the baitfish that live in the waters you are fishing. Good color patterns in the Lindy Darter for early season fishing include Perch, Tullibee and Rainbow Smelt. Save the gaudy attractor patterns and glow colors for later in the winter when visibility will likely be reduced.

Final Notes
Don’t be shy about asking questions at area bait shops. Store owners want you to succeed and often can provide practical help because they talk with fishermen all day, every day. Ask about general areas and depths that produce walleyes early in the year and ice conditions on area lakes. Also inquire about forage in specific lakes. Remember, though, that the information flow should go both ways. If you find success, be sure to pass along a report and a suggestion or two that might help the next angler who stops by the shop.

As a practical matter, remember that ice with little or no snow on it, which is common early in the ice season, is exceptionally difficult to walk on without ice cleats or some other kind of grips on your boots.

Finally, fish with partner, keep ice picks handy, carry a cell phone in a waterproof case, and take all other safety precautions, but understand that if the ice thickness or quality is even somewhat questionable, the only reasonable precaution is to wait for better ice conditions.