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  7. Ice Fishing for Walleye

Ice Fishing for Walleye

Here's how you can tackle the season in Minnesota's waters.

Image Caption: Photo by Getty Images

When I wake up to a chill in the air, I know my favorite time of year is near. I’m already well on my way to planning a successful ice-fishing season while waiting for the lakes to freeze. This is my plan of attack when the ice is ready!

First Things First

Ice Fishing

Photo by Sean Pierce / Northland Fishing Tackle

A fun, safe trip is the goal. Ice safety is always important but early season anglers really need to be aware. Every angler is responsible for his or her own safety so check the ice and measure 4 inches for foot travel. On well-known bodies of water, there will likely be established trails. If you’re unsure, there are plenty of ice safety tips available online and the state Department of Natural Resources provides ice-thickness recommendations.

Don’t leave home without ice picks, a spud bar, flotation rope, and a buddy or two. During early ice, I also carry a RAZR Lithium Auger. It’s super light so it’s easy to drill a ton of holes to help me check the ice without a clunky, heavy gas auger.

Don’t underestimate the importance of what you wear. Until the temperatures really drop, I usually fish without a coat—just ice bibs, a hoodie, and Fish Monkey Yeti Gloves. I don’t want to overheat but it’s important to keep my fingers warm when I’m running around drilling holes in the ice.

Let There Be Ice

Walking on Minnesota Ice

Photo by Sean Pierce / Northland Fishing Tackle

Early ice is one of my favorite times to target walleyes. Fish need to feed to survive the long winter so they are still active and feeding on the fall bite.

When I’m in my boat in the fall, I look for key areas near shoreline access points. I’m looking for structure or slope, or hard bottom rocks where I know walleyes will feed during early ice. Having these locations in mind allows me to sneak out on early ice just a short walking distance away. Most of the time, this is early December in Northern Minnesota.

Opening up a fresh area on early ice can be fantastic fishing so the race is on to get there first—of course, with safety in mind. As cold weather creates more ice every day, anglers will have access to more areas on the lakes, and angling pressure increases.

Early Ice Fishing on Big Water

Ice Fishing Walleye

Photo by Sean Pierce / Northland Fishing Tackle

Upper Red Lake is an early ice mecca and one of the most popular spots to fish early ice walleyes in Northern Minnesota. The lake’s shallow water allows it to freeze before other lakes do. Lake of the Woods usually freezes up a week or two later than Upper Red depending on wind, with the shallow bays freezing up first.

The dark-stained water in Upper Red and Lake of the Woods allows anglers to fish banker’s hours while walleye bite. A break in the contour shoreline or rocks is usually it on Upper Red. Search for green weeds, gravel, rocks, or hard-bottom areas with steep breaks that lead to the open basin.

If you fish a clear lake for walleyes, mornings and evenings are the best time. This is when fish get active hunting prey like young perch or shiners.

Similar to Upper Red, Lake of the Woods holds walleyes on reefs and shoreline points but also holds walleyes on mud, gravel, and sand so don’t be bummed if the reef you wanted to fish is crowded. There are fish everywhere!

Walleye Ice Fishing

Photo by Sean Pierce / Northland Fishing Tackle

I like to jig spoons such as the Northland Fishing Coffin Spoon or Bro Bug Spoon tipped with a minnow head. The thinner line gets more bites so go as light as possible. I use a 5-pound Sunline FC Ice. As someone who has been hooked on ice fishing for TK years and a fishing guide, on my live-bait presentations, I use a 4-pound. Give the rod tip a 2-foot sweep allowing the spoon to rip up and flutter down. Active walleyes will strike at it on the pause.

Anglers are allowed two lines in the winter in Minnesota so I like to run a second deadstick rod with a live minnow, split shot, and a red Gamakatsu Octopus red hook. Many times, walleyes are drawn in by a flashy spoon but are reluctant to strike, however, they will hit the lively minnow dorsal-hooked. We call this the one-two punch! It’s not uncommon for anglers who are actively fishing and jigging spoons or rattle baits to find that almost all of their fish take the deadstick line. Other days, you don’t need a second line because the fish inhale the Coffin and Bro Bug Spoons. So, leave your options open.

On an Ice Safari

Ice Fishing ATV

Photo by Sean Pierce / Northland Fishing Tackle

Anglers don’t have many choices for spots and key structures during early ice. Walking doesn’t allow you to even scratch the surface of these large bodies of water. Many anglers walk out on early ice for safety but will switch to ATVs and other transportation when ice conditions improve.

On these giant bodies of water, I use the waypoints that I downloaded from my boat to my Humminbird Ice Helix 9 MEGA Live. That way, I have a great starting point and then I will go searching from there drilling and scanning with my MEGA Live to see if I can spot any fish or structure nearby. When I do a run-over where I have seen fish, I drill a hole above them and drop my Aqua-Vu Micro Revolution 5 Pro camera down to see if they are walleyes or something else. It’s fun to see them bite on the hook!

Just remember, in your search you can easily drive by the mega load of walleyes in the race to go farther and faster. On Upper Red, many anglers will be 2–5 miles out on the lake and the best bite is still just a half-mile out.

I have a system when I fish with my wife, Heather. She stays set up in a Frabill Ice Hunter fish house on a structure where we start fishing. Then, I go off on an ice safari drilling and searching, only to find out later I should have stayed and patiently waited them out since she crushed it the whole time I was gone! Walleyes school in areas where there is abundant baitfish cruising up and down the break or flat on and off. Think of an ice hole as a road. Sometimes it’s quiet, sometimes there are cars and traffic.

As winter progresses and the ice becomes thicker, the resorts will have roads plowed to popular fishing areas and wheeled fish houses will be pulled out onto lakes. Wheeled fish houses are designed in all shapes and sizes. These “winter RVs” lower down to the ice and cater to the overnight or weekend anglers as a base camp. Some wheeled fish houses are customized offering big-screen TVs and showers!

RV camping is a huge pastime in the summer and has become a big deal in the winter for ice fishing. Ice fishing is a popular sport and there are a variety of ways to enjoy it. Some anglers fish sitting on a bucket out in the open, some use a portable fish house, and others fish in a plush RV-style fish house. Regardless of how you ice fish, the sport brings back the nostalgia of family, community, and fun in a natural environment. What’s not to love about the winter sport of ice fishing?!

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