First-Ice Walleyes

There are several ways to catch walleyes early in the ice-fishing season. Here's how a couple of experts go about it.

By Noel Vick

He had been to the boat landing daily to check the ice. On this morning on this lake, guide Brian Brosdahl found about 4 inches of solid ice, so he headed in the direction of walleyes.

Brosdahl's destination was a big shoreline bar. In another week or two, it would be parking lot, but for now, it was his. After revisiting Global Positioning System coordinates, he drilled one side of the bar with holes - the one with the steepest rim - and got his clients under way.

A cluster of six or eight craters lay in 20 feet of water at the lip of a 37-foot chasm and on the cusp of a massive "feeding flat." In time, it would surrender over 20 walleyes, most 15 to 18 inches in length, a couple stretching into the mid-20s.

The recipe to his success, says Brosdahl, was threefold. He targeted structure on a lake plump with walleyes. Then, and most importantly, Brosdahl picked from the sweetest slice of real estate on the bar: the sheerest, most feature-oriented dropoff. He theorizes that fast breaks maximize a walleye's use of energy and acreage. They can cover more depths and circumstances in the slightest amount of linear space. Typically, too, the best spots incorporate rocks and or gravel - basically, a firm floor. Additionally, Brosdahl favors quick breaks that rise and flatten into a shelf, or feeding flat.

Now this formula is applicable all winter long, but even more so at first ice when walleyes display an appetite for structure, be it a bottleneck, bar, breakline or weeds.

"Surviving cabbage is as good as it gets," says Brosdahl. "In late fall, I take note of where cabbage remains and head there when it ices over. A good edge of cabbage or coontail acts just like structure. Walleyes trace it."

Photo by Ron Sinfelt

The most prolific greens sprout on the topside of, or in concert with, a break. But if Brosdahl can't locate a blend of vegetation and slope, he'll settle for the most defined edge on the largest weedbed in the lake.

Ice Team's Karl Kleman considers greens the foremost habitat for first-ice walleyes as well. "I look for the deepest edge around, but anything green will do if most of the weeds are brown and down," he says.

Historically, Kleman's best bites materialize in 14 to 22 feet of water on the external perimeter of cabbage and or coontail, and occasionally milfoil. To increase his odds, Kleman strives to uncover deep hooks and fingers in the weeds. However, nothing is too shallow if there's a seam in the greens. "Walleyes will slide right into the thick stuff after dark, once most guys have packed it in," says Kleman. "Find a lane or clearing and pitch camp. Bites might not be frequent, but the fish will be mongos. Baitfish really hole-up in the weeds in the fall and early winter. They'll stay there all season, too, if it stays green and oxygenated."

This liking toward edges and formations moves offshore next. Despite the stereotype that says to fish from the inside out, Brosdahl often inaugurates the season by jigging above offshore humps. But to qualify, the hump must include hitches.

"Irregularity is an attribute," Brosdahl says in describing consummate hump or reef characteristics. "Features like fingers and fast-breaking sides help narrow down the search. Walleyes use those spots." Unique characteristics are especially important on big humps, areas where fish tend to be plentiful but widely distributed. "I really like prominent features on giant offshore pieces. They're like magnets. Small humps can get gleaned in a hurry, but a key spot on a big structure will keep recycling with new fish."

Narrows, or bottlenecks, are another core category. "They're natural passageways for walleyes," Brosdahl says. "I've caught fish in gaps between an island and a point. Two islands will work, too. Anywhere two elevated structures meet in deeper water creates a bottleneck worth investigating. The bigger, deeper and wider the narrows, the more fish that will cruise it, too."

Classically, though, Brosdahl concentrates his efforts in 10 to 25 feet and never loses contact with a drop of some kind. He might discover fish above, on or at the base of a break, but someway, somehow, those fish will use it.

Kleman loves fishing structure, too, namely weeds, but he's not afraid of exploring, either.

"I've been finding walleyes on big hard-bottomed flats in that 18- to 25-foot range," said Kleman. "Maybe they're less pressured out there. And structure out there is different than it is tighter to shore or on a reef. A little patch of grass, pile of rubble or a 1-foot change in depth is usable structure to a walleye on a flat."

First ice seems to trigger a feeding binge. To satisfy their hunger, Brosdahl fishes big and fast. If operating in less than 14 feet, he pumps a large-profiled bantamweight jigging spoon such as Northland's Fire-Eye Spoon. "Fat spoons," he says, "tumble in the water, covering more area and summon fish in from greater distances." Brosdahl dresses his spoon with a sizable minnow head, too.

In excess of 14 feet, he prefers a heavier, more up and down utensil, like the Northland Buck-Shot Rattle Spoon. Lighter, less dense spoons are harder to feel and don't reach the strike zone fast enough for Brosdahl's liking, so he uses 1/2-ouncers and larger. He employs a vigorous jigging action, too. The motion consists of 1-to 2-foot "hops." Each is followed by a freefall and one to two second pauses near the bottom. He tweaks as necessary, too, but generally finds fish receptive to the basic snap-and-relax approach. An assertive swimming jig such as Rapala's Jigger or Nils Master's Jigger Shad can be effective as well. The belligerent circling and lurching motions effectively trigger walleyes.

That's Brosdahl's jigging modus. However, during first ice he doesn't limit himself to a single device. There are far too many structural situations, depths and piscatorial moods at play to fish one dimensionally. So he also employs a single tip-up, a setline with slip-bobber or a deadstick.

When it's cold he relies on a conventional tip-up. "I'll position a flag (tip-up) either shallower, over the flat or deeper, past the breakline. The extra line lets me search more water and gives them something different to chew on," explains Brosdahl. The business end is outfitted with a single - usually lime green - No. 4 Mustad Ultra Point beak hook and weighted with shot.

The minnow of choice, as Brosdahl describes, is "thick and clumsy," meaning either a fleshy shiner or some type of chub. It'

s then lightly hooked beneath the dorsal fin and positioned tight to the bottom in deep water or midway down over shallower waterscapes.

Another device that's tripped his fancy is Clam Corporation's Arctic Warrior. The remote setline and flagging apparatus is designed to operate with a conventional rod and reel. "With the Arctic Warrior, I can conduct research - same as with tip-up - but when something smacks, I get to dig in and fight it normally."

"Probing capabilities" aren't the only merit of a remote setline, either. Tip-ups and the like afford the capacity to experiment with baits. Oftentimes, incoming walleyes aren't convinced into take a hyperactive spoon, but will eagerly sink their teeth into a hapless minnow.

Kleman uses his second line for another function. "I use the bobber line to hold a school. Walleyes run in pods, and you won't even see a mark on the Vexilar until the first fish turns red on the screen and crushes the spoon instantaneously. Then a couple more marks show. They'll either smoke the minnow or hang around long enough for you to re-bait. Without a second line down you'd miss a chance at the other fish."

A deadstick is another device for catching hardwater walleyes, especially when fishing tightly patterned holes, but you need to be within babysitting distance for a deadstick to be useful. Brosdahl runs with a solid glass 28- to 36-inch "noodle rod." The soft-tipped pole is rigged similarly to his slip-bobber setup, but without the float, and in place of the beak hook he ties a circle hook, and then fixes the pole with the tip centered over the hole. "Circle hooks set nicely on their own," he says. "I adjust the drag so a fish can take line but still experience some pressure, enough to make the hook stick."

So select a familiar lake, one with known walleye populations and confirmed hotspots. First ice is a "first come, first served" affair. The walleyes are highly vulnerable but the window of opportunity is short, maybe only a few weeks long. Take advantage of it before the crowds hit the ice!

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