Walleyes At First Ice

Professional Walleye Trail Champion Mark Courts said the best way to find walleyes at first ice is to continue using fall patterns.

The stars and the moons lined up for Mark Courts this year when it came to competitive fishing. Courts won the Professional Walleye Trail Championship, which is the highest honor a walleye fisherman can attain. I joke that there is some luck involved here, but Courts has been fishing competitively for many years and earned his title through hard work and skill.

Professional Walleye Trail Champion Mark Courts. Photo by Tim Lesmeister.

While Courts is a machine on open water, he is also a hard-driving angler on the ice. His prowess with the short pole is legendary, and if sports shows didn't have him traveling the country in the winter months, he would likely be competing in ice-fishing tournaments as well. Fortunately for him, there is not much going on when first ice hits the states where ice-fishing is a reality, so you know where you can find Courts when the water freezes at the surface -- in a portable shelter staring at a sonar and vertical jigging for walleyes.

"No matter where you are in the ice belt, that period when the ice first gets solid enough to walk on is when you have your best walleye fishing," Courts said. "Those walleyes are feeding a lot because the water temperature is dropping and they're loading up on protein for the long winter ahead."

Courts said the best way to find walleyes at first ice is to continue the fall patterns right into the winter.

"Where you were catching walleyes pre-ice is where you will find them at first ice," he said.

According to Courts, the first-ice hotspots consist of hard structure like gravel, rock and sand. His favorite spots are long points that begin on a sand or rubble flat and lead into deep water. The best points have one side slowly tapering into the depths and the other side dropping off quickly. If the base of the point intersects with sand or rock, you have a high-potential location.

Of course, there are lakes where walleyes are stocked that can't brag traditional walleye structure because the bottom is soft and the lake is rimmed with vegetation. Courts said in situations like this you go where the food is and that would be just inside the cover. Submerged vegetation quits growing where the light can't penetrate enough to generate growth. In some lakes, this can be less than 10 feet; in others, it could be more than 20 feet deep. Find that vegetation edge and position your bait a foot or two inside that line.

Courts said the vegetation typically grows sparse toward the edge and that's where you want to place the bait.

Timing can be critical when ice-fishing and first ice is no different. Walleyes tend to feed during low-light periods, so snow, or lack of it, can be the deciding factor whether the bite will be short lived or long lasting. Still, Courts recommended being on the water when the sun rises and again at dusk. Heavy snow might cut light penetration and prolong the bite, but midday is seldom the best time to fish for walleyes, even at first ice.

To pinpoint walleyes on a structural element, Courts incorporates tip-ups. Some states only allow a couple of baits per angler, while others have no limit during the winter months. Check your state's regulations to stay within the guidelines.

"The tip-up is a great tool for ice-anglers because it lets you cover some ground," Courts said. "Call it stationary trolling. You can drill a lot of holes over a point, hump or reef and cover depths from 5 feet to 25 feet with the tip-ups and figure out where those walleyes are."

After Courts has his holes drilled and tip-ups set, he grabs a jigging rod or an underwater camera and starts exploring.

"I can tell if there are fish below with the sonar," he said. "But I can't know for sure what they are until I catch one or see one on the camera.

"I tend to grab the camera if I'm in an area I haven't fished before. With the camera, I can tell what kind of bottom I've drilled over, sand or rock or mud. I can tell if there is a nearby transition where the bottom changes, what the vegetation looks like, and what kind of fish are there. If I'm after walleyes and all I see are perch, suckers, bluegills and bass, I move to another location."

Since much first-ice fishing may be in shallower water -- under 15 feet -- Courts recommended anglers use a stealth approach on the ice.

"I noticed this when I first started using the camera," Courts said. "Shallow fish get wary when they hear all that noise on the ice. I was watching some walleyes on a rockpile in 10 feet of water when one of the guys I was fishing with dragged a portable shelter to the spot. The noise from the boots clomping and the sled dragging sent a bunch of fish into deeper water and the few that remained huddled into the cracks in the rocks. Eventually, those that left came back, but it took awhile and this would never have happened if we would have been quiet to start with."

When the tip-ups start showing a preference for depth, Courts drills more holes and jigs aggressively.

"First-ice walleyes are biters," he said. "You accomplish two things with an aggressive presentation. You attract fish to the lure from a distance and you trigger a bite."

There are certain lures that work better for an aggressive vertical jigging presentation. There is the jigging spoon that Courts uses almost exclusively during this period, and there is the airplane-style jig that incorporates wings to get the lure floating out from the hole and increase the range of visibility.

"What you will notice," said Courts, "is those walleyes will show a preference to a particular jigging motion. Sometimes they will hit the lure as it's dropping. Sometimes the walleye grabs the lure when you're twitching it up before the drop. Sometimes that little quiver you put on the spoon as it rests before you raise the rod tip is the trigger that gets the fish to commit."

There are two other factors to consider when picking the bait. What color will work best and what should it be tipped with?

"I look at color as something to think about, but it's not as high a priority as drilling over fish and getting the right action," Courts said. "But I have seen many days when if you had the wrong color on, you weren't catching fish. And many times, I didn't have any of the lures that were catching fish that day. You won't find me without plenty of color options, and when the fish are coming up

to the bait and not grabbing it, I'm trying different colors until I find one that works."

Bait is another important factor. Typically, during first ice, walleyes are biting, so threading a minnow's head onto one of the treble barbs is just the right amount of scent to get a positive reaction. But because it's fishing, sometimes those walleyes want something else.

"There have been times," said Courts, "when you have to thread a couple of wax worms on each treble barb to get the fish to bite. Sometimes no bait is needed. There are times I'll just put a little piece of scented plastic on the hook. When the fish are biting, everything works. When some work is involved to get a fish to take the bait, you try things until you discover what they want and that becomes your program."

There are a couple of variables that remain the same whether you're on that early ice or it's late season.

"You drill holes and search until you find some aggressive walleyes," Courts said. "First ice means the fish should be biting, so don't drill and then sit and wait for the fish to come to you. Search them out and find the hot ones."

Always go out on the ice with safety in mind. According to Courts, the ice is only as safe as the person trekking out on it. "When you venture out on first ice, wear a life jacket and make sure you have a set of ice spikes that are easy to get to," he said. "There's nothing that will ruin a trip like a dunk in ice water. Use the tools you have to make sure you're on safe ice and never push the envelope."

There are only a few weeks at the start of the ice-fishing season when walleyes are shallow and easy to catch. It's called first ice. It's worth the effort.

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