Early-ice Action is Exciting, But be Safe

Once the ice is safe, multiple species are ready and willing to bite

“Flag up!” yelled a fishing buddy, as I was setting the hook on a nice crappie. I glanced out the window of my Fish Trap Voyageur TCX, to indeed see a flag up on one of our tip-ups. My buddy unzipped the door to the Fish Trap and jogged over to the tip-up as I landed a 10-inch crappie. I released the crappie, and stood to head out the door, to see if any help was needed. But a quick glance at my Humminbird Ice Helix 7 showed fish all over the sonar, so I sat back down.


I lowered my VMC Tungsten Tubby tipped with a Gulp Fish Fry back down the hole, and glanced out the window, when I heard my fishing partner yell over, “Nice pike.” By the time he had reset the tip-up with another sucker minnow and returned to the shelter, I had landed two nice bluegills. My friend quickly lowered his jig down the hole and chuckled, “Gotta love early ice.” “Got one,” was my reply, as I started bringing up another nice crappie.


This story is very typical of early season ice fishing in the upper Midwest. As soon as the ice is safe to walk on, there are fish to be caught through it. In the outer portions of shallow bays, and on the outside edges of weeds that are still green, fish of all species are roaming and are hungry.


This early-ice action can be some of the best ice fishing of the season. The two keys to getting in on this action are caution and mobility. Depending on where you live, the type and size of water body, and your local weather conditions, ice can be safe to walk on in the upper Midwest as early as Thanksgiving, or as late as New Year’s.


You must use caution. Check ice conditions with bait shops, resorts, the DNR, local guides and on fishing websites like fishingminnesota.com. From these sources, you should be able to figure out where you have safe ice to walk on—at least four inches for me.


When venturing out onto early season thin ice, it is a good idea to take some basic safety precautions. Never go out alone, and walk a moderate distance from your partner(s), so if one person would find a weak spot and fall through, there is help on the spot. Invest in a pair of ice picks, and have them hanging by their cord around your neck, so you can use them to pull yourself out in case of an emergency. I like to wear a lightweight life vest when venturing out on early ice as an added safety precaution. Carrying a cell phone in a high coat pocket, sealed in a plastic Zip-Loc bag, and a sound device like a whistle or air horn, can be smart precautions as well.


Once you find ice that is safe to walk on, mobility is key to success. You will often need to move around and drill lots of holes to find the fish. Generally, start on the outside weed edge in shallower bays, and then work the weed line to find where the fish are staging. Sunnies and crappies will be taking advantage of the minnows that are using these green weeds; later in the ice season, they will begin to die off as the ice gets thicker and snow piles on top of it, cutting off sunlight. Once this happens, the panfish will move to deeper, soft-bottom areas to feed on bloodworms, larvae, etc.


While the panfish are working these weed edges in relatively shallow water, pike and even bass will be in these same areas, feeding on the panfish. It can be fast action on multiple species, with some big fish mixed in with numbers of smaller ones.


Equipment is pretty simple for this early-ice action. You can walk, pulling a sled or carrying a bucket with your equipment. But a portable “flip-over” shelter, mounted on a sled, is the ticket to stay mobile and comfortable. Clam set the industry standard with the Fish Trap, and I won’t walk onto the ice without my Voyageur TCX. I like to jig for panfish from my Fish Trap, and set a tip-up somewhere along the weed edge for cruising pike, and even an occasional bass or walleye.


In the shelter, I have one hole per angler, with a sonar, like the Humminbird Ice 55 or Ice Helix 7, for each angler. The sonar will tell you what depth the fish are at, so you are efficiently fishing at all times. The GPS on the Ice Helix 7 will allow you to look for specific spots with the help of a LakeMaster mapping SD card, and to save waypoints at fish-holding spots, so you can return to them another time.


I like to jig with a 2- to 2 ½-foot ultralight spinning combo with 2- to 4-pound-test line. I use a superline like Berkley Nanofil on the reel, and a tiny barrel swivel to splice on a leader of fluorocarbon. I then tie a small jig, like a Tungsten Tubby or Gill Pill, to the end. If the fish are very aggressive, as they usually are this time of year, you can tip the jig with a small soft plastic like a Gulp 1-inch Fish Fry, and catch fish all day. If the fish are finicky, you may need some live bait like waxworms or Eurolarvae.


For my tip-ups, I like the Frabill Thermal. It is easy to use, and insulates the hole, so you are not having to clean the hole out regularly. Early season, I like a medium, active live sucker minnow under my tip-ups. Set your bait about a foot off the bottom, and keep a close eye on it.


Panfish will move around in these areas, and will often scatter if pike move into the area, so you will have peaks and lulls in your jigging for panfish. If the pannies leave for an extended period of time, pick up and use your auger and GPS, sonar or underwater camera to go looking for them.


Pike will cruise the weed line, so action for them will have its ups and downs as well. The good news is, that these fish are feeding while the feeding is still good in the shallows, before the leaner times of fishing deep water during mid-winter arrive. Fishing can be good all day, not just early and late.


Ice anglers all look forward to enough ice to venture out on for that first hard-water outing. Not only is it exciting to get out for the first time of the season, but this can be some of the best ice fishing action of the whole winter. Use caution, be mobile and versatile, and take advantage of this great ice fishing action.


Remember, though, that no fish is worth your life. Make sure the ice is safe, and take the mentioned precautions to stay warm and dry. As always, practice selective harvest. During this fast action, you may catch hundreds of fish per outing. No need to keep a limit of fish every time and fill your freezer. Leave some fish for another day or other anglers. Our fishing future depends on it.