Often, the best ice is first ice. Water below the hard surface of first ice still holds a good supply of oxygen and the fish are actively feeding. It is important to keep in mind that safety is critical. But, some of the hottest action of the winter will occur when anglers must travel solely by foot. When heavier traffic prohibits trucks and large numbers of anglers is when you have the key spots to yourself and the fish are still bulking up for the winter.
Hard-core anglers, such as walleye pro Perry Good of Minnesota, “ice permitting,” are often on the ice by December 1. For safety, he wears an inflatable lifejacket and always goes with a buddy. The first spots he fishes are the weed edges nearest to shore. That’s where he’ll find crappies, sunfish, walleyes, and perch during the day. Crappies and walleyes move deeper after dark and provide consistent action at dusk and later under the stars.
Since he is walking to and from his spots, Good travels light. A five-gallon bucket holds his flasher and his rods which are spooled with 4- or 2-pound-test monofilament line depending on the clarity of the lake he plans to fish.
If he needs protection from the elements, he loads everything in a Fish Trap.
“The key is being mobile and finding where the fish are,” said Good. “As soon as they move out of a spot, you have to re-locate them. During the summertime, you don’t just anchor somewhere all day. The same holds true under the ice. You’re always looking for active fish.”
A small tackle box is enough to hold the necessities. Good likes to start off the season with small jigs, which have a teardrop profile and bigger-than-normal hooks for better hook sets. Small spoons are often the ticket for perch.
He always brings along small minnows, wax worms and eurolarvae (which are also commonly known simply as spikes). He has all three along because fish can change their preference from day-to-day, even hour-to-hour.
Bigger crappies — the really slab-sized ones which stretch to 15 inches and more — prefer minnows, but smaller crappies will also bite on waxworms or spikes. Walleyes and perch sometimes take the insects, but they also like a minnow head on a Jigging Rap or spoon. Walleyes also like a fathead minnow or shiner on a plain hook and a split shot.
Good also takes along a selection of small, soft plastic tails. These soft plastic baits also glow when charged with a high intensity light, like a remote flash from a camera. These soft plastics work great when the water is dingy, stained or after dark or when the fish just want “something different.” His plastic preference is the Nail Tail for panfish, and he says if you add a few small slip floats and you’re set.
Fish Bite Best In Low-Light Times
Good also believes that darkness and the low-light times just after sunrise or before sunset are even more critical in winter than during the summer for walleyes and crappies. Perch and bluegills bite all day, but stop after the sun goes down. The location for crappies and sunfish is the same during the magic first-ice period.
“Wherever the fish were in late fall, that’s where they’ll be now. That’s usually just off the weedlines — even if the weeds are dying,” Good said.
Through observation, Good has learned that hatchery-raised walleyes reared in weedy ponds seek out weed edges in stocked lakes. As a result, you’ll catch them in the same spots you’ll find the crappies. But, naturally-spawned walleyes are more often found on hard-bottom rock or gravel bars with deep water nearby. They’re usually close to where you’ll find perch, and perch like the mud, which holds the insects they eat. Walleyes will also be found on transition areas where the bottom changes from gravel to sand to mud. Some perch will be in the weeds, too.
Since the weeds are a high-percentage spot, drill several holes at various places along the weedline as soon as ice reaches 4 inches in thickness, which is strong enough to support an angler. It helps if you scouted the area in a boat during open water and entered waypoints to mark points or inside turns on the weed edge with a hand-held GPS unit.
If your state allows two rods per angler, use one hole for a dead stick with a float, small hook, and a minnow. For crappies, start with the bait a couple of feet off the bottom. Then, put your transducer from your flasher in the same hole where you’ll use a jigging rod tied onto a jig with tipped with plastics or live bait.
Play The Video Game
Watch your electronics for signs of fish. Crappies are often those marks suspended off the bottom. Raise your bait so your lure is just above the marks.
“They’ll think the bait is escaping, and they’ll slam it. Walleyes, too,” Good said. “You can play with them, and pull it away from them to entice a strike. The flasher turns ice fishing into a video game. I can’t imagine for all those years we actually fished without them.”
Try different jigging actions, but don’t overdue it. Too much action can be detrimental.
“It’s amazing. The one you are working will often out-fish the float rig,” he said.
Switch from one kind of live bait to another and change up colors on the soft plastic tails to see what the fish want. If you know fish are below you, but you can’t get them to bite no matter what, an Aqua-Vu underwater camera is a good tool to have along. You might lower the lens and discover the marks you were seeing were only suckers or other non-desirable fish.
Move again when the action stops. Keep popping holes along the weed line during the day. But, when fish quit biting after the sun goes down, move away from the weed edge toward deeper water. That’s where you’ll find the crappies and walleyes. “And, those fish will bite best as the sun goes down,” Good said.
Remember, this is a time when extreme caution is advised. Ice may be thinner in places where there’s current or areas fed by underwater springs. Never go ice fishing alone. Always tell someone where you are going and what time to expect you home. A rope tied to a floatation cushion is also good to have along. Hand held ice spikes are also a must to keep handy.
If you are brave enough to venture out onto first ice and take the precautions to be safe, you find a bonanza of fish willing to bite at first ice!
Shop Sportsman’s Guide for a fine selection of Ice Fishing Gear.